By David Nilsen
In 1998, I was sixteen years old, even scrawnier than I am now, and very Christian. The world of Evangelicalism in the late 1990s was a unique and insular one, and that certainly encompassed our musical options. Contemporary Christian music (CCM for short) was and is an enormous industry. It has its own awards show, magazines, music journalists, indie record labels, big record labels the artists who used to be on the indie record labels move to once they’re popular, hipster fans who accuse said artists of selling out when they make said move, music festivals, the whole deal. That the music, especially in the late 90s, was often explicitly derivative of “secular” music, a safe, Jesusy imitation of the dangerous stuff on MTV, never struck me as a problem at the time. CCM was the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter of entertainment options for youth group kids raised on purity pledges and door-to-door evangelism crusades.
In 1998, I had just discovered I liked to write. I spent hours alone in my room at night writing some of the worst poetry ever committed against the English language, but it was a necessary stage. Much of my creative excitement came from listening to music, just as it does now, except that back then that music was mostly Christian. I gravitated toward the more introspective end of the Christian rock scene, soaking in the moody-but-safe lyrics of Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, Sarah Masen and others. It was around this time that my CD club (remember CD clubs?) sent me the debut album from a singer-songwriter named Jennifer Knapp.
That first album was titled Kansas and had a rootsy folk sound with surprisingly honest lyrics for a young female Christian artist at the time. CCM wanted its young women to smile, be very pretty, and be very happy all of the time. Knapp wore grungy clothes and growled out the lyrics on her more aggressive songs. She wrote about doubt and sin and failure, and while pretty, she made no real attempt to match the American church’s image of femininity. I liked her.
“The Bible does well to illuminate and honor the selflessness and forgiveness required to keep love in motion, yet, at times, seems to suggest that God’s love is reserved for only a chosen few. It’s difficult to manage the idea that God only rewards those who do a certain amount of ‘right.’ It’s mystifyingly complicated and alluring to me all the same. Before I became a Christian, and even now, I find myself readily angry that religion is rife with judgments born from facile assessments of good versus evil, but I cannot deny that if it were not for stumbling into this world, I might not be alive today.” – from Facing the Music, page 71
Knapp soared in popularity, headlining her own tours and even temporarily mentoring a brand new Christian artist being groomed for success by her record label – Katy Hudson (Hudson never really made it in CCM, but she changed her name to Katy Perry and did alright for herself elsewhere. Heard of her?). Knapp put out several more albums and then, as quickly as she’d arrived, completely disappeared from the scene in late 2002. Gone. Poof. When she reappeared out of the blue almost a decade later, it wasn’t the triumphal entry with lots of fanfare from the CCM world one might have expected.
You see, while still very much a Christian, Knapp was now openly gay.
Facing the Music: My Story (782.421 Knapp), Jennifer Knapp’s new memoir from Simon & Schuster, shows us more of who this enigmatic and talented musician is than her music or recent public interviews ever have. The book traces her life from her early childhood as the daughter of divorced parents, her teen years as a near-prodigiously talented musician (she learned every instrument she touched with incredible ease and ended up with a college scholarship as a trumpet player), her college life of wild living and her conversion to Christianity late in college. Almost immediately after becoming a Christian she got involved in the Christian music scene, and it is here where the book gets the most interesting for long time fans. Knapp talks about the bewildering experience of being a Christian music star, an occupation that has all the time demands and beauty standards of mainstream music but throws in an impossibly high bar of moral character and religious enthusiasm as well. Knapp discusses her successes and foibles as she navigated this world and eventually, five years or so after her career began, burned out in exhaustion and confusion. At one point in Facing the Music Knapp shares how she has to consult her discography and tour records to remember any events from those years, as it is all a haze and she can’t trust her own memory for it.
“It was all well and good to say that Jesus had saved me, but so too had a good therapist and some serious cognitive therapy.” – from Facing the Music, page 104
Knapp’s exit from the CCM scene coincided with her emerging awareness of her sexual orientation, as she fell in love with her partner, Karen. The next years of Knapp’s life were a time of soul-searching retreat, as Jennifer and Karen traveled the world and settled down for a while in Australia. Knapp did her best to put her other life as a successful Christian recording artist behind her, not checking her email or communicating with her label or the press at all. She set aside music and religion, leaving her guitar in a case and her faith on the shelf. Neither would leave her alone though and in the late 2000’s she realized she could not leave either part of herself behind. Music and God were part of who she was, and she was lying by trying to hide from them.
“I was afraid because, the truth of it was, I didn’t want any of that [struggle against being gay]. I didn’t struggle to accept my sexual orientation, I struggled against the embarrassment that my nature was not what others insisted it should have been. In fact, it wasn’t until I met my proper soul mate that sacred love even began to make sense. All of a sudden the fear of my own body, sex, and love came into alignment. I wasn’t ashamed or suspicious of love; I welcomed it. The idea of being a faithful, healthy, and loving partner didn’t seem as ridiculous or impossible now that I wasn’t trying to squeeze it into gender expectations. Love is sacred. Love is love.” – from Facing the Music, page 248
When Knapp appeared on the Larry King Live show in 2010, denying neither her faith nor her sexual orientation, it marked the beginning of the second act to her career, this time on her own terms. It also served as a litmus test for an American church that was and is struggling with how to respond to the nation’s growing understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals and relationships. While many branches of Christianity are welcoming and affirming of individuals and relationships that fall outside of heteronormative expectations and gender binaries, Evangelicalism has largely doubled down, alienating gay Christians and their allies. Knapp’s coming out lit a firestorm of debate in the Christian blogosphere and media, a debate that is ongoing and one that Knapp and her supporters find frustrating.
But not defeating.
Knapp launched Inside Out Faith in 2011, an organization aimed at supporting LGBTQ Christians and their allies, as well as interacting with church communities in hopes of making them safer, healthier places for those individuals to practice their faith. Similar efforts are being made by organizations such as The Gay Christian Network, Believe Out Loud, The Marin Foundation and others. On the Inside Out Faith site, Knapp says this about her vision for the organization: “IOF is about story. As we tell our story and listen to others we create community and acquire empathy and strength. As an ‘out’ person of faith I’ve experienced the challenges of revealing my sexual orientation in faith communities. Join with us in affirming, inspiring and proclaiming religious inclusion for all LGBT people of faith. Let’s have the conversation.”
The final chapters of Facing the Music deal with the fallout of her coming out, the backlash she experienced from journalists and institutions who had once celebrated her, and her commitment to staying the course and refusing to let religious gatekeepers define who does and does not get to be a Christian.
“What is amazing is that, to this day, the reactions I get when I tell people I’m a lesbian don’t even compare to the reactions of telling people I am a Christian. Honestly, I still find the declaration uncomfortable. Not just for others, but for myself as well. There is just so much baggage.” – from Facing the Music, page 286
Facing the Music: My Story is a lot of things. It’s a very readable memoir, though you’re not likely to be blown away by Knapp’s prose. It’s a nostalgic look back at what was a heady time for many of us who grew up in the Evangelical subculture at the end of the twentieth century. It’s a fascinating and unique testimony from a watershed decade in sexual politics and freedom of expression. Perhaps more than anything, it is an honest and bold testament to the damage that is done when dogma overrides human decency, a message of hope for those recovering from that damage, and a call for people of faith to rethink what it means to love as Jesus loved.
Facing the Music: My Story is available now at Greenville Public Library.