Photo courtesy of Fairlight Hubbard and Amy M Phillips of EYE
Just 10 years ago Jennifer Knapp was the Christian music "it girl." In 2002, following her third successful album, she took a hiatus to Australia for personal reasons. She returned in 2009, shocking Christian music fans by coming out as a lesbian and shedding the Christian music label, all while maintaining her personal spirituality. Now over a year later Beliefnet caught up with her while on a break from tour stops including progressive Christian festivals. Jennifer openly discusses those shows, her new music, her sexuality, and her spirituality in this in depth interview.
So, how did you get involved with the Wild Goose Festival and progressive Christianity?
It's a little bit of an interesting story, because it's relatively unusual for me in that I was actually doing an interview for a concert through an Internet zine called The Widget Dispatches. One of the reporters there asked me if I had heard of this festival and mentioned the few of the topics and some of the people that were going, and I was like, "Oh my gosh. That sounds really awesome." And she asked me if I was interested in doing it. I didn't realize it at the time that there were quite a few people involved in that festival that I've worked with over the years in the Contemporary Christian Music industry, and so they just said, "Hey, Jennifer's available, if you want." So they called me, and we squeezed it in at the very last minute. So it was just one of those things. because I wouldn't have known that they were doing the festival since I'm not really living in Christian pop culture.
What do you mean by “Christian pop culture”?
I don't mean to make it sound like it was a pop culture kind of festival, but when you're talking about festivals like that, that are centered around religious events, I just don't really cycle in that world too much unless people are asking me to engage in it. So it was pretty fun to be able to do that and I was surprised by the event, and I ended up staying for the entire event and camping out and just hanging out with people. It really gave me a sense of what the lay of the land was, in terms of some of the people who were really trying to tackle some really progressive issues inside of Christianity.
Who all was involved that you had worked with previously?
Well, there were several Board Members of the Wild Goose Festival that I've worked with. Youthfront's one of the organizations [where they were from], and Youth Specialties - now, I don't know what their standing is, in particular, with these organizations anymore, but I used to work a lot with these types of events. And the leadership involved in those were largely centered around big weekends. You had conferences where you talk with thousands and thousands of kids, providing entertainment and discipleship conversations and then, of course, it's pretty heavy on evangelism as well. And as an entertainer, I would plug into those. It was just part of one of the routines that we did, in terms of doing Christian music, and you spend a lot of time in the summers doing that kind of stuff.
Well, these guys had been doing much of that over the years and have gotten to a point where, as the demographic has aged and come into their own process of trying to figure out how you live life with this faith… and having to tackle some really difficult issues that don't have easy answers. It seems to me, in some of the conversations I had in hooking up with those guys again that they were just really ready to wade knee-deep into it; not necessarily having to have answers, but a willingness to expose themselves in a spiritual journey to some really hard questions. That to me was probably one of the most exciting things to see. People who, for a long time, have been leaders that, I would say in my perspective, that meant to come into a lot of those situations a long time ago, but having to tow the party line or you didn't work.
When you talk about a community event like that, when… whether it's a festival or a weekend conference or something like that, I think that one of the things that we take for granted are the myriad of different personalities that make up that community. We forget the focal point of what draws us together as a community that we do agree on, which is a spiritual pursuit. And a lot of the interesting characters that make that up; the people on the production teams, the people on the educational staff, the people that are just there, facilitating the recreation of youth inside of these "safe places," where wholesome kind of activities for young people took place. I think a lot of us felt a frustration at that time, and not necessarily feeling like we set the mold that we had to deliver.
When you get into a large environment like that, sometimes you have to whittle the topic down to the lowest, common denominator, so everybody can participate. And it makes it really difficult to tackle some major issues in those places. And I think having spent that time and then having grown with the demographic of people that we've been having conversations with for years, I think you're seeing the evidence of that with Wild Goose Festival. There are a lot of young people there, but it was very interesting to see the audience, a lot of times, was made up of people who now have their own families and their own children and have gotten through college and now are into careers and haven't left their faith or their spiritual journey behind, but are still trying to figure out how to make sense of it all, when they get out of the easy answer -- they get out of the easy portion of it and it doesn't make sense anymore; meaning, what "Jesus saves" isn't enough.
What do you mean by that, exactly?
I guess that the bumper sticker phrases of Christianity don't always work for tackling some of the real life issues that people tend to engage with at their faith core, to be able to try and navigate through. And I think not only, in terms of "What's happening with the audience," but also with the directors inside of that. And it's nice to see people step up and do that. It's not always an easy thing to do. Sometimes, when a person decides to tackle a difficult issue, especially inside of what seemed a very conservative faith community, you become guilty by association. If somebody wants to talk about -- say, sex is a big topic. In Christianity, we just have gotten culturally to where we just don't like to discuss it in public. Anything beyond the missionary position is just far more difficult to comprehend and talk about and feel like we're doing that in a holy way. And I think that it takes a lot of courage to be able to say, "No." These are [discussions] I really want to have. I don't know if I'm going to get the answer to it… but then the questions that arise, as a human being, don't cease to rear their heads when we don't talk about them and we don't face them. And so, that process tends to alienate people. It marginalizes them, not just from their community, but from their own spiritual experiences. And I think it's really exciting to see some environments, where people are willing to step up to that challenge. And I think it takes a lot of personal vulnerability, as well as a lot of courage and respect, to be able to create an environment for that to happen.
So I know that you said that you don't necessarily run in any specific Christian circles, but I also know that the other weekend you were with the Association of Welcome and Affirming Baptists (an organization who affirms homosexuality in the Baptist tradition). And so, I was wondering, have you found some kind of a spiritual connection with them?
Well, one of the things that has happened over the last couple of years since my coming out, is I've been recognized as a very public person of faith and whatever that means. But it's been interesting over the last couple of weeks for me, because I definitely am not interested, as an entertainer, in creating Christian music anymore. There is no bent in me, in terms of [being[ a public figure to create merchandise, if you will, for that market. I'm not interested in the marketplace at all. So when I talk about the pop culture Christianity, I have no idea what's going on in Christian music. I don't know who the pop authors are. I would look back at Philip Yancey and Tony Campolo and those guys and whatever they're doing today, I don't really know. I tend to have to go out of my way to find that.
I can send you a care package of things that come across my desk, if you want to get caught up.
You know what? To be honest, you'd be wasting a stamp. All that stuff does continue to come my way as well. I have people sending me Christian books of fiction and wanting my endorsement, things like that. There's an idea that I keep being asked to go into it. And to answer your question about the AWAB, the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, and in particular, religious things that I do actually end up participating in, are far more a conversation level. It's difficult to explain to people who [think that] if someone engages with their creativity or their art or their person in a religious environment, then they must be doing Christian "this." And it's really frustrating for me, but it doesn't really stop me from going to the places. Nine times out of ten, if somebody invites me to go some place, I'll go, if I can. And I go because I'm interested to meet people and not just deliver what I have to deliver, but to learn from the other people that are there, and whoever the people that have invited me, that I’d be a part of their world and their conversation for a while.
Photo courtesy of Fairlight Hubbard and Amy M Phillips of EYE
The Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists and Robin Lunn, it's a really intriguing paradigm to consider that -- one which I actually enjoy. People think all of a sudden that when you say the word "Baptist," they get a very distinct view of what they think they're going to get when they meet a Baptist. They're going to be homophobic… especially right now, in our current climate, you're going to get a lot of conversation about what God wants the country to look like, how He wants you to vote, how He wants you to spend your money as a Christian and, certainly, how He wants you to build a family and what that looks like, in terms of sexual orientation, which does not include any conversation of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) people. It's really fun for me to be able to go and have access to those kind of environments that really challenge that. Yet, at the same time, I think one of the things that I learned in response to that is, how important people's traditions are, in which they have come to approach their faith, and what language they use that helps them continue to be comfortable. Meaning -- the example I would have -- it spun my head off, the first time that I met people that were saying, "Yes. We're Southern Baptists and we're going to an open and affirming church." I'm like, "What? It's not possible." It's the same way that I felt that that section of faith might look at me and go, "It's not possible for you to be a Christian and gay." And it's not fair for me to look and say, "What? How can you be a Baptist, a Southern Baptist and open and affirming." So you kind of have to go. You have to meet people. You have to talk with them. You have to figure out the lay of the land.
Through all that, I am realizing that’s a very important thing, especially in terms of the LGBT issues and today. I think a lot of times, we encourage people to just move on. If there's a tradition that's not including you in your conversation, we think it's really easy to just move on. If the Southern Baptists don't like you, then get out and go somewhere else. But if you spent your whole life there and your family is there, and that's your tradition and that's your language and your culture, it's like saying if you're American, you don't like what's going on in the American political scene right now, “well then, get out and go to Korea. It doesn't work that simply. And to try and hard-wire someone's native language is -- or you rewire someone's native language, it's not necessarily helpful. It's not necessarily accurate to their growth process either. So I definitely learned through experiences like that to be in there has some sacred respect, the varying traditions, at which people approach their faith.
I know that when you came out, you had the big Larry King interview, and Christianity today did a big piece about it. I was curious to know, having had time since then, are there questions that they asked that you would answer differently now?
You know, that's a good question. I don't -- I feel like I've been very fortunate at this point, and I can't really claim any personal victory in it. But I think I've been pretty lucky to feel like there's nothing that I would take back. There are moments that I'm just going, "Oh, I could have said that better. I didn't quite know how to articulate the experience that I was having for other people." But I'm not sure that I would say that I would change any answers. I think some of my answers have evolved. in terms of not just having my own experience but meeting other people that are having similar experiences to myself, has broadened some of the answers that I might give today. And I think even helped… but I'm getting to a more narrow point actually, in just being able to just pound the same point over and over and over again, which is that, regardless of your sexual orientation, your faith and your spiritual experiences are valuable and they matter. And no matter who you are, what tradition you come from, the perspective and experience that you've had are important to being proclaimed not just for yourself, but are important for other people to be able to share about the differences in how you've experienced that faith.
If I can slip into a religious-based language for a second, and say that if God, in fact, is greater that we can possibly imagine, then perhaps, the experiences that we will see in any one given individual will be extremely diverse, extremely broad-ranging. I can only probably represent so much of who and God what might be and what He does and how He acts in my own life. But by meeting another person and by continuing to expand our knowledge of diverse people and diverse experiences and having the courage to be able to tell that story ourselves and having the courage to listen to other people when they're sharing that experience becomes a really profound experienc. And so, I think that's the thing - out of all the Q&A that I've had to do over the last couple of years about it, is that I don't think there's any one answer or any one correct answer to anything that anyone asks. But I think I've been really grateful to see an evolution. I have been really grateful for each question that allows me to actually meet some new person or to consider perspective of what do I agree or disagree, and just really think about the other people that are involved in this process; because I think that is a part of me that gets really frustrated because you go through experiences like that. I think often, what happens…[is that] those who're coming from a more conservative angle, and then trying to understand where I'm at, as a lesbian, they're only seeing me as a lesbian. Well, [they ask me to] justify it… that's to me like saying, "Well, justify yourself, Jennifer. You're from Kansas and I am from Tennessee, and I don't understand how you could possibly be the way you are."
Photo courtesy of Fairlight Hubbard and Amy M Phillips of EYE
Most of us -- those who are answering the questions of who we are, who am I, take a lifetime to be able to get to, and I think a lot of patience and a lot of courage to do individually, as well as an extraordinary amount of courage, to be able to express to other people around you. And I think that's -- if there's any criticism I think I have of the line of questioning that the conservatives right has put up, is that the questions are a little bit short-sided. For a good, solid year, for example, the question was, basically, "How do you justify your sexuality and holding to your faith?" And people still ask that question, and to me, I think it's more of learning how to reframe where I think that question is meant to lead, which is, ultimately, "Explain to me how you hold on to your faith. What does faith mean to you and why is it important?" "And what allows you to continue on that path? What encourages you to go on that path? "Those are, to me, the questions, when I meet someone else, that I'm really interested in hearing. I think we all get very bored, very quickly, when somebody begins to justify their behavior; to say, "I am like this, and I hold this disagreement way or a prejudice behavior or a poor behavior that is clearly affecting you." You're communicating to me that I'm doing something that you don't like. Well, when I justify my behavior, it basically says, "Well, I don't care how it affects you." And I don't think it's an appropriate language to get into. I think what we need to understand is the human experiences. And so, I think that, at this point down the road, whenever I get questions like that, that are a little bit behind the speed of where our intellects actually -- our intellect, our spiritual understanding is capable of going. That's usually more of what I'm trying to do these days; to kind of elevate the conversation.
One of the questions you were asked was “do you go to church?” How would you answer that now?
I go to church from time to time. I love liturgy; I really do. I actually love high church, to be quite honest. Praise, the whole modern mega-church praise and worship, that never appealed to me. But I just -- I think we forget, and this is going to sound really cheesy, but I feel like I have church at least two or three times a day. It just depends on who I'm talking with, in what enriched type of relationship that I'm willing to engage in, and what I think what the gospel is, which is coming together as a community, serving one another in love and being in those places where you acknowledge something greater than yourself and being willing to be the person who speaks of it.
That happens to me every day, whether I like it or not. So I just -- it gets really hard. I can spend an hour telling you that most -- the person who -- when you answer that question and I answer it the way that I do, which is "No. I don't have a -- I'm not doing worship at a particular church," then that sends off a red flag for somebody that says, "Oh, well, then you're not doing the thing that you're supposed to be doing," and that's not the point of what we should -- to me, that's the more legalistic conversation that you'll never getwith me. At that point, I'm already alienated from them anyway; if they don't want to have any conversation with me whatsoever.
Well, here's the heady, intellectual part of me. I think the question comes from a good place. I think nine times out of ten, when somebody asks you that question, they want to know where it is -- what well it's going to… and that's a valid question. I think the part where we discredit ourselves, it's sort of like a relationship with a partner. The longer that you're together, that you've developed your own shorthand language, and nobody else knows what you’re talking about. The two of you are missing out so many words in between because you’re doing shorthand, that you understand. And I think that sometimes happens in faith communities, where we use the shorthand, like a question like that, and we actually don't realize how much of a potential dialogue that we’re missing, instead of taking the time and saying, “Listen, I’m actually really curious about how you stay encouraged. I’m really encouraged about how you connect with God. How do you connect with the community that enlightens God? Do you find it necessary to be in a community?” Because, let us face it; not everyone’s an extrovert. Some people are introverted. Some people are looked to lock themselves in the cloister for their entire lives, and they’re profoundly spiritual people that affect the world from the periphery. So those are the conversations that, ultimately, excite me and, I think, at the same time, the ones that I really enjoy participating in; because I feel like I get to know -- I get to not only share something about myself, but I usually get know something about the person sitting across the table from me as well.
When you came out, was there a question that you always hoped people would ask you, but they never did?
Not really. I would say not usually. I think what I usually hope is that there are questions that they won't ask. I don't mean that in like there are questions that I don’t want to answer, that perhaps that we could move on to a deeper level of conversation rather than being so -- like for example, “Explain to us how you think it’s okay to be gay and Christian.” That question gets rather tiresome. And I think, like I said, I think it’s well-meaningful and I think when you take the time to be constructive and really consider the larger picture at play, I think those, basically, can be quite fun. I think it’s more of -- I think most of my hopes center around the expectation that those who actually do come and have questions to ask are asking questions -- will ask questions that are designed to bring a diversity to a commonality, without sacrificing the diversity, if that makes sense. That’s what I hope. And it happens and it’s really exciting when it does. I think it’s somebody who tends to answer the same questions day in and day out. It becomes a challenge to try and to not get angry at what seems like questions that aren’t important. Because I think underneath it, they really are -- there are a lot of important issues that sometimes in just a shorthand of our own communities and our own perspective, we don't realize that there’s a lot more to learn inside of that from each other.
We would like to thank Jennifer for being such a good sport, so don't forget to check out her website and buy all of her albums