|Lesbian Christian singer goes back to church -- with a different message|
|By Greg Warner|
|Wednesday, April 25, 2012|
DECATUR, Ga. (ABP) – When Christian singer-songwriter Jennifer Knapp acknowledged her homosexuality a few years ago, she figured she was done singing in churches. She already had walked away from her eight-year career in contemporary Christian music in 2002 because her theological views no longer toed the evangelical line.
To her surprise, a decade later, the folk-rock artist is singing again – and mostly in churches. She performed April 20 at First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., as part of the [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant, hosted by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.
Where you don’t find Knapp these days is in the contemporary Christian music industry, where she sold more than a million copies of her five albums between 1994 and 2002 and was nominated for Dove and Grammy awards.
“I signed up to play music and sing about my faith experience,” said the folk-rock artist. As a teenager coming out of an American Baptist church, she fit into the evangelical mold well enough. “But as I got into my late 20s and early 30s, I didn’t really relate to my Christian faith that way anymore.”
So she abandoned the pressures of songwriting, performing, recording and promoting Christian music. “I just kind of let it go and let it rest.” There was no thought of ever coming back as a Christian artist.
“When I put my guitar in the case and said this is my last [concert], I really didn’t think I had anything to contribute to the religious conversation at all in music,” she said. “I didn’t want the responsibility of defending it anymore. If God was going to speak to me, great. If he didn’t, he didn’t.”
She continued to write music while on hiatus, but she had no plans to record or perform the new material -- until close friends convinced her it needed to be heard. In September 2009, she performed again for the first time since 2002 in a Los Angeles club. In 2010 she released her first new album in nine years, Letting Go. It was not the typical Christian music that had made her famous but it was still characteristically honest and incisive.
“I think my faith still comes up in my music,” the Kansas native said in an interview April 20. “It’s still obviously a very significant part of my life.”
“I really didn’t have any interest in coming back and working inside of the church as a musician,” she said in only her third Christian interview since coming out as a lesbian. “I just wanted to go out and do music, and if my faith came up, it came up. I didn’t feel pressured to wrap up a nice, neat little Christian bow on it.”
However, grass-roots Christians are surprisingly open to her new approach, she reported. While most denominations are reluctant to address sexuality, “on a local level, pastors are trying to be responsive to the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people that show up on their doorstep.”
Now living in Nashville, Knapp performs most often in Methodist, Episcopal and other mainline Christian congregations that are somewhat open to homosexuality. Her concert for the Baptist conference mixed some of her new and old music with dialogue with the audience on faith and sexual orientation.
It’s something she does now at virtually all her appearances, because she says the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy practiced even by a lot of progressive churches “is not working, and it’s damaging to a lot of people I see on a day-to-day basis.”
In another irony, Knapp is doing more one-on-one ministry at concerts now than she did as a Christian artist. In the old days, she said, the post-concert routine involved “photos, autographs, hanging out, [like] I’m a big rock star.” Now that time is spent listening to young people talk about their struggles with sexual orientation.
“I listen for an hour and a half, till I lose my brain power, because people have just such stories to tell. It’s hard not to be compassionate.”
If the church is notoriously reluctant to talk about homosexuality, gay groups are even more resistant to talk about faith, she said. “Because so many LGBTs have had very negative experiences with their faith communities, they don’t want anyone talking about it at all. It’s been a dynamic that has been very hurtful and painful, so they just want it written off.”
Knapp wasn’t aware of her own sexual orientation until late in her 20s, and then only by “accident,” she said. “By the time I was 18 or 19 years old, I made a pretty radical, evangelical decision for Christ, and that landed me in 10 years of celibacy. I kind of shut that whole [attraction] mechanism down.
“About the time that I felt I could give myself some space to make some decisions for myself and be responsible for those decisions, I was like, ‘Oh, wow! This is considerably different than what I was expecting.’”
What she discovered was she was attracted to a woman. “It had nothing to do with passions and lust,” Knapp recalled. “It was just, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a person I really spiritually and deeply connect with!’ I didn’t expect it.”
“I started to realize that I loved someone who was the same sex as me,” she told her concert audience April 20. “And it was such an accident, because I forgot to check the gender!” she joked.
Even today, at 38, Knapp doesn’t talk publicly about her partner of 10 years out of respect for the woman’s desire for privacy. But rumors of Knapp’s lesbianism surfaced in the Christian music field soon after she left it.
Many people assumed that was why she abandoned her career and, they assumed, her faith. Neither is true, Knapp says. “When I came out, I didn’t expect how much it hurt my heart that people assumed the experience I had as a person of faith had never mattered and didn’t exist.”
While the criticism of her faith hurt, it also brought clarity.
“The irony is I realized [the Christian faith] was an integral part of my life, when it was assumed that it wasn’t. It was trying to be forcefully taken away from me. And I said, ‘Wait a minute!’”
Although Knapp now talks openly about her sexuality, she insists she’s not an apologist or activist for LGBT issues. And she declines to offer a biblical defense for her sexuality, leaving that to the theologians. “I’m just a human being that is going through the journey.”
But after two years back in the spotlight, she said she is developing thicker skin. “I don’t worry about the judgments that are being passed on me now,” she said. “It’s so nice to be able to respond and not worry what people will think.
“Not to sound egotistical, but I’m happy with myself. I’m happy with my life.”
Greg Warner is a freelance writer in Jacksonville, Fla., and former executive editor of Associated Baptist Press.