Jennifer Knapp, a Grammy-nominated singer well-known in the faith-plus-entertainment subculture which includes the Contemporary Christian Music genre, performed Wednesday night in the Stevenson Union on the Southern Oregon University campus as part of her “Inside Out Faith Tour.”
The concert was introduced by Adam Walker Cleveland, associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ashland, which helped organize the event in cooperation with the Ashland First Congressional United Church of Christ, Ashland’s Trinity Episcopal Church, and the First United Methodist Church of Ashland.
“I’ve been listening to Jennifer since when I was in college,” said Cleveland. “I was what you might call a Jennifer Knapp groupie.”
Knapp is not your average Christian musician though.
Knapp’s tour promo describes her as “a gay person of faith.” Her tour is geared specifically at building “a positive and constructive dialogue on behalf of LGBT people of faith,” by sharing her personal story of how she has tackled the challenges that come from being both openly gay and a Christian entertainer who has been criticized for her sexual orientation by some segments of the religious audiences to whom she markets herself.
Knapp, 38, exhibited a strong sense of humor at the show, co-sponsored by SOU’s Queer Resource Center. “You might have heard, but I actually play music for a living,” she said. She also joked around with audience members.
“Can I keep you?” she asked a girl who called out from her seat that she loved Knapp. “Now, she’s a girl and I’m a lesbian. I guess I have to be careful what I say now,” Knapp said.
Knapp kicked off with a performance of “A Little More,” her hit song which describes the basic tenets of Knapp’s religious beliefs, specifically her belief that God’s grace is more than she deserves or can give others.
“For all the sin that lives in me, it took a nail to set me free / Still what I do I don’t want to do and so goes the story,” she sang.
She proceeded to alternate between sharing short biographical vignettes and anecdotes and performing her music, each story building on the previous and each song relating lyrically in some way to the story just told.
Knapp said she converted to Christianity as a college student, after befriending Christian classmates who invited her to church. Her conversion was motivated by a desire to find value and meaning in her life, which she said she could not find due to very low self-esteem.
“One day Christianity made a lot of sense to me,” she said. “I thought, who am I that God would see me as valuable enough to save me? Then I learned there was a verse that said that very thing.”
“I came [to Christianity] as a girl of the world, not a virgin . . . I would leave church services, light a cigarette in the parking lot, and say, ‘That was fucking awesome.’ Long story short, I became a Christian rock star.”
The pop culture phenomenon of Contemporary Christian Music, or CCM, of which Knapp is a part, is an emulation of the kind of fare offered by secular pop and rock radio.
In the mid- to late 1960s, the church decided it would serve as a great evangelistic tool, as well as a wholesome alternative to “worldly” music. Christian radio, complete with guitars, drums and solos, was born in the 1970s. By the late 1990s, CCM had achieved a significant reputation as a corporate force to be reckoned with, its records selling better than classical, jazz and New Age music combined.
By that point, CCM was also addressing social issues that sometimes came into conflict with religious principles. The “Inside Out Faith Tour” is one of the latest examples of this commentary.
Knapp described having conflicting feelings about her sexuality early on in her career.
“I uploaded all my confusions into my songs, all my passions into my songs,” she said. “I knew nothing about love, but I kept looking to my faith to tell me about that love.”
This confusion was reflected in songs such as “Whole Again,” a song Knapp performed at the event which came from early in her career.
The emotion in Knapp’s performance was on display as she sang, “Am I lost in some illusion, or am I what you thought I’d be? Now it seems I’ve found myself and need to be forgiven.”
She sang a song called “Say Won’t You Say,” the chorus of which referred to “love everlasting,” as an example of a song she said she wrote without understanding what her subject was all about.
Two of the songs performed hail from her latest album. The album, titled “Letting Go” and released in 2010, marked a watershed moment in Knapp’s career. It was the first effort after coming out as a homosexual and her first work produced following a long hiatus that started in 2003, when she traveled to the Australian outback where she lived for the next seven years.
“I literally had my wilderness experience,” Knapp said, adding that her seven-year stay in Australia was a retreat from the religious community in which she was involved. Her hope was, she explained, to find personal space in which to reflect on whether she wanted to retain her faith in light of her homosexual orientation.
She described this period as one in which she “dared God” to love her as she was. Her career hung in the balance pending what she believed God’s answer would be.
Knapp said the question of whether a person can be both gay and a Christian is one that is not often raised in liberal settings, where the answer is almost always an obvious yes.
“I am probably preaching to the choir here,” she said.
But for many others, especially those outside higher education environments, the question is a subject of serious debate among religious believers and of raised eyebrows among the religiously-uninitiated or non-believing.
“My redneck, middle class family in Kansas was actually relieved [when I came out to them], because they thought this whole Christian thing of mine would go away. It didn’t,” she said, illustrating the sense even non-religious people have that there is a contradiction in being gay and a person of faith.
However, by the end of Knapp’s hiatus, she had put faith in more than God. She put faith in her religious community to be understanding and accepting of her sexual orientation.
“I wouldn’t have come back and continued singing and writing songs if I knew Christian bookstores were going to pull my records off their shelves. I wouldn’t have tried,” said Knapp, who went on to describe her coming-to-terms with both keeping her Christian faith and in coming out as gay to her fan base.
But not all of Knapp’s fans at the concert were supportive of Knapp’s homosexuality.
“I really think it’s an abomination. It’s a sin,” said Jon Clement, a laser manufacturer from White City who said he attended the concert because he had listened to and enjoyed Knapp’s music over the years.
He said Knapp’s sexual orientation does not change his opinion that “she has a wonderful voice and a good stage presence.”
“But I don’t think she takes the Bible as true,” he said. “She picks and chooses.”
“She’s broken the second commandment because she makes God in her own image. She winks at sin, because she alluded to smoking and drinking.”
Clement went on to say he was not prejudiced against gays.
“God extends his hand to homosexuals, hoping they’ll come out of that sin,” he said.
But Knapp expressed concern over the fact that three-fourths of all anti-gay rhetoric come from religious sources, citing a recent study by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation research group, in conjunction with the University of Missouri, in support of this claim.
Her concern was that gay people of faith would feel obliged to quit their faith because of this rhetoric, as she herself almost did.
After the concert, Knapp had no comment on what Christianity or the Christian Scriptures had to say on the subject of homosexuality, pointing out that there are over 3,000 denominations of the religion, many of which have differing beliefs about homosexuality, from affirming to condemning and everywhere in between.
“Those who are outside Christianity would look on all these denominations as sects,” she noted, going on to describe her desire to transcend sectarian differences.
“God made me a singer. That’s my gift to the universe. And I’m attractive,” Knapp concluded, summarizing in a nutshell what her long process of self reflection and discovery led her to accept.