In May, Religion Dispatches published my first interview with former darling of the Christian contemporary music scene, lesbian singer-songwriter Jennifer Knapp. Then over the summer, I got to meet and interview Knapp in person while covering the Wild Goose Festival, an event that celebrated (predominantly Christian) spirituality, justice, and art. We talked a bit about the limitations of Christian music, feminism and sexuality on the same day she filmed the "It Gets Better" video below. I'll be critiquing some evangelical Christian music later in the series, so I'm very excited to share unpublished parts of our interview with you here today:
KR: In the past, you gravitated to progressive communities even when you were a Christian music star. In the late nineties, you toured with the Lilith Fair:
You think? (laughs) That was a coup. A conservative radio station dedicated an entire hour to talking about how I shouldn't have done that, how I wasn't "following the Biblical mandate to be in the world but not of it." Even now, I hear people say I'm a lesbian because I did Lilith Fair.
You have said that you were never entirely comfortable being pigeonholed as a Christian contemporary singer. What were some of the other difficulties that you faced in that environment?
I became a Christian in college and signed my record deal in my early twenties. I had no idea that Christian contemporary music was a genre that I was supposed to aspire to. People of all faiths have always reflected faith and spirituality in their art. I trickled into Christian music without really knowing it existed and found myself in the middle of a subculture.
I certainly didn't understand the politics of the genre at the time. As I got older, I realized I was a progressive in an environment that didn't encourage that. I began to understand it in group settings when I'd say, "Well, how about this?" I'd get smacked down instantly. People said, "No, that's not a good question" or, "Let me tell you what you should believe." I found side pockets of friends to get through, but we couldn't talk publicly about it then.
I have reconnected here with musicians that I knew from that very conservative environment a decade ago, and am amazed to hear that many of them have long held progressive perspectives. We were in an environment where we didn't feel welcome to speak.
Not everyone here is progressive. For example, Michelle Shocked now thinks being gay is a sin:
Michelle Shocked surprises me, but I am okay about being in this venue with her because I can find validation and support elsewhere. However, there are people who just cannot accept it, people who deny LGBT people of faith access to spiritual practices they value. Being a member of the LGBT community, for them, is evidence that you're not in the right spiritual place. That's a very serious problem.
It is tragic to be physically, spiritually, and emotionally ex-communicated because of your sexuality. We need to be able to claim a place in our faith communities.
I know you read a lot. What kinds of books are influencing your thinking about feminism, sexuality, and faith these days?
Recently, I read a book by [Women's Studies professor] Kathy Rudy called Sex and the Church: Gender, Homosexuality and the Transformation of Christian Ethics. She researched sex in the US and found it very often associated with shame. Even for people who had a secular perspective, this culture is deeply rooted in Puritanical faith constructs.
Rudy does a great job of showing that Christian theologies are often based on cultural beleifs that are very specific to time and place. For example, she talks about [anti-feminism] in American Christianity, and makes the case that people looked at the roles of women in society—and how women were treated—at the time and constructed beliefs based on that.
So, Christian thought tends to reflect the prejudices and bigotries of a specific time.
Right, and of course historical prejudices shape these things. So many of the conversations we hear in faith communities today involve LGBT acceptance, and that has a similar history. There is still this very conservative approach to sex and sexuality, much like there was when the American church grappled with issues like divorce and remarriage. It's a similar conversation, but a different headline.
Thanks to Jennifer Knapp for talking with me! I'll leave you today with a couple of songs from her 2010 mainstream album, Letting Go. Both grapple with sexuality and conservative Christian homophobia (lyrics to the first can be found here, lyrics to the second here).