WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my conversation with singer songwriter and LGBT activist Jennifer Knapp.
Jennifer Knapp took the contemporary Christian music scene by storm when she released her first album—Kansas—in 1998. The lead single from that album—Undo Me—won a Dove Award for Christian rock song of the year in 1999 and Knapp herself won a Dove for best new artist. The album eventually was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, indicating more than 500,000 units sold. Two more albums followed in quick succession, including Lay It Down, which received a Grammy nomination in 2002. But years of constant touring and increasing financial pressure from the music industry took a toll on her. She announced in 2002 that she was going to take a break from music, but previous commitments prevented her from going away until early 2004. It was the beginning of a nearly seven year hiatus when she returned with a new album in 2010. She also announced that she was a lesbian.
Since then, she has been an outspoken LGBT activist. She’s also continued to claim her Christian faith, though as you’ll hear in our conversation her views on core Christian doctrines are far from orthodox. I had this conversation with Jennifer Knapp at a coffee shop in the North Davidson Arts District of Charlotte back in 2017. It’s part of our summer encore series of interviews from the first five years of Listening In.
Jennifer, first of all, welcome to the program. It’s great to have you. I’ve been trying to get you on the program for a long time. As I told you before we sort of turn the recorder on, this is my fourth or fifth time to try to get you.
JENNIFER KNAPP, GUEST: Oh, I’m so elusive.
SMITH: Exactly. And I heard you for the first time perform probably close to 20 years ago at Christian music day at Six Flags, which is kind of—
KNAPP: It would have been awhile ago.
SMITH: Yeah. I mean that’s like a real different world than you’re in now playing at a secular venue called The Evening Mews. We’re just around the corner from it.
Big change in your life since then.
KNAPP: Yeah. You know, I love that I’ve had such a very wide spanning career. Like, you know, I actually don’t miss the amusement park days, I gotta tell ya. That was made for younger folks who are willing to hang out in the heat all day long. I love like late night and just kinda chilling out. So, but yeah, I’ve been really fortunate to be doing this a very long time and I think it helps to kind of, I dunno, I’ve just been really fortunate. I do call it career 1.0 and career 2.0. But the difference between the two I could have never imagined being happy in both and having the experience that I’ve had.
SMITH: Well, I want to get to that—sort of 1.0 and 2.0 on the career side. But I want to back up even further than asking a little bit about your childhood and your upbringing. You were not raised in a Christian home. You became a Christian college. Is that right?
KNAPP: Yeah, what I always end up saying is I was like the poster child for what most evangelical kids want to have happen when they did go to a state school, which is meet someone like me, convert them to Christianity. But yeah, I mean, I was a midwestern Kansas chick, you know, growing up. I think most of what I would say with like culturally in the midwest, everybody went to church. I had pantyhose and patent leather shoes with the best of them. But as far as understanding what faith was or participating in it, I never saw anybody live that way until I was in college and surrounded by a bunch of kids. And it really fascinated me.
And so I was 18 years old and started participating and started writing music and, oh my gosh, my life has radically taken a path since then, for sure.
SMITH: Well, tell me about your conversion, if you don’t mind. I mean, was there a moment where somebody walked you through the four spiritual laws and—
KNAPP: Well, I’m retelling that story, I think differently now, probably 20 years on than the way I would have told it then. I mean there’s an evangelical version that I could, that was definitely there. Like now I tend to color that differently because I’m not evangelical in that sense. I don’t like theologically kind of travel on that path. But at the same time, I cannot deny that there was like a radical experience that happened in that space. And flat out, I was a really messed up kid and I was trying to look for—I was debating whether or not I was trying to like destroy myself or trying to see how far I could bounce but I jumped off a ledge.
But at the same time, you know, I was surrounded by a bunch of really good friends that were people of faith and some were an amazing witness of what faith was like in their life. And, as I look back, you know, there were people that I probably wouldn’t have hung with like Southern Baptist friends, evangelical friends. And it was definitely always you need to get your life right with Jesus. You need to accept Christ as your savior. And there were also other people that were just living their lives every day. And somewhere in that, though, I did see, you know, they shared a lot of scripture with me. I started hanging out particularly with Fellowship of Christian Athletes on my campus at Pittsburgh State University in Kansas. And I got to see like a really good cross-section of people, of young people who were trying to make sense of what this faith meant in their life.
And I think it had a really, looking back at a really cool transition point. Like the difference between what they grew up with with their families. I didn’t grow up with that church experience that many of them did and yet we were all kind of in that melting pot. So that’s where I really began to contemplate what my faith meant. Cause I saw something there that was meaningful to me and something was salvific for me. But I didn’t quite know what it meant. You know, 20 years later, it’s easy to kind of rewrite that narrative. But for the students that were there, they were a vital part of that—evangelically speaking.
SMITH: But you were involved in ministry and you were starting to write music and I mean, you kind of blew up pretty fast in the music world or would you say not?
KNAPP: No, they were very much related. Like my beginning in the church is just a normal person seeking out faith and music. They were just intertwined from the very beginning.
SMITH: Who were you listening to? Who were you reading?
KNAPP: I wasn’t listening to anybody. I had no idea that faith-based music or contemporary Christian music even existed. You know, I was aware of like praise and worship music that was happening in my Fellowship of Christian Athletes group and a more contemporary style worship was somewhat happening in the church that I was going to at the time. But I had no idea of artists that were writing songs about their faith. And so it wasn’t until I actually had friends saying to me, oh, you can’t listen to U2 anymore, or the Cowboy Junkies or the Indigo Girls. It was a real thing then in the early nineties to kind of jettison any secular involvement and to in fact view that as detrimental to my spiritual walk.
And so that was really an odd experience to me. But I was also extremely sincere. And so they were saying, well, don’t listen to that stuff. Why don’t you write about your experience? And I could play a guitar a little bit. So I went from doing cover songs of those artists that I was listening to, to just writing my own, having no idea that there was anything else that I could listen to. And really the first Christian music that I started writing was kind of technically my own. It was really crazy. And it wasn’t until after that I started listening to artists. I found artists like Out of the Gray, Susan Ashton—Wayne Kirkpatrick did a lot of the writing for Susan—Margaret Becker, Ashley Cleveland. I loved a lot of the west coast stuff that was coming out. Michael Knott, The 77s, Dakota Motor Company. I mean, Sixpence None The Richer was huge for me. So there were artists there that once I got into that and I started to realize that there were other artists writing and integrating their daily lives of faith in that, those were the artists that were most appealing to me. And when I heard that it did start to give me a framework for how I wanted to approach writing about my faith and integrating that with music.
SMITH: Well, I think, you know, what you’ve just said explains Kansas to me a little bit. Because when that album came out, it was, you know, pretty plainly, you know, an expression of Christian faith, but it was in some ways not like anything that was on Christian radio at the time.
KNAPP: Looking back at that record, I mean, that was locking myself into a room and having—that was a come to Jesus record for me, personally.
I wasn’t writing that record to impress anyone. I had no machinations of ever being an artist in the public sphere. Most of the writing on that record was absolutely, you know, a spiritual working out of my own process. Whenever I think about actually writing that record, I have a very strong visual of my room at college and just sitting on the floor like I did with my Bible on the floor and staring at the mirror and my guitar in my hands going, how did I get here? What is going on? And the scripture that’s integrated into it, the questions that are integrated to it, they were just absolute and utter prayer. It’s like, you know, I look at it and I’m like, what was I thinking sharing my journal with the whole world.
But I think at the same time, like even as I’ve kind of evolved theologically from that point, 20 years on, I can’t deny that that was just such a watershed moment for me in my life and it was honest and vulnerable about the kind of processes that it takes I think sometimes to spiritually contemplate where we are. Like I said, I may have moved on theologically from some of those spaces, but at this point I’m honored, actually, to be able to have known that that was just my heart laid bare and that it’s borne fruit. Like I couldn’t have done that on my own.
SMITH: And you still play that music in concert or some of it?
KNAPP: Yeah, I do a few of the songs. I’ve done a few online concerts for friends that have been the entire Kansas in its entirety.
SMITH: I saw that on your website.
KNAPP: Yeah, so there’s one or two songs that like scattered throughout my Christian music career that I just can’t play anymore or make a theological choice to not play. But for the most part I think that I can play a lot of it and if I can, I try and play it because especially when other people request it, if I possibly can, I do because it’s, you know—I think music is interesting in that way. It becomes a soundtrack to spiritual moments and milestones in our lives. And if you’re at a space where you want to hear that song, I think it’s amazing how a song can do that for you.
MUSIC: [A Little More]
SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith. That song, “A Little More,” is from Jennifer Knapp’s second album—Lay It Down. That album went all the way to Number 1 on the Christian music charts, and even entered the Billboard Hot 100 secular charts as well.
Despite Jennifer Knapp’s success, she was beginning to struggle personally. Her parents had divorced when she was three, and she had been raised in a non-religious home. Her conversion in college was so quickly followed by musical success that, by her own admission, she had not firmly established who she was as a person and as a Christian. The pressures of the industry had not allowed her time to put down deep spiritual or community roots. As you’ll hear later in the program, these pressures eventually brought her to a point of decision about her life and her future.
The interview you’re listening to is one I did at a coffee shop with Jennifer Knapp in Charlotte back in 2017.
Jennier, when Kansas came out, you’d been performing awhile and even recording awhile before Kansas. Is that accurate or not?
KNAPP: You know, I’d only been a Christian maybe a couple of years before I started touring and maybe—and I say touring. I was just playing on a bunch of local churches in the Midwest. But, gosh, Kansas was recorded in and released in 1998. I was in college, my freshman year of college, I started, that was probably like ‘92 and ‘93 so a couple of years of that. So yeah, you know, that was a pretty timeline for me. I really only started touring and playing music in some way—amateurishly probably—in ‘94 and ‘95. So the turnaround was really fast.
SMITH: Well, and Kansas blew up. It sold over a half a million copies—it was a gold album and, you know, put you on radio all over. I mentioned to you that I saw you, I think opening or not opening with, but sort of co-billed with Third Day here in front of thousands of people in Charlotte, probably close to 20 years ago now. Describe that time in your life. I mean, ‘cause that meant that when you had that kind of success in Christian music, you were one of the top stars in Christian music.
KNAPP: I didn’t know that at the time, I think, but I mean, starting from about ‘99 to 2002 I call this my heroin years. I’ve never seen any heroin. I’ve never done heroin, but there’s a lot there that I don’t—it was such a blur of time and energy that I didn’t have much of a life of my own. It was just all tour buses and doing what was next. So, yeah, it was pretty intense and crazy. I think probably starting around late 1999 for me.
SMITH: Do you look back on that time fondly or not?
KNAPP: I think so. I mean, at the time it felt really long and I realize—like now I look back and I go, oh, you know, I only did three records as a Christian artist. I’ve done three records in the last seven years as a secular artist or mainstream artist. And plus I’m older now, too. Like when I was in my twenties, a couple of years seemed like a really long time and now two years just goes in a blink of an eye for me. So it’s a little bit hard for me to say, but I mean, at the time I always felt like I was always fighting an upward movement. I was always like—the difficulties of that moment for me are marked by the fact that one, I felt like I was challenged as a woman in a man’s world, which sounds really strange, but I think if you look at the landscape even today of Christian music, it’s very much dominated popularly and economically by men.
And so as a female artist, I always felt like I wasn’t achieving. Like I felt like I was a commercial risk for everybody who wanted to work with me and then I needed to work harder and work more and be better at being a spiritual representative. It gets all meshed up. You have to be a better artist, you have to be a better Christian, you have to be a better economic forest. And those are all wrapped up inside of system that didn’t really support me as a woman. I was growing theologically and as I became a Christian in my late teens, and now by the time I was in my 23, 24 and I’d been a Christian for a while, I started developing theologically as well in a very public space. So all of these came crashing together. So that’s the way I remember it. Not necessarily as, hey, I’m a superstar.
SMITH: Well and I will say, though, that when I saw you during that era you looked happy.
SMITH: Was that a facade?
KNAPP: No, I mean, I like to think that I’ve been a genuine person from point A to point B. Like, you know, from whenever I started to now. I think that led to the fact that I—like when I left CCM in 2002, I found that one of the spaces for me and my own integrity is in order to be there, I just couldn’t be that happy, pleasant person anymore. I couldn’t sit here and say, Oh yeah, I agree with that when I didn’t anymore. And so I feel like it’s an honest thing. If you saw me on a day where I was smiling, I was probably pretty genuine. But now, like you were talking about and the fact that we’d met each other four or five times throughout the years, for the long span of that when somebody says they met me in my Christian music days, I also know that they’re the last couple of years I was really struggling behind the scenes to, to care about anybody but myself ‘cause I was in such an emergency state. So I’m often asking, well when did you meet me and what were the circumstances because that might not have been a pleasant experience for you.
SMITH: Well, as a matter of fact, I will add this as well and I don’t think I’m—in fact, I know I’m not betraying a confidence, but you mentioned Ashley Cleveland earlier and Ashley is somewhere between an acquaintance and a friend of mine and I was having dinner with her a couple of years ago—more than a couple of years ago. It was probably in the—it was definitely during the time that you were on hiatus. And I asked her, I said, “Ashley, by the way, do you know Jennifer Knapp.” And she said, “Yeah, I know her, but I haven’t seen her in awhile.”
KNAPP: Yeah, people thought I died. [Laughs]
SMITH: Well, she knew you hadn’t died. I guess almost she had been at least in some touch during that time. And it was, again, when I asked her, “Well do you think you could get me an interview with her?” And she said, “I doubt it.”
KNAPP: No, no, yeah. Like, I got a lot of people throwing some money at me, like serious zeroes at me when I was on my hiatus thinking I would come back and I just couldn’t.
SMITH: Well that’s right and I wanted to segue. That was really sort of a way of transitioning into the hiatus. You did. You left Christian music. You went on hiatus. You left the country.
KNAPP: Yeah. It’s a really great way to not have to deal with anyone anymore.
SMITH: Talk about that season. Were you trying to work things out? Were you unhappy? Did you not want to see people?
KNAPP: I quit. Like for me it was like quitting CCM cold turkey. I mean, which is funny because I think that’s the way a lot of other people outside of myself experience that. Even though like I spent the entire, like my last day, my last CCM gig was in September of 2002. And prior to that, like the previous summer in 2001 I said I’m not doing this anymore. So I didn’t book any more dates and I spent that entire next year and a half trying to clear out my calendar. Like that’s how busy it was. Like a year and a half in advance my whole life had been planned. So that year and a half I spent telling everybody I’m not going to be here anymore. I’m not going to be here anymore. Like, I’m not going to do this anymore. I don’t know why nobody believed me. Because when I packed, I just remember like latching my guitar case on that last date going, I’m not—it was just such a relief. Like I’m never gonna do this. And then everybody thought I disappeared. And I did. For me, when I latched these cases, like I will say flat out, I’d made the decision to quit because part of being on the machine in the entertainment industry and even with CCM is if you’re not working, you’re dead.
And I just didn’t want to work anymore and I needed to work out so many things. I needed to work out who I was as a human being. I needed to work out how I felt about Christianity in public. I needed to work out what I thought about my own faith and what my experience was. I needed to work out if I really wanted to be “in the public eye” or famous or any of that. So I was just like, oh wow. They were all so intertwined for me that I had to just get off the treadmill and I’m like—I couldn’t see surviving any of it. So I decided that if I was going to not do it anymore, that I had to be reconciled to quitting. And that’s what it was. So when that day came, like I absolutely thought that that was the end of my career.
SMITH: Well, I’m going to ask you a couple of what may be considered obnoxious questions. Forgive me. This is what I do for a living. You can not answer, but I reserve the right to ask. During that time, I mean, obviously you have publicly come out as gay—but later.
KNAPP: I was a late bloomer.
SMITH: Were you struggling with that then? Was that part of what your struggle was? To your friends, were you out as a lesbian or not?
KNAPP: Yeah. That’s a valid question. I think it’s fair one to ask. To be honest, I think looking back, I’m like, oh my gosh, that makes so much more sense after I reconciled that. But even using the word reconcile is the wrong word. Like, I literally had no time to know about my love life, to know about my passion, to know about how I was going to connect and unite with any other person on the planet. So what I would say is this, is that after, like, as I began to advance in my CCM career, one of the first things that got put on the back burner was me. Like my own personal life. So from the time I got in the public space, one of the things that I found out very quickly was if I had like a friendship with a male, people are going, oh, you’re having sex with him and you’re your career is suspect. I’d be like, oh, I can’t really be building relationships with men.
But it’d be the same thing with women. So I went celibate for 10 years. Like that’s what I did. And I just shut that down, which—so for me, it wasn’t until 2002 where I had to go, okay, now that have time to contemplate myself, that’s when my sexual orientation became important to me. And so that’s kinda what the hiatus was for me.
SMITH: And during that time, you were, what? You were reading, you were studying, you were getting healthy, you were working out? Were you playing any music?
KNAPP: Like I didn’t want to be a Christian anymore. I didn’t want to pray. I didn’t want to see a Bible. I didn’t want to see the inside of the church. I didn’t want to hear Christian music. I didn’t want to see musicians. Nothing.
SMITH: So what did you do?
KNAPP: I ran like mad. Like, I toured through Europe. I traveled to Europe for about six months. I ran into some medical and physical problems a few years into that that required some serious rehabilitation. Moved to Australia. I circumnavigated Australia on a four wheel drive and went to places where I would be days and days before I’d see any modern technology or people. So I just went as far away from the space as I could. And that being said, it probably took about five years of just not being obligated to do any—Like that’s the deal I made with myself. I just need to figure out if my own voice is in my head. And the work that I did was unlike anything that anyone had ever prepared me to do.
Like it wasn’t get up and fill your head with somebody else’s voice. It was get up and insist on silence, like in a very—and it wasn’t until like many years later, I was probably 2006, 2007 when I started to kind of engage and reach out a little bit more. A friend of mine suggested that I read Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out and I was like, oh wow, that’s kind of what I’ve been doing. Like this sucking in of solitude and loneliness and just kind of creating a bubble of my own solitude. Like to be able to know what was happening in my space enough. And it’s shocking to me that that took five years for me to be in that bubble of nurturing and care of myself and my person before I was rested enough to begin through reach out to other people to be able to reach out to my other friends of faith to go, man, what’s going on now?
It was almost kind of like being—like it wasn’t until about 2007 that I started even contemplating talking to other people at all about faith, to be talking—Like I started to go, well, do I really want to keep this? Like what does this mean? And I thought that I would spend that five years, like kind of relieved. Like I was trying to erase everything that had happened and that my faith didn’t matter to me and like, ah, I could leave that behind, screw it. Like everything that I disagreed with and everything that I’d ever had a problem with, I just thought I could erase off the board. And that didn’t happen. Like I couldn’t undo the fact that I’d had a significant spiritual experience in my life, but I had to kind of figure out how out of all the screwy things that had been attached to it and that includes, you know, my own motivations as well. All the things that I had attached to it and my own presuppositions. I was trying to figure out what that meant. And it took like, you know, like I said, like prior to 2007 when I started reaching out to my other friends of faith, talking about that, starting to write on my own again, and now all of a sudden, you know, when that started happening, it’s just like my guitars started calling out to me as well. And that’s just like, ah, no, what’s this going to mean? It was probably about 2008 when I started contemplating and writing for what would end up being the career 2.0.
SMITH: So you went away for five years and you came back and when you came back, you came back with music. You came back out as a lesbian.
KNAPP: Well, not quite yet.
SMITH: But soon thereafter. And you came back to a lot of controversy, right?
KNAPP: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that was one of the choices that I had to make, too, is that, I mean, I had to decide when I picked up my guitars—if I was going to pick up my guitars and play in public, I realized that this was something that I was going to have to decide what was going to happen. I’d been in a relationship with my partner for several years at that point. I had had the love and support of my family and I’d had like a taste of who I was as a human being without the public eye.
And then I also knew that part of my calling and part of my stake in life was to just to write about my life and saying, I don’t know. Well, maybe if this is my journey, then, you know, I was willing to open that up. But in order to do that, I’m like, okay, people are going to ask. And I knew that rumors are swirling around there. So it’s like, yeah, part of me—But there was a choice, I think, that most gay folks have to make regardless of whether you’re in the public or not. And I think this is a really important one, is that we do have to decide at any given point, you know, what are we going to tell people and what do we not? Because the assumption is most of the time that you’re straight until proven guilty, you know, and it’s such a bizarre situation unless you’ve been in that space to know what that feels like.
And for somebody who’s not straight and particularly inside a faith-based community, like part of me wanted to say, listen, I don’t owe you anything. If I have to come out—and it made me feel like I had to prove or justify something, which is something that ended up happening. I had to kind of run this gauntlet. But the other challenge of that is if I didn’t say anything at all, then that kind of assumed that I had a shame or embarrassment about where I was at.
SMITH: Well, let me ask you about that. Because, I mean, clearly you know that most of the folks that you ran with in your CCM days and probably a lot of folks did think that what you were doing is wrong. You said that one of the reasons you wanted to come out and be public is to say that there was no shame or embarrassment about it. How do you reconcile that theology with where you are now? Because you still claim to be a Christian and so how do you—did you just reject that understanding of sin?
KNAPP: Yeah. I mean, yeah, I don’t believe at all that homosexuality is a sin. I think at this point it’s pretty easy to Google where theologically Christians feel that that’s an erroneous theology. It’s pretty easy to Google that.
SMITH: Yeah, there’s a whole sort of subculture that’s grown up around sort of explaining what the—
KNAPP: And I wouldn’t call it a subculture, you know, I take very serious—It took me a long time to be able to say that. I mean, I was terrified for many years to feel like particularly as, you know, 10 years ago in my thirties, like what right do I have to tell my 50-year-old pastor that I don’t ascribe to that teaching and I believe even worse at that teaching is erroneous.
Like it takes a lot of courage to be able to do that. But it also takes a lot of education to do that. And I’ve educated myself on that.
SMITH: Well let me ask you a little bit about that because I found something that you—I don’t know whether you said it or you wrote it, probably that time. It says, “I am who I am.” It’s about time you came out.
SMITH: “I am who I am. If God is a god who judges and strikes people with same sex attraction, then he’s going to strike me down. This is the way I am. And now I know what it means to fear God.”
KNAPP: Yeah, that’s a pretty dated quote for me. But it’s true about the way that I felt at the time.
SMITH: Dated in that you don’t fear God, you don’t think he will judge.
KNAPP: No, there’s an element of that that’s true and not true. I mean that there’s an understanding. Let’s put the fear of God in it’s own category, like as a spiritual process by itself and not necessarily connect that with a chain link to the sexual orientation comment. Because the fear of God’s connected for me in a lot of other ways, like how much I do this or how much I do that. Like what is my liberty as a person of faith? But that was one tendril of that that taught me very much. The idea of like, how much am I going to trust God in my life? And for me, what my faith had taught me from the very beginning—long before sexual orientation for me personally became one of the points of my life that I worked out—is that, you know, at the very beginning, does God love me and under what conditions? For all the things that I’d ever done wrong for all the things that I could—And this goes back to the Kansas days. If you’re a Jen Knapp listener, all the things that I wrote about on Kansas, none of it was about my sexual orientation. It was about the fact that I had slept around, that I had sworn, that I’d hated, that I felt not loved, that I’d seen myself in the mirror and gone, no, legitimately this is screwed up. You know, I am a hot mess. Why can God love me? And I think so many ways, like Christians that we can see I don’t measure up. I hate, at times I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I don’t want to be merciful. I don’t want to be forgiving. I want that for myself. I’m completely and utterly selfish. All of those things in there, I was working that out and that to me—through that process, what I learned in those first eight to 10 years of being a Christian is I would not sacrifice that.
Like if God said for me that in my lowest state that Christ’s grace is sufficient for me than it is. I had to believe that and I spent over a decade just trying to find that before my sexual orientation ever came to that point. And at which point if I’m going to exchange that for one nuance of my plumbing or whatever sexual orientation, gender identity, I find it very hard to sacrifice that theologically because to me, the whole cookie crumbles. Either God saves me at my lowest of lows—and that’s where I kind of tie it back to the fear of God comment, where I think that’s, you know, I trust in God that I am who I am and I’m doing the best that I can on any given day.
SMITH: Well, no, I get that. And there’s much in that that I actually agree with but a part of what I’d like for you to respond to though is that how do you know that your sexual orientation as opposed to say, my sexual orientation, which is, you know, unredeemed, might be tending towards promiscuity or tending towards other kinds of behavior, how do you know that that, too, is not a sign of the fall and not something that we—God’s grace is sufficient, but it’s sufficient to redeem us from that.
KNAPP: Well, I theologically have difficulty with—or let me put it this way, I have difficulty with any theology that bases its righteousness on personhood. Okay? Like the state of who you are as a person, who you were born to be—white, male, female, black, transgender, any of those qualities that are just who you are, that those characteristics and qualities of your personhood—then become a matter of whether or not you’re righteous before God. Nah. I’m going to have a difficulty with that.
SMITH: No, I get that. But what do you do with the brokenness of the world? What do you do with sin? What is your theology of original sin, for example?
KNAPP: Right. Well, I’m not a theologian in the highest order, but, you know, I have moved on from that space. There are some things that, you know, where I grew up in an evangelical community that would have said drinking’s a sin. I’m an avid scotch lover. I have a couple of fingers of Scotch and like I think it’s a blessing and a gift from God. But does that mean I endorse drunkenness? By no means. So there are things that I can disagree with first.
SMITH: I guess my real question, Jennifer, is how do you decide? In other words, if you had, I mean, is Jennifer Knapp now the god of the universe and, you know, you make your own rules about that.
KNAPP: I think that’s a fair question. You know, I’m not afraid of experience and I’m not—I tend to be like Wesleyan a bit, the quadrilateral of faith. I think there’s a measure where we’re scripture reason, experience, and tradition factor into how I make decisions. At the same time, you know, I will quote Bishop Jean Robinson on this, I don’t believe that the Bible is all that God has to say in the universe.
SMITH: On what basis do you make a decision about whether something is right or wrong, whether something is—in other words, if you don’t accept fully the authority of scripture on these matters—
KNAPP: I get, yeah, you’ll absolutely, like, I don’t believe that scripture is errant. I think it’s—which is like, that’s along the lines of like saying that homosexuality is a sin. Like, where I come from, it’s taken a lot of time for me to go, oh no. Like I think scripture has value. I think it’s the leading sacred text for the Christian faith. And I think it is informative and useful, but I also think that there’s a problem with doing that at times. And as a divinity student at Vanderbilt University, like I don’t take lightly. This is an important space for me. And I think for many people who are at this crossroads of how they’re going to allow scripture or what to do with scripture. It’s a legitimate question. Coming from an environment that says you have to do what was written down on this page to somebody who goes, aw man, what’s written down on the page is a little bit off for the experience that I’m having and what I’m seeing theologically for the true experience that I’ve had in real life with God. You know, I can say, oh wow. And like for homosexuality as a topic, we start to see the ways that language is invaded that, history’s invaded it, misogyny has invaded it, authority has invaded that. And I’m not trying to tear it down, but what I’m trying to say is that there is a space in there that people at that crossroads need to be given the opportunity to look at that in a way that fit their conscience and is in line with being able to be allowed to make that peaceable decision and not being told just because you can’t follow that means that you are in trying to break down in authority or refuse the authority of someone else.
SMITH: Well, in the spirit of hearing you and not hearing me to refute you, let me just ask you another question though. So you don’t believe in the inerrancy of scripture. What about the resurrection? What about original sin? What about some of those other core doctrines?
KNAPP: I hope I get the lifetime to sort that out. I mean sincerely. I mean I’ve said this for many years, even when I was in the CCM days, and I can remember this shock and horror that went over some people’s faces. There are some days I don’t believe in God. Like it’s really hard. And I do at this point now enjoy the fact that I have this space, which is so funny, right? How can you say you’re a Christian if there are days that you don’t believe in God? And you should be able to say that.
SMITH: No, I get that and I respect that transparency. But I do think you’re getting at the question that I really am trying to ask you is that, how do you call yourself a Christian if you don’t believe in, you know, consistent—I mean, I get having moments of doubt, right? And I think that that if you’re a human and you don’t confess with those, then you’re probably a liar at some level. But if you consistently don’t believe in the authority of scripture as a guide for life, if you don’t believe in a bodily physical resurrection, if you don’t believe in original sin—
KNAPP: That sounds like a lot of doctrinal points of evangelical Christianity to me.
SMITH: But it’s not just evangelical Christianity. They come from the Nicene Creed. They’ve been part of Christianity—my point is, why don’t you call it Jennifer Knappism or—
KNAPP: First off, I would say please don’t. There’s no need for anyone to start a religion from where I’m at.
SMITH: But how can you be sure you haven’t done that?
KNAPP: The challenge, I think, for me and has continued to be is, first off, that’s a question that I’ve asked myself for the last 10 years. I don’t have a problem with it. You know, there are things in CCM that I feel like I endorsed that I’m actually mortified that I did. People may not agree with the things that I find mortifying.
SMITH: But you’re open to yet further growth and change?
KNAPP: Yeah. Yeah, you know, I think I’ve proven that I’m willing to run a gauntlet to be honest. And I don’t know what like, you know, I can close on this—for a lot of LGBT people of faith, it’s a horrendous thing to have to think about. Imagine to prove your faith, to be having to lose your family, to lose your community, for what? I mean, there’s no hill that I need to die on. I could just shut my mouth. I could have said, listen, oh yeah, I’m straight. I’m not, and I can’t lie about it and I won’t. And I could also say that, oh, I’m not a Christian anymore, but I still am. And it may be displeasing to other people, but the reality for a lot of LGBTQ people that have to go through this, that’s a justification that shouldn’t be there. We should be trying to figure out how is that in a positive way other than how do you reconcile that dude? And I’ll stand up for that any day. I could be wrong. I will be willing to fall flat on my face, but passionately and with every bit of integrity, I do it every single day and I’ll do it again and again.
SMITH: Well, we’ve opened a kettle of fish that we can’t fully cook, Jennifer. But you’ve been real sweet. Thank you so much for your time.
KNAPP: Thank you for having me.
SMITH: You’ve been really open and I’m just grateful for that. Thank you very much.
KNAPP: I would have been fun to get a picture of us arm wrestling. It would be super cool.
SMITH: It’s not too late. Let’s do that.