If I were to create a soundtrack for my teenage years, the contemporary Christian music of the late 1990’s would dominate the playlist, including Jennifer Knapp’s first album, Kansas, which rocked my world in more ways than one.
Here was a singer, songwriter and musician whose memorable lyrics combined biblical truth with authentic experience. One minute you were singing the declaration of Romans – “I don’t have to be condemned! Jesus saved me from the law of sin!” and the next you were in the throes of confession, asking for God’s refining fire to root out hidden sins.
Like many, I was captivated. The yearning for redemption, the beauty of a sinner’s quest for holiness, the resting in God’s gracious embrace… it was all there on Kansas, an album I still consider one of the best in Christian music.
Fast forward fifteen years and Jennifer Knapp is releasing a memoir of her life. Facing the Music tells the story of her painful childhood, her passion for music, her career in CCM, and her journey “coming out” as gay.
How to review a book like this? Do I come at it from the artistic elements of the writing? Or do I assess its theology? How does a reviewer critique someone else’s story? Is it best to cite Scriptures that contradict some of her conclusions? Or should we set Jennifer’s memoir within the larger context of evangelicalism in order to see this movement’s beauty and flaws?
All of these approaches may have merit, but I’m not convinced it’s possible to do justice to any one of these avenues. So, I’ve decided to simply offer several thoughts about the book and what we can learn from it.
Divorce is a Big Deal
Facing the Music will get press for being about homosexuality, but that aspect of Jennifer’s life doesn’t come into view until the last third of the book. This memoir is first and foremost about divorce and the unspeakable pain it creates in the hearts of little children.
The early tension of the narrative is due to the damage Jennifer’s parents’ divorce does to her sense of security. Everywhere she turns, she is haunted by the divorce and its aftermath. Being shuttled from one family to another wrecks her relationships and eventually drives a wedge into her relationship with her twin sister (who curiously is never named).
In high school, Jennifer turns to sex and alcohol in an attempt to overcome the dysfunctional family dynamic and emotional scars from being straddled between two worlds. But even as she opens up about her struggles, Jennifer doesn’t blame her problems on her family members. She doesn’t shy away from her own hurt and pain, but neither does she paper over her own selfish decisions that have caused others to suffer.
It’s no secret evangelicals are worried about gay marriage and the false message it reinforces about the true nature of marriage. But in all the attention given to the detrimental effects of redefining marriage, we must not ignore the damage caused by divorce. The children of divorce are understandably jaded by the breaking of the bonds of marriage, and Jennifer Knapp’s story is just one shard of broken glass in the aftermath of divorce’s path of destruction.
The Wacky World of Evangelical Churchlessness
Jennifer converts to Christianity while she is in college. She describes the oddity of some of her Christian friends and is both offended and charmed by their insistence on praying for her, keeping her strong, and encouraging her in her newfound faith. Even though there is a sense of warmth in how she describes her initiation into the world of Christianity, she maintains a respectable distance from some of her friends’ more fervent displays of religiosity.
What’s most intriguing about Jennifer’s rise in music and her subsequent immersion into the world of evangelicalism is that she never truly belongs to a local church. Her conversion happens in college when she is participating in a campus group, and before college is over, she’s already on the music scene, leading worship at camps and playing concerts. Like many who would say they are “spiritual, but not religious,” her experience of Christian community is largely something of her own making.
“For years, I’d adopted the ‘where two or more are gathered’ idea of church, where a strong beer and long buzzy night of hashing out my faith experience with friends in a bar was much more rewarding the feeling like a Sunday morning disappointment.”
The evangelical stage of Knapp’s journey is about seeing lots of church culture without ever belonging to one particular congregation. And not surprisingly, during this phase the wackiness of evangelicalism is on full display. She recoils from the scare tactics used to manipulate conversion decisions. She resists the expectations foisted upon her by well-meaning evangelicals who see musicians as church leaders and de facto theologians. And she is drained by the churches and Christians she serves with her music.
When Experience Trumps Everything Else
What becomes clearer and clearer as the narrative progresses is that Jennifer Knapp was never comfortable with the teachings of Scripture that counter contemporary sensibilities. For example, she never believed Jesus is the only way to salvation. Although she expresses gratitude for the compassion she has experienced through Christ, she never ceases to see Him as merely a way to the divine. Her personal faith journey is not a story of repentance and adherence to Christian truth but of quelling her own inner turmoil, learning to be at peace with God and with herself, no longer humiliated by imperfections and hounded by pressure to conform.
The longer she stayed in evangelical circles, the more she felt the tension of inconsistency. “Everyone around me seemed to travel in only one direction, toward a conservative school of religious thought, hyperfocused on Jesus,” she writes. There are worse things than can be said of evangelicals than that we’re “hyperfocused on Jesus,” but it’s clear from the narrative that for Jennifer, evangelical beliefs about Jesus were too extreme and threatened her own self-expression. Knapp’s Jesus is a means to personal peace, not an end in Himself.
Likewise, Jennifer sees faith as deeply personal with something of an untouchable quality. For this reason, one’s faith is beyond the ability to be criticized or questioned. She writes:
“One might argue that I had lost my religion, but no one could take away my faith. I struggled (and still do) with the language of how to express the inner, holy, transformative experience I had when I decided to follow Jesus. This kind of following is an act of faith that is different from belief. Beliefs are the certainties you’re encouraged to hold about Jesus so that you can stay a voting member in your church, but faith is the thing that changes the human heart.”
In this paragraph, we see both the beauty and flaw of pop evangelicalism. The beautiful emphasis on personal experience with God runs into the rocks of orthodox beliefs about who this God is. Many evangelicals would like to hold onto both, but when experiential faith and doctrinal belief come into conflict, experience often wins. Within this framework, reading Scripture is simply another means to a personal goal, and experience becomes the arbiter of truth. The Bible is no longer the authoritative interpreter of our experiences; our experiences are the authoritative interpreter of Scripture.
Eventually, the grinding tours and recording schedule leave Knapp fatigued and weary – emotionally and physically. So, she walks away from it all. For seven years, she disappears from the music scene. During her time away, she falls in love with her manager, travels across Europe, and moves to Australia.
The end of the book is about her return to the music scene. She no longer sings about Jesus, but about her journey of self-discovery and her willingness to reject society’s constraints and embrace the person she was meant to be. Jennifer never tries to make a biblical case for same-sex relationships; she doesn’t need to. What the Bible says is not the most important thing. Instead, compassion is about listening to others’ stories and recounting our experiences, affirming one another in our journey. Affirmation and companionship is the way of love, of life, of grace.
Most of my CDs from the late 1990s and early 2000s are in a box in our laundry room collecting dust. Jennifer Knapp’s music is an exception. Today, whenever I listen to “Whole Again” or “Undo Me” or the spine-tingling “Martyrs and Thieves,” I’m sad.
Sad because of the painful choices Jennifer’s parents made in the name of “self-discovery” and “self-expression” that led to harmful repercussions in the lives of their children.
Sad because evangelicalism’s lack of ecclesiology and reliance on experience has led to so many strange and harmful expressions of faith.
Sad because even though Jennifer had the integrity to be honest about her life rather than continue to make money under false pretenses, she received ridicule and insults from Christians she once wrote for.
Sad because of the way faith gets privatized to the point that the exclusive Savior’s inclusive call to repentance seems too narrow a road to freedom.
Sad because evangelicals are so quick to catapult converts into the limelight before they’ve had time to grow in wisdom and truth.
Sad because of the pain many of our gay and lesbian neighbors have endured within a church culture that calls sinners to repentance but not the self-righteous.
Sad because, apart from affirming her sexuality, I can’t see any way that Jennifer would think someone could love her.
Sad because many Christians find it easier to love positions rather than people, while others believe it is impossible to love people without adopting their position.
One song on Kansas stands out to me. It’s one of the few that Jennifer didn’t write, but the words echo in my heart and become a prayer – not only for my own sinful heart, but maybe again for hers as well:
Lord, come with Your fire,
burn my desires,
Lord, my will has deceived me,
please come and free me,
come rescue this child.
For I long to be reconciled to You.