By Janene Cates Putman
Janene writes: “After securing permission to record my conversation with Jennifer Knapp on October 16, 2018, I promptly dropped my phone. This led to talk of dropping babies and grown children (who, thankfully, survived me). Jennifer and I reminisced on our meeting at the Nevertheless She Preached conference in Waco, TX, in September, where Jennifer presented the opening concert and also led a workshop. By and by, we got down to the stuff of the interview.”
Here is the transcription of that conversation (lightly edited for clarity). Janene’s questions are introduced with her initials, JCP; and Jennifer Knapp’s answers are identified by her initials, JK.
Jennifer Knapp’s Background
JCP: I know your story, Jennifer, but some of our readers might not. Can you give us the Cliff’s Notes version about that?
JK: Most evangelicals describe being “raised in the church.” I didn’t have that experience at all. I was raised in the Midwest where everyone goes to church, but I didn’t get serious about my faith until I went to college. That led to my doing faith-based music, which got me in touch with the evangelical community. Most people would describe that as a conversion experience; I usually say that I definitely “drank the Kool-Aid.”
That’s me trying to balance out the resistance I have today to this idea of a dramatic conversion versus a revelation. At the same time, I don’t want to weaken the paradigm shift and the dramatic effect that revelation had in my life. One of the fun things now is really trying to dive into that concept—to preserve and elevate the experience without having it cheapened by the language.
In college, I was really into contemplating what this faith meant, and I was experiencing that through writing and performing Christian music. (After touring non-stop for years) I got really disillusioned by the evangelical experience and left that for about seven years. I came back, shook off the cloak of doing specifically Christian music, and came out as gay, which obviously is a point people like to talk about. That experience has shaped my religious experience, too. I had to contemplate and ask some hard questions: What do I really believe? What do I want that to look like? How does the context of who I am relate to my faith? What’s changeable and what’s not changeable? What is my reality? Long story short, I went through various stages of anger and rage and disappointment and somehow still maintained some kind of connection to my spiritual experience.
JCP: And that’s part of the miracle of a spiritual experience— that you’re able to live the reality of your life and who you are and still maintain that connection with something bigger than yourself.
JK: Yeah, and that’s part of my frustration with the language around a “conversion experience.” Something significant did dramatically shift in my life. Trying to make sense of that in a way that didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water taught me about what that experience was, specifically how serious I actually am about it and how much, for lack of a better term, it “stuck.” It wasn’t just a transitory experience. I didn’t, as it turns out, just “drink some Kool-Aid”; there was something transformative about that experience. Trying to find a way to articulate that transformation —in the maelstrom of traditional ideas about religious experiences that sometimes color this when we’re not “toeing the party line” or don’t look the way we’re “supposed” to— is not easy and gives people a lot to contemplate. For me, I didn’t just accept what everybody said about me because I knew that there was something significantly different and transformed in my life.
Trying to find a new way to talk about that is, I think, the experience of a lot of LGBTQ people. We haven’t given up trying to find a language that we haven’t been allowed to use. Having a heterosexual narrative played out for us for decade upon decade led us to laboring, in a positive way, to find the language that shows we’re making a seat at the table for ourselves; we haven’t just left. We keep reminding people that we’re sitting there and dining with everybody else. It’s a community of fellowship that we haven’t lost.
Bouncing Back from the Fall: Reclaiming our Created Human Worth
JCP: This leads us into talking about your workshop at Nevertheless She Preached 2018. You talked about how being in the image of God gives us inherent worth.
JK: You know, there are two things I’ve learned from my experience. The first I experienced as a woman in the church. My role as a woman inside the church was often colored by my need for salvation as it related to [the creation narratives in] Genesis – you know, it’s kind of all our fault for the Fall; that we have this amazing ability to be inherently corruptible to all humanity. We go back to the Fall to answer the question, Why do we need Jesus? Well, the answer is that all humans are bad. We don’t necessarily say it that way but that’s what we teach; we kind of say one thing and do another and it gets really confusing. So the challenge is how we talk about human beings’ absolute need of “saving.” We teach that we’re bad from birth and that we don’t have a lot of say in the matter even though we’ve got this weird thing called free will.
My next experience is what I learned as a gay person: there’s something about me that is made wrong and I’m supposed to resist the way I was created. I find that really contradictory. Our creation narrative tells us that we are created in the image of God. You know, southerners love to say, “God don’t make no junk!” We do know that there are good things about us but sometimes there’s this resistance to claim our goodness from birth; to claim that I’m NOT bad from birth, that I’m a beautiful, wonderful, amazing creation seems to lack humility and seems to threaten this idea of salvation.
There’s a distinction to be made between “we have a bad nature” and “we have the ability to make poor choices.” It’s been proven that, if you keep telling a human being she’s bad and can never amount to anything and can’t do things, it’s destructive; it’s been proven destructive. It takes the responsibility away from us to make our own decisions. It takes our sense of dignity away from us that we’re in control of our actions and behaviors and that our potential is wide-open for the good.
The point is we are able to say, “I’m going to stand up and claim my potential. I want to know what that is; I want to know my value and my worth.” The idea that we have potential and that we can do good is obviously permeated throughout all of our traditions. We push ourselves to live up to and into our potential. The challenge is going back to that narrative [that humans are born bad] and understanding what the implications of that are. It’s not bad to say, “Listen! I’m not bad! It’s not that I need salvation because I was bad from birth.” That really freaks a lot of people out.
When I know that I have potential and that I’ve made bad decisions, then all of a sudden, the lens is different. I realize that I’m responsible for my decisions. I realize that in my sin I’ve not only damaged myself—eroded something within me by my bad decisions—but I’m also eroding the hope and potential of other people as well. I can look at humans as a good thing to be treated with dignity and kindness and as if they are precious creations of God.
One of my pushes is pushing always and onward into the dignity of human beings. In the case of LGBTQ people, one of the most influential narratives has probably been, “Listen, maybe you were born gay; maybe it’s not just a choice. But now you have a choice to make because maybe God made you a little bit differently than somebody else. We’re not saying God made a mistake; we’re saying you’re making the mistake because you’re giving in to this abnormality you have.” I think that is really contradictory.
JCP: And that plays right into the narrative of being “born bad” because if you are born gay, that is yet another “badness” for you to overcome.
JK: What concerns me is that we shift the theology to blame and to focus on our anthropology–what kind of human is a good human? If we can stop making the distinctions and realize that humans are good things, we’re created good, it’s part of creation, now move on. That’s a different conversation, going from talking about what our behaviors are to talking about what we’re designed to do as human beings. It’s a shift in thought.
For me, in describing humans as a good creation, I’m saying we are born into all our potential and that what we do with our options matters. Theologically, that’s where our free will comes into play – our ability to engage with God with our choice. We understand that our lives aren’t scripted before us; we realize that we have a part to play and how we play that part is my question. It’s lifting up the idea that we have within us an ability to partner with God to do what is positive and amazing and regenerative in the world, rather than destructive in the world.
To me (the teaching that humans are “born bad”) it’s a red herring to my own sense of responsibility—it’s not my fault because I was just “born bad,” versus I do have responsibility here; I’m aware of what’s going on and I’m willing to put in the time and effort to do something about it.
JCP: In your workshop, you talked about the damaging belief that we are born bad, making the distinction between DOING something wrong and BEING wrong. That’s the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt can be a good thing when it causes you to re-evaluate what you’re doing, but shame over who you are is never a good thing as it insults your very being.
JK: Absolutely! I’m glad you understood that, and I don’t have anything to add except for, “Yeah”!
Why Do We Need Christ?
JCP: You said [in the workshop] that part of the image of God is God’s redemptive nature, that God comes to rescue a valuable human from a broken and corrupt system. It’s not that God thought you were so horrible that he had to rescue you; it’s that God knows you’re so valuable that he wanted to come get you.
JK: When we talk about the doctrine of the Fall and take away the idea that we’re bad from birth, it raises the question: Why do we need Christ? What then is salvation? What is God telling us by Jesus being in the world? What is the need for us to be in some way—whatever language we use—relieved of our sins? How do we deal with the fact that we do sin and that puts a wedge between us and God? There’s something significant there, and I don’t want to make light of it.
What I would say is that I see Jesus as a revelation. What does Jesus communicate to us? What do we see when we see Jesus in the world? We see Jesus participating with human beings. There’s the woman at the well. Her past isn’t magically erased; it still exists along with a hope and a belief that the sins of the past won’t be repeated in the future. Nothing overwhelmingly supernatural happens in that moment. You see the care and concern of God seeing her worth and saying, “This is the damage that’s been done; turn from that into this other way and come with.”
What Jesus does—when I say revelation—is gives me an understanding about the cost of my making poor choices. When I, as a good creation, do a bad thing, I can see the damage I’m causing. In Christ we see the potential of God’s goodness and the encouragement to “come with.”
Salvation as Liberation
JCP: You brought up the woman at the well in John chapter 4. Dr. Karoline Lewis was in your workshop and spoke about salvation as liberation.
JK: It absolutely is. One of the things that Christ reveals to us is that we’re not slaves to the worst of ourselves. I think that’s part of the distinction between doubling down on how bad we are and looking at the potential we have for good. We make mistakes; yes, we’re human and that’s the humbling part of it. You’re not God; get over it. Fear, I think, is part of it when I hold my head high and I stand up. I’m not going to be torn down by this—yes, those are my sins; yes, those are my mistakes. I think this is really important as an alternative to understanding who we are and who Christ is and understanding what salvation is through Christ.
It’s really important to see Christ not just as some blood on the altar of covering up our sins. I know there’s a strong theological push for sacrificial atonement. A part of God had to be brutally murdered in human flesh to show what I deserve. I’m very uncomfortable with that narrative, particularly as a woman and more so as an LGBTQ person. What does it mean to have my sins forgiven that’s different than Jesus had to die because I’m so bad?
You know it’s the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder. The idea [behind such an unspeakably horrible act] is that you can just beat somebody to death to combat “evil.” Killing is not a way to atone for sin. So when we talk about the atonement, what I want to put on the table is what Christ means as a revelation; Christ reveals my potential. Atonement is being able to see the possibility of my liberation.
The second part is being able to see that Jesus is a partner in that experience as a human being. When we look at Christ’s suffering, we see that God wasn’t afraid of our suffering nor should we expect our lives to be free from suffering. There’s still hope—Jesus was resurrected. This isn’t a death for Jesus in that eternal sense. That is one of the things I want to explore in light of what we know about our own experiences.
I’m no theological giant, and I don’t want to make any bones about that. I have wanted to rewrite the script. All of these ideas are there within the teachings of different theologians. We’re trying to understand salvation in a way that doesn’t start with us in a state of annihilation, but in a way that gives us hope for the future. We can begin to look at the cross in other ways, in ways that try to pull humanity from a destructed state and to begin to get a sense of agency in our own participation.
JCP: Oh, that is so good – “get a sense of agency in our own participation.” It circles back around to what you said about freewill and realizing the dignity of choice.
JK: You know, choice is a funny word, especially when you talk about queer people. We’d love to be able to talk on that perspective. Particularly when you talk about the Fall, oftentimes we get into this zone of the worst thing humans can do is “dirty, nasty, sexy things.” So when we talk about the potential of our agency to do good, it’s like we throw the human body and flesh under the bus, as if we can’t do good things with our bodies. The idea is that sex only passes on sin rather than sex being able to create more things that are amazing and wonderful and glorious. Sex gets a bad rap. Women’s desires get a bad rap in the Fall. Sometimes our desires are seen as a trap rather than asking, “What is the best potential for my desire?” If I’m going to have sex, how do I do that in an ethic that’s reflective of the God I know who created us with goodness and greatness?
These are the kind of reframing questions that I think feminism gives us the opportunity to engage in. LGBTQ people give us an opportunity to engage these questions. These are two of my personal zones that I call into my own theology.
I know I’m saying things differently than what I was taught. We do tend to get wrapped up in the same language— “Jesus died for our sins” and we keep drawing parallels to a sacrifice on the altar and shedding blood. I’m asking that we really look at that and ask if this is what we really mean by salvation. Are there other ways we can see a redemptive quality not only in God but in our own human potential? We know for a fact that we don’t just kill people who sin. We give them opportunities and grace comes into the picture; we offer a gateway into hope.
I’m particularly proud of these conversations when I see our community struggling with not just saying, “The sinner deserves to be punished!” or “The sinner deserves to be kicked out of the congregation!” How do we take sin seriously, how do we take our failings seriously while at the same time doing our maximum to be in line with the hope, potential, redemption in the grace and mercy Christ modeled for us? I think that’s our real challenge.
JCP: I do, too. You mentioned how you’re exploring theology. Aren’t you doing that through divinity school?
JK: Yeah, I finished up in May!
JK: I’m just now kind of recovering after the summer and am now into full-blown tour mode. It’s been nice to let the dust settle a bit (after divinity school) because it’s a mad rush learning and practicing. Then it’s fun as you start to remember the things that really stick in your craw, like the questions that are raised when you read about other people dealing with their experiences as well as reading theologians.
A Historical Perspective
One of the things I loved about divinity school is it never occurred to me that theologians throughout history have been trying to figure out what the riddle is; what is salvation? Particularly in post-War Europe in the 1940s, there was a real push against this idea that death and sacrifice were the way we should look at salvation. The consequences of human death were so great at that time that theologians thought they needed to look at salvation a different way. How do we find mercy and peace in our land knowing that the world really does have evil in it? Who do we want to be in light of that? How do we want to be in light of that?
I love being able to read theologians. It gives me permission to put my experiences with the timeliness of our shared experiences on the table – the stories of women and of people I love and of queer folk. To put our experiences into this conversation and to realize there’s something about salvation that we want to see. It’s not trying to tear apart orthodoxy; it’s trying to engage and take seriously this idea of atonement.
I also realized that when I started talking about our not being bad from birth that it tells me something about salvation. I’m looking for something that’s honest with the Gospel rather than to just keep repeating the same old lines we’ve been told. It’s stopping to say, “Wait—I’m being crushed by this theology. What language do we have that allows me to move forward?”
It’s like Karoline said, we’re moving forward in a way that doesn’t liberate us to do whatever we want but to be liberated into our highest potential. To be the creative beings that we are. To have joy, to have grace. To feel the goodness of our creation through God.
I don’t have a problem being brutal with my theology if I’ve done ill and caused negativity. I love the verse that says the one who’s been forgiven much loves much. When you see a revelation of how much better something can be when you do it in a new way, I’m never going to go back to the old way. If it works, it works. If it’s freeing and liberating, repeat it.
JCP: This phrase in your book stood out to me: “the tyranny of theology.”
JK: My gosh, I can’t believe how much you pay attention—you’re freaking me out! Yeah, it’s like I want to do good [as a child], my parents tell me to do something in a certain way and I believe them and it works. But what happens if I’m left-handed? It’s not that I’m not going to learn to write well; it’s just that I may need to go about it in a different way. Getting perspective on the different kinds of experience is not saying there isn’t truth in God’s word or that orthodoxy isn’t useful to us. But when our theology is breaking us down and we’re just holding onto a rule without understanding—that’s just so bizarre to me. I can repeat a behavior just because you tell me but it doesn’t mean that I know what I’m doing or that my intentions are clear.
I can be nice to you but it doesn’t mean that I love you. I can do all these things, but what does it mean when I love you? What will I do then, and how does that change the game? These things are significant, so that caring theology is about a different way of thinking— finding ways to know who we are created to be and how we know what our options are in this world and to release the joy of that.
It’s very difficult for me to believe that we’re just here to mechanically act out principles but to be able to engage. I think the gospel speaks to that every day of the week. Jesus wasn’t just about religion. Jesus was overwhelmingly social, overwhelmingly engaged and overwhelmingly fruitful in his relationships. That, to me, is the joy of living. I want to figure out what this means in my day-to-day life. I don’t want to know theology just so I can know something and look clever. I want to know how to work and love better in the world while I get to be here.
JCP: And that has to do with your theology. You said in the workshop that what I understand about God will show up in my practices.
JK: Yeah, and what I misunderstand about God also shows up in my practices. If I’ve got something whacked-out, it shows up. If the fruit of it is not as good as I imagined it would be, I can be honest about that. In my coming out, it was such an amazing thing to understand my own sexual orientation, such an a-ha moment then. Oh, my God, I’m this— I don’t know what “this” is or wholly how to explain it or mechanically how it works any more than I know that I’m a woman. I get up in the morning, I have the body I that I have, I have these thoughts in my head, and society calls that “woman.” OK, I don’t want to change it; I’m pretty comfortable in that, so what do I do? This is the body that I get in this life and I want to be the best version of that. When I’m not— it feels like 80% of the time —living up to my potential, I know it. They say we only use 10% of our brain power— I feel like I’m only using 10% of my life. That’s not a critique that I’m being wasteful in not using the 90%. What I want to do is build up the muscles to be able to do more because the 10% I’ve got is fucking extraordinary – life is amazing! You mean to tell me I could have MORE? That I could love more? That I could teach other people so we could do it together and learn together? These are the joys of life and sometimes the tyranny of theology keeps reminding us of how much we’re failing compared to our potential rather than anticipating the best from us.
JCP: You said in your book, “I was eager to move beyond the Christian idea of flawed humanity and get on with living my life to the full.” That’s exactly what we’re talking about here.
JK: You know, I wrote that book about four or five years ago. Here’s the fun thing: now I’ve got a little bit more muscle to talk about that thing in my heart and to understand what the consequences are when I engage that with theology (of not being “born bad). Yes, maybe I think that, but does that idea match out theologically? I feel like it does.
In the last twenty years it’s shown up in my music and I’ve always been personally pressing toward that. I always thought that was something I might be making up, just being a rebel against my own tradition, trying to figure out why I was under this burden. Now I look at what theology is telling me; that I do have potential; I am extraordinary. It’s a confirmation of that after spending twenty years willing to believe I wasn’t worthy.
A Life of Faith and Learning
JCP: One of the themes I noticed in your book was that of journey and an adventure, both in your personal life and in your faith. That’s what you just talked about. You learn better language; you learn more about who God is; you learn more about your capacity for the potential that God created.
JK: I like that you say “learn.” It makes me think about the ways that humans learn. I can sit down and read a book about car mechanics and know everything in the book but there’s something wholly different about doing that same work with my hands. I think the same holds true in our faith. I think sometimes we give experience the short rap without realizing that’s how we learn and life is a journey. I’m not going to learn it unless I have the experience to do it. Practice makes perfect; just get out there again and again and again. It’s a hope and I don’t know how to shut that down.
If we’re shutting the system down, we’re not living our lives. We’re beings who are supposed to be living and moving. My fear is, in empathy and partnership with so many people I’ve seen under the tyranny of this kind of thinking, that they’ve shut down their lives. They’ve been afraid to move, afraid to make a mistake. They’ve been on their knees more than they’ve been on their feet. The point is to get on our feet and to not be afraid of the punishment of God.
JCP: Oh, that’s so good! One of my pastor friends in Texas says that most decisions Christians make are not right or wrong; they’re right or left. We’re waiting on God to tell us what to do and God’s waiting on us to make a move.
JK: The funny thing I’ve learned in recent years about theology is that we teach a lot of things and we say a lot of things that are actually different from what we do. It’s not necessarily hypocrisy; it’s just we get in the habit of, “It sounded poetic, it sounded right” and it gets funneled down but the nuances are lost. I say that I’m a saved person and now everybody in America thinks I’m a Jesus freak, rather than understanding the whole history of my life and liberation and paradigm shift and how much I’ve discovered about love.
I’m resisting language in many ways and I’m seeking to find that language that expresses something more. At the end of the day, I don’t think what we do changes who God is, but what we say about it changes how people view God. That’s the challenge in front of every one of us who has the opportunity to talk about God.
JCP: Tell us about your foundation, Inside Out Faith.
JK: It’s my engagement with faith communities and LGBTQ—affirmation, support, inclusion inside a faith community. When I was coming back to public life ten years ago, I was really excited about never working with the church again. Strangely enough, the conversation about sexual orientation and how much of a positive role my faith has made in that has led me to re-engage. I get to go out to speak and advocate for LGBTQ people and to have conversations about why it’s important. It’s mostly an effort to show that LGBTQ people exist, are vibrant, and have been here all along and to help people tell their stories.
JCP: I love that! How can our readers learn more?
JCP: Jennifer, I’m absolutely thrilled to talk to you! I’m such a fan! I appreciate your taking this time; I know you’re on tour and busy. I’m thrilled with the holy work you’re doing. You’re out there loving God and loving people, and I appreciate that there are women like you who speak for women like me!
JK: Why, thank you very much. You give me hope that I’m actually being coherent when I speak! Have a good day and thanks for your support!