NPR and CCM: Don’t ask, don’t tell

For GetReligion readers who happen to follow the niche music market known as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), there really isn’t much new information to share about the life and career of the lesbian singer-songwriter Jennifer Knapp. Her decision to publicly out herself cost her lots of fans and made her some new fans.

That all happened about a decade ago.

However, it takes time for events in evangelical culture to reach National Public Radio. Thus, there has been a new-old NPR story about Knapp that is reaching lots of new listeners.

It opens like this:

Many Christian denominations denounce homosexuality as a sin. As a result, gay Christian singers, songwriters and musicians face a challenge in balancing their art, their sexuality and their faith. For those few who have decided to come out, it has meant giving up successful careers.

In the first sentence, I have trouble with the word “many” and the word “denounce.” Actually, very few church hierarchies have rejected centuries of Christian doctrine that sex outside of marriage is a sin — so “many” is rather weak, even if we are speaking in the present tense. For example, the overwhelming majority of Anglican believers would fall into the traditional camp on this issue, even now.

Meanwhile, “denounce” could more accurately be stated as “teach,” since very few mainstream Catholic, Orthodox or evangelical bodies publicly emphasize this issue, unless challenged in the public square. The norm today is to teach that acts of same-gender sex are sins, the same as legions of other sins that tempt human beings in a sinful, fallen world.

The point, of course, is that NPR is wrestling with editorial issues in the very first sentence. This is a hot-button topics, one in which a wide variety of beliefs must be taken seriously.

However, this is not the main point that must be made about this particular report.

You see there is a side of the story that is completely missing — religion.

The story is, essentially, about how a religious subculture (CCM) has decided to reject gay, lesbian and bisexual musicians who are open about their faith and their sex lives. The story tells us nothing about the religious beliefs and church lives of Knapp and the other musicians included in the story. Zippo.

Instead, we get this kind of vague information.

Seven years later, Knapp reemerged, no longer self-identified as a Christian artist — instead, she was a folk-rock musician, a person of faith and a lesbian. Knapp says that even after all that time, she still had doubts about coming forward.

“It made me very hesitant to get back up into the public level, knowing that there would be discussion about my sexuality on the whole,” she says.

“Person of faith” is the key, of course. There is no particular faith that Knapp was once a part of and there is no particular faith that she is a part of now. So readers/listeners have no idea what she used to believe, what she no longer believes and what she now believes — other than the fact that she rejects traditional Christian doctrines on sexuality. In fact, the story doesn’t even deal with another issue, which is whether Knapp is sexually active outside of traditional marriage (which is what orthodox — small “o” — Christian doctrines actually teach is sinful behavior).

Was Knapp a Southern Baptist and now she is, oh, a member of an oldline Protestant body that has modernized Christian doctrines on this topic? Has she dropped out of church and chosen to walk alone? Does she have a new set of Christian fans, even progressive evangelicals, who are drawn to her new music?

In other words, what role does religion actually play in this story, for Knapp, for other LGBT artists, for executives in the CCM industry, for fans, etc.?

I guess NPR, when it comes to facts about religion, sex and CCM, has decided not to ask and not to tell.

Editor’s note: Comments bashing either NPR or the Christian faith (liberal or conservative branches) will be deleted. Stick to the journalism issues in this post, issues such as accuracy, fairness and balance.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: For example, the overwhelming majority of Anglican believers would fall into the traditional camp on this issue, even now.

    That may be true (I haven’t seen any polling data on the issue), but it’s also misleading, because you fail to note that the current head of the Anglican Communion falls into the opposite camp. I think his opinion is more relevant than that of ‘the average believer’, though of course it isn’t dispositive.

  • Bethany

    When she first came back, Christianity Today did an interview with her that covered this story pretty well, in my opinion. They pretty much let her talk. When I read it, I did not get the impression that she was trying to come back to CCM, or that she had been run out of the industry. And according to her, the departure was not just about sexuality.

    On a personal note, I discovered her music while she was on hiatus, and loved it. When she came back like this, I just felt sad. She is a talented musician and lyricist, and of course it is sad to see people leave the faith.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I would also say that the opening sentances involve a switching of terms. Most Christians are very clear that it is sexual acts between people of the same gender that are condemned (and usually no more than any other sexual act outside the bounds of marriage). Yet the current way homosexual is used by many includes anyone who has inclinations towards same-gender attraction, whether or not any sex acts are ever actually done with people of the same gender.

  • Aimee

    Good points all – reflective I think of a desire to avoid the thornier issues of faith, but resulting in a less edifying read. Knapp performed for NuWine Press: The all-inclusive and lgbt-affifming voice of independent publishing at the launch party for their first book “RAW: A poetic Journey” which is an anthology of poetry from LGBT Christians and friends. @Bethany, she certainly hasn’t left the faith, you can here her talk about her faith here:

  • RenegadePilgrim

    @Bethany Jennifer has been quite clear in many interviews, when asked, that she is still a person of faith, but has not found a “spiritual home” so to speak. As for whether she is in a relationship with someone, she is. She has been for quite some time, however, she doesn’t tend to talk about her partner much. This is true of a lot of LGBT musicians, including my personal favorite, Brandi Carlile.

    I think NPR was a little slow to the game because they don’t exactly follow what is going on in the CCM industry. If they did, then they would have also noted that Ray Boltz, who was a much bigger name in CCM, came out several years ago. To come out as LGBT in CCM is a death sentence to your career.

    I’m a huge fan of JK and am glad she is back making music. It sucks that she has to start from scratch and a lot has changed in the music biz, so I look forward to hearing her grow her fanbase again, this time, focussing on the music.

  • C. Wingate

    I note that in the longish CT interview, they never get around to asking where she goes to church either. There’s only so much effort I’m willing to put into this, but I see not a single case where her church affiliation is touched upon. So unless you want to rag on, well, pretty much everyone, I don’t think that NPR is that out of line on this.

  • Brett

    So unless you want to rag on, well, pretty much everyone, I don’t think that NPR is that out of line on this.

    Maybe so. But I’m paying for NPR, so I want their product to better the standards set by everyone else.

  • Bern

    Actually it would be terrific if ANY media–mainstream, public, or Christian-affiliated–would do a meaningful look at the layers and depths and nuances of the meaning of being an glbt Christian AND how various denominations (not the ranters) address this reality. I have no links to offer, just my own impresson that at times there is a very porous line between the loving the sinner and hating the sin.