I was 17 years old when I left the comfortable confines of my white-suburban upbringing to head south 400 miles to…another comfortable white-suburban town. The City of Irvine, California, a small suburb deep behind the uber conservative Orange Curtain would be my home for the next four years. On the seven hour drive south I could barely contain my excitement. It was an excitement not because I was leaving my family, who I adored, or because of the typical teenage glee at the prospect of college freedom and debauchery, but because in a few days, after my parents had finished helping me unload my precious belongs (which, at the time, really only applied to the Sony stereo I was able to procure for free thanks to my father’s company’s “Safety Awards”) into my tiny closet of a dorm room (I would later find out that my roommate and I had the smallest dorm room on campus), that I would finally be able to run. College was a chance to reinvent myself. No longer confined to the person not that I actually was, but who my family and my schoolmates, who I had known since second grade, perceived me to be. Their perception was my prison for 17 years and when all you want is to be at worst, invisible, and at best, accepted, you abide by the unspoken rules and customs of your prison for pure survival even if it eats away at you on a daily basis.
I was the good kid. I never argued with my father. I did my chores. I cooked dinner for my family. I arrived at practice early to set up the nets. I smiled and laughed easily. I was smart enough to be accepted by the nerds but not threaten the jocks. I was able to navigate my adolescence so that if you were to ask my high school classmates about me now you would get either a “Who?” or a “Oh yeah. She was nice!” Believe me. This was success.
But I knew who I was. And I was well aware of the echoing chasm between everyone else’s perception and my reality. And so, with the giddyness of a four-year old kid on Christmas morning, I went off to college knowing that, at a minimum, I was free to start over.
As it turns out, my dorm, Mirkwood (yes, the dorms at Irvine are named after Lord of the Rings, which was nerdy in 1995, cool in 2004, and now just pathetic) had a really large Christian contingent. Don’t get me wrong, we still had our fair share of porn running on the community television set in the living room at all times and a lot of pot, beer, and loud sex at all hours of the night. As “the real me” wasn’t all that into the porn, pot, and beer, I just happen to fall into the Christian kids. We had good clean fun and they didn’t seem like the Bible thumpers that I imagined. They listened to the same music I listened to (well, almost) and they seemed…happy.
All I wanted was to be happy.
UC Irvine is a commuter school. Upwards of 80% of the students are from Southern California. A regular Friday afternoon saw student after student slinging their laundry over their shoulders as they headed to their cars and braved the traffic to get home for the weekend. My dorm was no different. While housing 60 people during the week, on weekends the numbers dwindled to closer to 20. The campus on the whole was a ghost town.
I can’t remember the first time I went to church. I can only assume that one of my dormmates invited me and I didn’t have anything better to do on a Sunday morning. Why not? I was raised in a fairly agnostic household. We never talked about God or religion. To the extent that religion was a part of my life it was simply cultural. When I asked my parents why I was lighting incense and bowing before a tall, deep red altar that had fruit, fried rice, and pictures of my grandmother resting atop a red table runner, they told me I was honoring my ancestors. I should feel free to tell my ancestors whatever I wanted. So I did. I never knew my grandfather so I always prayed to my grandmother. And my prayers always began like this:
“Um. Hey Grandma. Um. I don’t know if you can hear me, but….”
It always felt awkward. I don’t think I ever really believed she could hear me. But there was a comfort in it, I suppose.
I would continue to go to church every week with my friends. It was pure fellowship at first. The people were nice, they weren’t saying crazy things, and there were little life lessons you could take away from the sermons if you chose to take the God part out of it. “Be kind.” “Be selfless.” “Think of others.” Shit, sure. I can get on board with this.
After the first few months I drove myself to the local Barnes & Noble and bought a Bible. I was curious. I had never read the text and I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about. I very distinctly remember sitting in the aisles flipping through each brand, translation, application, whatever. “How the hell am I supposed to know which Bible to get?” Eventually I settled on the NIV New Student Bible. “Uh, well. I’m a student. So I guess this will work.”
Literally. That was my rationale.
I would read that bible from front to back as though it was “On Liberty” (I was a Poli Sci major). I highlighted it. I went over it. I put question marks in the margins. As I became more engrossed in my study I started going to college fellowship meetings with my dormmates. A “college fellowship” is just a fancy spiritual way of saying “church club meeting.” What kept me coming back to the fellowship meetings each week was the music. I loved it. I loved singing along in unison with other people. I loved watching the worship leaders sing with such passion. I loved seeing people be moved. It moved me. My curiosity grew.
In the Spring of 1996 the Christian groups and local churches organized an “Outreach Week”. It was week wherein the groups would put together community events on campus in an attempt to evangelize and spread the Gospel. Most of the time these events involved giving out free food to college students, which as we know, will pretty much (1) draw college students regardless of the event and (2) make college students do anything. I often wonder how many devout Christians gave up their soul in exchange for a cold soggy slice of vegetarian pizza.
The week culminated in a “Praise Night,” which was a night open to the university community to come, sing worship songs, listen to a message, and watch some skits. I remember running late to that night. I don’t remember why. My friends were already seated by the time I got there so I snuck in to the back of the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall (oh, irony) and sat in the back row. I had missed the worship and the message but I was just in time for the skit. The skit had no dialogue but it was scored to wordless music. As it started I was immediately bored. My cynical self kept thinking “Really? They think shit like this is effective? Do they take us for idiots?”
But as the skit unfolded I stiffened and sat up in rapt attention. There were five storylines. Each involved a person doing something (seriously, I don’t remember what exactly they did) that constituted something “sinful” that left them “broken”. I use “airquotes” because these terms have a more loaded meaning in Christian parlance than in the secular. But they were all doing shitty stuff and Jesus would calmly walk up to them and try and convince them not to. But they all ignored him in different ways. By the end of the skit each one of the five had literally nailed Jesus to the cross. Two in the feet, two in each hand, and one put the crown of thorns on his head. After Jesus died they all realized what they had done and they felt immense shame. But then Jesus, after being resurrected, came back down. And he went to those five people in an attempt to show himself to them and show them he still loved them. They literally pushed him away, but he persisted until finally each one of them crumpled into his arms.
I left before the sketch ended. I literally ran.
I walked quickly back to my dorm room. I cried the whole way home. I chastised myself. I didn’t know what was going on but I knew that I felt like either screaming into the heavens, punching a wall, or crumpling down into the grass in the fetal position. I got back to my dorm room I grabbed my Bible and ran down to my car. It was the only place I new I could be alone. It was 10pm.
I would sit in my car for 8 hours.
I remember so many thoughts and emotions running through me for those 8 hours. I knew that I hated myself. The depths of my self-loathing would only lead to a tragic end. I knew that. I had known that for years. I felt inadequate. Not a good enough daughter, not a good enough sister, not a good enough anything. I had known that for years, too. I felt unloved. This was no one’s fault but my own. I had no reason to feel this way. I came from a loving family and I had a sister who looked up to me. None of that changed the way I felt.
But worst of all, I felt like I deserved to feel the way I felt. I deserved to feel hated, inadequate, and unloved. Over the course of 18 years I had come to convince myself that this was my lot. I had lived with these feelings for so long. I had dealt with them. I had managed them. But on that night, that warm Spring night, I felt overwhelmed by them.
And so I cried. I sat in the faded tan leather seat of my 1987 white Acura Legend, and I cried. Hard. I violently punched and kicked my dashboard and steering as though convinced that I could physically bust myself out of this hell. By the dim light of my cockpit light I flipped through my Bible. I read the highlighted passages that gave me hope and comfort. And I read the penciled gray bracketed verses that I questioned.
Only stupid people believe in God, I told myself. You have to be dumb to believe this shit. Because it makes no sense. God loved us so much he sent his one and only Son down to earth to die for our sins? And the dude was resurrected? Please. I’m no moron. I’m an intelligent, rational, practical person. Unless this supernatural story could be explained to me in irrefutable scientific terms, I wasn’t buying it.
But I wanted it to be true. I yearned for it to be true. I needed so badly to feel unconditional love and acceptance because it was a feeling I had never known.
Eight hours later, I was tired. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I wanted so badly to make sense of things. I tried so hard to believe but my mind simply refused to go there. My heart and my head, in constant struggle for years, were at an impasse.
So I turned on my stereo to play a mixed tape a friend had given me. And as the sun began to peek out over the eucalyptus trees that lined the parking lot, I heard this:
“Trust in the Lord with all of your heart
Lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your life straight
Don’t worry about tomorrow, He’s got it under control
Just trust in the Lord with all your heart and he will carry you through.
Lord, sometimes it gets so tough to keep my eyes on you when things are going rough.
Then I turn my eyes up to the sky and I hear your voice and it says to me…”
And so I did. I sat in my car alone, I put my head against my steering wheel, and I cried a quiet prayer, accepting Christ.
I didn’t tell anyone for weeks. To me, my experience and my Christian life was between me and God. I didn’t become a Christian because of other Christians. I didn’t become a Christian because I thought I would be perceived as a better person or for some sort of pat on the back. This was my thing, it was private, and in order to adequately explain it to anyone would require me to divulge some of my deepest, darkest thoughts to my friends and family. I wasn’t ready to do that.
But I felt changed. I felt a newfound sense of calmness. Of security. Friends and family, who had not known I had become a Christian, noticed. I was less angry. I carried with me a sense of peace that had not been noticeable before. But even with all that, I still struggled with how I felt about myself. And I struggled intellectually and emotionally with how God felt about me. But I never felt comfortable talking to anyone about it. “Everyone else is so happy all the time. Why drag them down?” I thought.
One day I was at my favorite Christian bookstore in Lake Forest browsing the music aisle. I had come in search of Christian music that wasn’t just faith based but also, well, good. Because let’s face it, 99% of Christian music is just bad music. I had two favorite Christian bands at the time: Jars of Clay (of “Flood” fame) and Sixpence None The Richer (who would later be known for that damn “Kiss Me” song from “She’s All That”). I had just started to become involved with the worship team at my fellowship so I was learning how to play acoustic guitar. That’s when I saw this:
Huh. A chick who’s not all dolled up to look “churchy” with a guitar strap. Interesting. I walked over to pick up the CD (hey! Remember CDs???) and turned onto the back. There, next to the track listing, was the picture of the head of Taylor acoustic guitar. I. Love. Taylor. Guitars. So wait, it was a non-churchy chick playing a Taylor? Here’s my $15, too-nice-to-be-normal Church Lady. Sold.
To this day I can’t talk about that album without getting emotional or tearing up. It changed everything. Finally. Finally I heard someone sing and say the words that were in my heart and my head that I could never articulate. Finally I felt like there was a kindred spirit out there who saw God the same way I did. Finally, I didn’t feel like something was wrong with me because I had dark thoughts. Finally, I had someone to…talk to.
Have I labored all for nothing. Trying to make it on my own.
Fear to reach out to the hand of one who understands me, say I’d rather be here all alone.
It’s all my fault I sit and wallow in seclusion. As if I had no hope at all, I guess truth becomes you I have seen it all in motion Pride comes before the fall.
Can I offer up this simple prayer. Pray it finds a simple ear. A scratch in your infinite time.
Not withstanding my fallings not withstanding my crime!
I am wanting, needing, guilty and greedy
Unrighteous, unholy; undo me. Undo me!
But it was one song. One song that tore into my heart and articulated exactly what I wanted to say but didn’t have the words. It is a song that I sing to this day despite the fact that I haven’t gone to church in 10 years. It was a song about Mary Magdalene:
From glass alabaster she poured out the depths of her soul.
O foot of Christ would you wait if her harlotries known?
Falls a tear to darken the dirt.
Of humblest offerings to forgive the hurt.
She is strong enough to stand in your love, I can hear her say…
I am weak.
I am poor.
But Lord I’m yours.
Hold me now
Let he without sin cast the first stone if you will.
To say that my bride isn’t worth half the blood that I’ve spilled.
Point your finger and laugh if you choose to say my beloved is borrowed and used
She is strong enough to stand in my love, I can hear her say…
That song saved me. Whenever I doubted my faith. Whenever I was angry. Whenever I felt unworthy of even taking a breath, I sang this song. I sang it as loudly as I could, my voice soaring to the heavens as though throwing up a rope for someone to save me from the dark cavernous holes I repeatedly dug for myself.
Jen’s songs helped me explore my own thoughts and brought me to a fuller understanding of God’s love for me. That he could love me, little old broken me who had fucked up more than anyone would ever know. That he loved me unconditionally both in spite of and because of my brokenness. It was a soul-shattering revelation that I still live with today.
Coincidentally, right as I had stopped going to church for reasons that aren’t particularly relevant here, Jen disappeared. No one knew where she was. Deep down I knew why. No one could sing these songs about brokenness and grace so honestly and so truly unless she herself were going through something. I had a hunch she was gay. It was the missing piece of her story that would make everything make sense to me.
For the last seven years I still wondered what she was doing. Not because I missed her music or because I wondered if she would ever come back to it, but because I just wanted to know that she was ok. Through her music (I had never met her) I had come to see her as my friend and I just wanted to make sure my friend was ok. I grew into the habit of Googling her name every few months for clues but nothing came up.
And then a few months ago, my Googling finally got a hit. She was back. She was putting out a new album. And when I read that at 4am on a random weeknight, I literally let out a shriek. As I perused her new website I noticed that the tone had changed. There were no references in her bio about her faith. “Dude. Totally gay,” I thought. You don’t come back to rebuild a music career and ignore your devout and loyal fan base. People in the secular community don’t understand how huge Jen Knapp was. She sold more albums than some of my favorite bands, like Arcade Fire or Sleater-Kinney. Grammy nominations, Dove Awards (the Christian music Grammys, if you will), Gold albums, and sell-out crowds. Jen wasn’t courting this crowd anymore.
Of course the announcement came. And my reaction was one of simple relief. I watched her Larry King interview and thought “Good for you.” She came out in the way I would expect: fearlessly, honestly, and humbly. In a way, I was simply proud of my friend, Jen Knapp, for continuing to live her life with integrity.
A few weeks ago I got a chance to see Jen at a small bar in San Francisco. As the overtly Christian opening acts played, I literally started sweating like a whore in church. Because it felt like church. It was the whitest concert crowd I’ve experienced in San Francisco. They all clapped along to the opening acts as though there were singing gospel songs. Some even raised their hands to the sky as though it were a worship session. I of course reacted by drinking fairly heavily. Everyone rebels in their own way.
By the time Jen took the stage I was standing against the bar, being plied by free beer and liquor after befriending the bartender. The grin that formed on my face as my diminutive idol took the stage with nothing but her sunburst Taylor guitar was embarrassing and possibly a bit creepy. When she sang her new songs of freedom I bopped my head and beamed. I just felt so proud of her. And when she sang her older faith-based songs I sang. I sang loudly. I was just so happy. So happy that I inadvertently bought her a drink. Long story.
But I was so happy. And drunk. But mostly happy. I think.
After her set she came out and chatted up the 20 or so stragglers that hung out to talk to her. I wasn’t part of that crowd. Because that’s not what you do with your friend. You don’t stand there and talk to them with a bunch of strangers. It felt awkward. Prior to the show I had written her a card, having been reminded by another idol, Carrie Brownstein, how much those cards can mean to the artist and how much they can mean to the fan. The card was simple. In my own self-deprecating way, I simply told her “Thank you.” As I stood outside in the cold waiting for her to come outside, I realized I had my Miranda July book, which I was still reading and loving. I pulled the book out and slipped the card inside.
When she finally came out and I walked (or ran, I don’t remember) up to her, thanked her for the show, and told her I had a card a book I wanted to give to her. She unzipped her guitar case and told me to slip it in. I did, thanked her again, told her to have a good time in Portland (where they were headed), shook her hand, and walked away. In my head I berated myself.
“Why the hell did you give her a book? That’s so weird. What in the world compelled you to do that?”
“I don’t know. Because that’s what friends do.”
Jen Knapp saved my life. I can’t overstate it. She really did. Through her songs and her example she taught me what God’s grace truly means. What it means to have the courage to accept it. What it means to have the courage to forgive yourself and to love yourself. And most importantly, she was one in a long line of idols who taught me that above all else, live honestly. Live with integrity. Live without apology.
Here’s a video of Jen from what I guess to be around 1999. I hadn’t seen this video before tonight. While she had a much rougher life than I ever had, you can see that we share a lot of the same issues of self-worth, self-doubt, and never feeling “enough”:
Here’s Jen with one of the songs I quoted above:
Here’s one of her new songs. I’ve been listening to this a lot.