I’m thinking back to 1999, when the woman who’d been the face of popular Christian music for two decades got a divorce.
Seventeen years and three kids into her marriage, she’d fallen for another man—country singer Vince Gill. Or as she says: “We got along like two peas in a pod and made no bones about it.”
If she was Cinderella, this was her midnight. Christian radio quit playing her music and Christian bookstores took her products off the shelves. That she kept her record deal was front page news. As far as Evangelical America was concerned—Amy Grant was canceled.
Her soon-to-be ex-husband, Gary Chapman, was out raking her over the coals for the crime of liking somebody else.
“Since the beginning of 1994, they had what I would call an inappropriate friendship, which was destructive to our marriage,” he tells People in 1999.
There were rumors of Grant and Gill being secretly married. “I guess people are so anxious to have some news that they kind of create news where there necessarily isn’t any,” she says.
And a 38-year-old woman with hardly any theological training turns to her own religion, and takes them to church.
“Let’s get real,” she tells CCM. “You want to know what my real black ugly stuff is? Go look in the mirror and everything that’s black and ugly about you, it’s the same about me. That’s what Jesus died for.”
How little we knew about the private lives of other people? Funny how that works.
A year after the divorce, Chapman, for a profile in his next career as a talk show host, gives details to Texas Monthly about the “drug habit” he’d had since age 20, doing “cocaine and marijuana” since the time he’d known his wife. “I had two distinctly different lives,” he says. “Different sets of friends, different likes, dislikes, actions, everything.”
The reporter notes that Amy, typically mum about contributing factors to the divorce, let drop “that after a lifetime of anticipation, her wedding-night deflowering wasn’t quite what she had hoped. In fact, she termed the first four months of connubial romps a ‘yawn.’”
I sit with the story of the most famous Christian marriage in the world? An addict husband, years of bad sex and counseling, living separately while she’s profoundly drawn to someone else.
And what matters to the faithful—what always matters—is the “rules.”
Grant and Chapman met in 1979 when she was a freshman at Furman University, already with one album.
He asked her out. She said no. He was a singer-songwriter, and she’d be the most gifted interpreter of his music. His song “Father’s Eyes” became the title track off her second album, and her first big hit.
Grant looked then like a girl folk singer with bushy hair. In a 1981 appearance on The P.T.L. Club, she chatters about dating, and sings “Father’s Eyes.” I have to remind myself the song was written by a man she’ll marry—
I may not be every mother’s dream for her little girl
And my face may not grace the mind of everyone in the world
It’s like Amy had stepped out of his creative imagination, the girl of his dreams. Chapman kept calling her, sending tapes of his music. In the summer of 1981 he got a spot as her opening act.
“I guess I didn’t realize he was courting,” she says. “I thought we were great friends, that’s all. He became a part of my family. They took him in because they thought he was just a companion to their little girl. It was pretty sneaky.”
In June 1982, they married. Years later, typically vague on details, she later recalls it “had been rocky from the get-go. I’d been holding steady for 15 years in something that was not easy to hold steady.”
Two years into her marriage, she knew it was in trouble? Two years down, fifteen to go. Of course she was busy—being a superstar.
“I am really striving as an artist to be relevant and to communicate,” she says in 1985 to the Washington Post. “I don’t want to cling to the past. You become a musical has-been if you keep trying to make the music what it used to be.”
As I flip through photos and interviews of her over the years, I realize how un-Christian she seems, in being dynamic and alive. In many churches, they were solemnly singing hundred year old hymns, as women didn’t speak, and their clothes were patrolled to make sure they were ‘feminine’.
By her fourth album in 1982, Age to Age, Grant was blazing her own trail.
“That album is one wild ride,” as a Christian memoir of the time recalls. And she brought the Evangelical world along with her.
However gifted a performer, it wasn’t all her doing.
With the rise of Madonna as a cultural force, riding the repressed gay subculture to white-hot stardom, even Evangelical Christianity needed to keep up—and there was Amy Grant.
She changes from folky girl to electric performer with transvestite edges, regularly wearing male clothing. Being called the ‘Christian answer to Madonna’ is part of her life, and wears on her. “I don’t guess I’m trying to be an answer to anything,” she says in 1985. “It’s kind of cheap to say, ‘Uh-oh, there’s a Madonna. There’d better be a flip side.’”
A 1985 letter to the Sacramento Bee reminds me that Madonna vs. Amy Grant was a subject of public debate. “Grant is such a welcome relief, and her lyrics provide not only an alternative to moaning and groaning, but they tell of something real, something deeper and more meaningful in life.”
Grant read as ‘spiritual’, but she was also sexual. Remarkably, in the public mind, she could be both at the same time. Religion turned around, and started going forward.
Her interviews are full of her pro-sex stance.
She comes off boy-crazy and sexually precocious. A 1985 interview in Rolling Stone was more noted for her recalling skinny-dipping in the ocean, but she also talks about how she’d gotten into the Bible study—for the boys. She goes to one to hunt down a boy she liked, and “I encountered the Bible in a way that really affected my life.”
Her idea of Jesus seems mostly to be, however, that people should get along, and be a community having ‘fun’ together.
Evangelicals were getting nervous. In 1985, Christianity Today sends a reporter to interview her pastor. “She’s not always wise in the way she says things,” the guy sighs. “She doesn’t want to be a sex symbol, but wants sex to be seen as a good thing, a godly thing.”
Her career seems like a ministry to bring sexual awareness to Christian people. “It seems to me that people who are most adamantly against premarital sex have experienced some kind of pain in their own lives,” she observes in 1985.
She advances a new idea of the Christian woman.
“I feel that a Christian young woman in the ’80s is very sexual,” she says, though “it’s never been taking my shirt off or having my tongue sticking out.”
Like Madonna, Grant’s act continues to be notably ‘queer’, as when she’s singing Rich Mullins’ gender-free and arguably gay love songs, “Doubly Good to You” and “Love of Another Kind.”
She’d say she wasn’t a religious figure. “I’m a singer, not a preacher, I’m not looking to convert anybody,” she tells the L.A. Times in 1984. But it’s theology to tell people it’s okay to be sexual, gender-bending, and fun. If the Catholic Madonna was the ‘bad cop’, Protestant Amy was the good one.
Her husband travels as part of her band.
There’s lots of talk he was jealous of her career. Some of it is from her. “It gets weird when I’m always in the forefront,” she says in 1986. When he got a recording contract, she says, that “has really been a boost for our relationship.”
The Texas Monthly profile is a portrait of a Gary Chapman who spends years simmering that his wife is selling out stadiums and he’s out with the band or the kids. He takes to performing during her intermissions, but nobody is paying attention.
“I had a lot of reasons to be angry,” he says. “I don’t think any of them were valid, but they were to me at the time. I know that I felt overlooked.”
I’m browsing Grant fan memories in newsgroups. Giving a concert in the early 1980s, Chapman was playing and coming off poorly, as the audience starts booing him. He throws down his guitar and shouts, “You’re just jealous because I’m married to Amy Grant!” And storms off stage.
The reviewer adds: “Then he hit on my friend backstage when she was trying to interview him. Told her she was ‘nice and curvy.’”
Another memory, from a concert in the mid-80s. Amy comes out at the end to take her bow. Gary comes out to take her hand, and she snatches it away.
Amy sort of suggests she wasn’t exactly in love with her husband. But that would be optional for ‘Christian marriage’.
“If I had my druthers,” she says, “I would be at home. It would suit me just being Mrs. Gary Chapman.”
But she never even appears to take her husband’s name. There was never an ‘Amy Chapman’. As hard as she tries, she keeps being herself.
“My personal feeling on love is,” she says in 1985, “if you’re with somebody long enough and have an inclination toward one another, chances are you’ll fall in love. I know there are people who meet for the first time and fall in love. A lot of times it comes from being stuck in a situation.”
By 1986, they were in therapy. His drug habit, typically concealed, spills into view. One day at home, ‘coked out of his head’, her father comes to have a talk with him. “I know what kind of problem I have,” he yells. “You might run the rest of this family, but you don’t run me!”
Amy later reflects: “When I look back on those early years, while I have some great memories, they were some of the hardest years of my life, so lonely and confusing.”
She’d considered divorce. In one difficult moment, about to pull the trigger, her sister Mimi called her out as a hypocrite — being so publicly Christian, yet acting as if God is “not big enough to help you!”
Chapman is interviewed for a 1998 cover story for CCM. The marriage, he reports, “has been a little harder than I have ever admitted. Living in her awesome shadow… has been difficult,” but he adds: “the marriage is great.”
He wasn’t involved for her Heart in Motion album in 1991. “There was a conscious decision to let her go on and make her own mistakes and chart her own course professionally, and for me to do the same,” he says.
Though he is listed, I notice, in the credits for “I Will Remember You” — a song about the difficulty of parting. I wonder if he’s writing to his wife, or to his dream of a girl, who sings to him: “Goodbye.”
There was more notice of her lead single, “Baby Baby,” as it caused an Evangelical uproar for Amy playfully dancing with a male model.
On the album cover, she’s wearing a scarlet dress. It could’ve all been clues? To a religion that wasn’t good with them.
With her 1994 album, ‘House of Love’, the scandal starts.
She had an eye on a collaborator for the title track. “I think that a part of me loved him instantly,” she’ll later tell ABC’s Primetime. Both Vince Gill’s former spouse and Amy’s current one believed her. In the gossip whirlwind which ensued there were morsels of news. Vince’s ex-wife reports finding a note in his golf bag: “I love you…Amy.”
Chapman recalls that, in late 1994, Amy tells him: “I don’t love you anymore. You’re the biggest mistake I’ve ever made . . . I’ve given my heart to another man.”
More counseling—from pastors or religious figures, not mental health professionals. A line from one sticks in her mind. “Amy, God made marriage for people. He didn’t make people for marriage. He didn’t create this institution so He could just plug people into it. He provided this so that people could enjoy each other to the fullest.”
Her 1997 album, Behind the Eyes, with tracks like “I Will Be Your Friend” and “Takes a Little Time” would be called her ‘divorce album’—as if the story was always there, in the music, before it was in the papers.
After “a lengthy state of separation under the same roof,” she’ll say, in August 1998 she tells Chapman: “I believe and trust that I’ve been released from this…”
For a final opinion, she went all the way up the feeding chain.
In 2007 she published a sort of memoir, Mosaic: Pieces of My Life So Far, which has almost nothing about her first marriage. She does recall, however, in the late ’90s, arriving to play a Billy Graham crusade, and thinking “out of respect, I felt like I needed to tell him that my life was derailing.”
She sits with Graham, the aging patriarch of Evangelicalism, and updates him on her impending divorce. She doesn’t say what he told her, except that he reminded her “God is always at work in our lives, even when we take the long way home.”
During the Christmas season in 1998, she recalls “my family knew what was coming. So I had a real sense of dread just approaching the life change of going through a divorce… It’s like slipping off a waterfall.”
To Evangelicals it was all about her “selling out,” leaving Jesus, going secular and—sexular?
Chris Williams, a Patheos blogger, recalls the talk: “Amy Grant had sold out, people exclaimed, trading in the glory of God for mainstream success. It felt like a betrayal. When she and Chapman divorced in 1999, it seemed that people’s fears had come to pass . . .”
The religion, though, was in a tight spot. She was a beloved, and mega-selling artist, probably keeping many a Christian radio station and store afloat.
For all the love of a good round of “punish the adulterous woman”—Evangelicalism had dwindling cultural resources, and maybe had to be smart? She was about the only appealing Christian in public view.
As the New York Times puts it: “Ms. Grant sold more than 22 million albums and probably did more than any other figure to put a warm and winsome public face on a growing evangelical movement often associated with anti-abortion activists, disgraced television preachers and Disney boycotts.”
In comparison, a divorced Amy looked good.
She’d describe her marriage’s end as “a devastating personal failure.” Was that enough punishment?
The religion had to think. Was it enough to gossip, keep her music off the radio awhile, or not see her CDs in stores? Did that satisfy the Bible’s illusory divorce prohibition?
An unexpected scene reminded everyone of what Amy Grant had meant to them all. The Columbine school shooting on April 20, 1999 was a profound shock about something that was actually bad. And the governor of Colorado asked if she’d sing at the memorial.
A father of one of the slain students, Grant recalls, tells her, “I’m just so glad that I’m getting to hear you sing today because my daughter really loved your music and it feels like a connection to her.”
It felt, she recalls, like “the lump in your throat is never going to go away.”
She goes back to explaining her divorce in interview after interview.
“I did the very best I could and I wound up here,” she says.
She proceeds on with another round of Christmas products, the season she’d come to own. “It’s been a long time since I felt clear-headed, and I do now,” she says in late 1999 to the Tampa Bay Times. “It came at a really high price, but evidently, it was a price worth paying.”
Chapman keeps playing the role of cheated-on husband.
“It was not God’s will that we divorced,” he says to CCM in 2000. “From my vantage point, we had one ‘irreconcilable difference’: I wanted her to stay, and she wanted to leave. Everything else, God could have reconciled.”
The same year, he re-marries, and divorces in 2007. He remarries in 2008—without much public commentary on any of that.
It seems Grant was also released from the Madonna thing. She’d drift back to her more natural vibe — a Tennessee gospel singer. A woman.
With Christian media on the prowl for remorse, she’ll do her best. She tells CCM in 2001: “There’s not a week that doesn’t go by that I don’t really cry out from the soles of my feet and just say, ‘God, let me go back. How could this have worked out differently?’”
She came to her peace about it as a Christian. “Jesus led by compassion,” she says. “No one is ever changed because of judgment. No one’s ever healed through judgment.”
There’d be scenes.
As she’d note, “because my life is so public, I got a good talking to from a lot of people.”
The wish for her penance becomes insistent. In 2002, CCM sent a young reporter, Matthew Paul Turner, to interview Grant about her new album of hymns. He arrives at her house with his editor’s ultimatum: “If she doesn’t make a public apology, then she’s not going in the magazine.”
Awkwardly, Turner explains he has to ask if she’ll apologize.
She thinks. “Do I feel sorry because my life hasn’t turned out like I thought it would,” she says, “and because of that, I have fans that feel disappointed or betrayed? Sure. I never make a decision without considering how it will affect the people in my life. Sometimes I do that to a fault.”
She thinks some more. “The hardest part for me, Matthew, was forgiving myself. But once you do, you can’t keep going back. You accept the grace and live.”
He wrote the story he wanted to write, and saw later that CCM ran a re-written version with Amy apologizing using “fabricated” quotes.
But mostly, people saw she was happy. Even in Evangelicalism, that counted for something. 🔸