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The Price of Purity

I’ve expressed admiration for the writing of Nick Cave over the last few months. His book Faith, Hope, and Carnage was among my favourites of 2022. A few people recently asked if I had listened to the interview with him on the UnHerd podcast. I had not. So, on a lovely spring-like Easter Monday morning I threw it on my phone and went for a long walk.

I’m less impressed with Cave as an interviewee (or a musician, to be honest) than I am with him as a writer. His responses to questions often seemed elusive or vague. This was particularly the case near the end of the podcast when questions were sought from members of the audience. A few had circled around the, “Do you think you’re becoming too religious for your fans?” question (admirably, his response was basically, “I don’t really care”). One woman said, predictably, “I think we can all understand your profound religious faith, but we might have difficulty with your support for the church as a bureaucracy and an organisation.” I’ll (uncharitably) rephrase her question: “You know, Nick, it’s super cool that you’re into spirituality and even religion, but surely you can’t support the institutional church with all its historical sins?”

Cave responded thus:

I don’t want to make a case or defend the church. I can only say that there’s something about the distance travelled: from sitting there with my sceptical self, in this (possibly completely corrupt) institution, and finding that I can actually walk out of there having a transcendent moment. It’s something that I don’t get sitting in a park. I don’t get the same thing watching a sunrise.

It’s not a bad response. It’s refreshing to hear someone say that they find something in church that they don’t get in nature. But it seems to reduce a massive question—how do we, as human sinners, reconcile our personal longing for God with the imperfect institutions that represent him—to an aesthetic achievement. Yes, the church is of course terrible, but I can still push through all the oppressive clutter to have a moment. It’s almost like an act of defiance, or a strange kind of rock and roll rebellion (interestingly, at another point in the podcast Cave muses that the ultimate act of transgression these days might be to be a religious conservative). Again, as far as responses go, you could do far worse. But I couldn’t help but think you could also do better.

I had a similarly frustrated response when reading a piece by Freddie deBoer. Actually, check that, I had a much more frustrated, possibly even quite unholy rage-inducing response. deBoer was quite rightly eviscerating an article in The New Yorker called “Living in Adoption’s Emotional Aftermath.” I’ll let deBoer explain it (he does it far better than I could):

The essay is a relentless chronicle of all of the ills of adoption, why adoption is alienating and traumatic for the adopted child, how adoption scars adoptees for life, divides them from their cultures, leaves the without an identity…. Yet what MacFarquhar says in parentheses and half-sentences is the most important point of all—that adoption is inherently a response to the unavoidable tragedies of human life, a necessarily imperfect solution to very real and persistent problems.

Because MacFarquhar is dedicated to framing her story as the kind of simplistic victim narrative that has so much presence in contemporary magazine writing, reflecting on the fact that adoption is inevitable and necessary would get in the way. To the degree that adoptive parents are represented in the piece at all they’re implied to be clueless at best, indifferent and ignorant colonizers who snatch up children who aren’t theirs without caring about the consequences.

Almost entirely undiscussed is the fact that the world houses both children who need homes and loving and nurturing adults with homes to share. That’s why adoption exists. That’s always been why adoption exists. Kids need parents and parents need kids. No facile trauma narrative can change that basic arithmetic.

Now, of course I am no dispassionate observer here. As an adoptive parent, I have an obvious and quite personal skin in the game. I have heard sentiments like the ones critiqued by deBoer myself. I have heard them in Christian circles. I have been compared to a colonizer. I have heard people strongly insinuate that my wife and I are guilty of traumatizing our children and deliberately depriving them of their culture. I have heard people insist that our story, like every story, must be squeezed through the narrow (and ever narrowing) gates of victimhood, trauma, and identity.

The common thread that runs through both of these stories—through the question put to Nick Cave about the sins of the church, and through the New Yorker article’s critique of adoption—is an unwillingness to look at reality honestly, and an insistence that anything less than purity will not do. Unless the church is pure, we cannot accept that God could be truly encountered there. Because pure categories of identity and culture and clean lines between oppressors and victims must be maintained, adoption can only be inherently traumatizing. In both cases, we have a solemn duty to wag our fingers at the imperfections of the world. We must demonstrate that we are aware of the problematic nature of these institutions. This is, increasingly, thought to be our sacred charge.

And yet, in both cases, where might we go to find the purity we seek demand? Where is this pure church untainted by human limitation, wickedness, and corruption? Where are these families where identity and culture and belonging all weave harmoniously together in untroubled ways? Where is this utopia worthy of our virtues (real or, far more likely, imagined)?

There was one more thing I grumpily thought as I walked around on a lovely spring day yesterday. These questions—these demands for purity—often seem to require a certain distance from that which is deemed problematic. It’s easy to be critical of the sins of the church from the outside. You can ignore all of the inspiring, unobserved, un-hashtagged acts of goodness and mercy that happen every day. You can ignore the ways in which people of faith wrestle with the contradictions of the church (and themselves) honestly and admirably. You can close yourself off to the God who actually seems pleased to speak in and through that which is problematic. You can ignore all that is good and hopeful and true and just zero in on the sins of the church. You can remain undefiled.

And in the case of adoption, you can ignore all the ways in which real human beings struggle to love one another as well as they can in the midst of painful and confusing realities. You can ignore all the learning and self-discovery, all the sacrifices made, all the wounds that somehow, against all odds, sometimes open us up to one another. You can ignore the character of love that grows in hard places. You can ignore the ways in which sometimes families that are put together in different ways and in the midst of less than ideal circumstances can be expressions of healing and hope. You can preserve your categories of identity and victims and oppressors with no nuance or complexity allowed. You can remain undefiled.

Demanding purity asks little of us and allows us to maintain self-righteous distance. But it ends up costing more. It robs us of the opportunities to encounter God and one another more deeply and truly. Not above the fray, but in the middle of it.


Feature image info:
Man with Rooster
Vicente Manansala

The image, part of a Holy Week devotional from Biola University that a friend directed me toward this year, speaks to me of God working within and among and despite and through human imperfection

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jimmy the Kid #

    This article resonated with me. Thirteen years ago we took in a 15 year old male who no longer had a family to live with or any extended family who would take him in. It was tough for him and for us. We were Christian… he was atheist… I was not a perfect “dad”… he was not a perfect “kid”. Somehow we made it through the teenage years, and beyond. Yesterday, 13 years later, as we shared Easter dinner with him, his girlfriend and sister (and our biological family) I realized that despite all of the difficulties we have had through the years, we are family. We love him and he loves us. It was far from perfect… but it was worth it…..

    April 11, 2023
    • Thank you for sharing this story, Jimmy. It seems to me an almost sacred thing—a story that speaks honestly and yet hopefully to the possibilities that exist for those willing to wade into the fray. Your image of Easter dinner, and of family, will remain with me.

      April 12, 2023
  2. I’m not familiar with the articles you cite, but in my experience, adoptees certainly face hurdles parent-raised children don’t. To point out what these hurdles are and how they get put there could be worthwhile. I suspect that our emphasis on the biological as being the relevant genealogy is partly to blame. Living on an Ojibwa reserve, I learned that the right word for two girls, for instance, who had grown up together, bonded and become permanently close was “sister,” even though they were not biologically related. As an adult education teacher for Indigenous students later, I learned that very few could cobble together any kind of biological genealogy … while with programs like Brother’s Keeper, Grandma and genetic testing, we make biological genealogy (as opposed to spiritual, philosophical, occupational, geographical, etc. histories) a key marker of identity. That this mentality penalizes adoptees seems clear to me; how adoptive parents can counter this needs consideration.

    April 12, 2023
    • Not to be annoyingly pedantic, George, but I would resist the distinction you make between “adoptees” and “parent-raised children.” I think my kids would, too, frustrated though they may sometimes be with their parents.

      Having said that, I do agree with you that our emphasis upon biology is worth probing. There are other ways of conceiving of families. Certainly, anyone who would call themselves a Christian should insist upon this. In the biblical narrative, pure biological lineages give way to a wildly mixed family defined by God’s gracious adoption.

      April 12, 2023
      • Yes. Poor phrasing. I too was parent to an adopted child.

        April 12, 2023
      • I note the past tense of the word “was.” This cannot but point to pain of some sort. I’m very sorry, George.

        April 13, 2023
  3. Chris #

    Speaking of podcasts, I listened to the latest from Russell Moore today, an interview with Christopher Watkin (whom I’d not heard of) on having a biblical worldview. It touched on issues you are raising here, especially at the end. He notes that the quest for justice now is borrowed from Christianity itself, but without the transcendent framework of Christianity. Without transcendence, all that is left is a human power struggle; and without a belief in the final triumph of divine justice, the search for justice takes on an absolutist quality that demands perfection.

    April 13, 2023
    • Agreed, Chris.

      I think that culturally, we are are living off the ethical inheritance and resources of Christianity (even if we are often loathe to acknowledge this and are highly selective in the process). And we are observing precisely the confused power struggle and purity wars that emerge once transcendence is removed from the picture.

      April 14, 2023

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