Review of “The Spirit of Adoption”

Review of The Spirit of Adoption: Writers on Religion, Adoption, Faith, and More, ed. Melanie Springer Mock, Martha Kalnin Diede, and Jeremiah Webster (Eugene: Cascade, 2014).

When my husband and I were preparing to adopt our son about ten years ago, we responded as graduate students do—we read a lot of books. Why talk to real live human beings when you can get it all boiled down, analyzed, and abundantly footnoted in a bound set of pages? Well, we did talk to real people too, but a not insignificant chunk of time was spent perusing the literature out there, from psychological perspectives on the phenomenon of being an adoptee to the process of becoming an interracial family to theological explorations of the motif of adoption.

This last one, of course, ended up reaching beyond my family life and into my vocation. I made a number of remarkable discoveries, like the fact that John the Baptist—biblically speaking, the last person conceived and born before Jesus—was also the last miracle baby given to the infertile, and from here on out all “adoptions” are into the church. That God is the “natural” Father of Jesus but the adoptive Father of all the baptized. That the church is not built around blood ties or ethnic ties (strong Lutheran feelings about being German or Norwegian or whatever notwithstanding) but on ingrafting into genetically different stock. Theology got scared off adoption imagery because of the heresy of Adoptionism (basically, that Jesus wasn’t divine until his baptism when God “adopted” him through a bestowal of the Spirit), but you can hardly make sense of the New Testament or the mission to the nations without it.

The literature, like any, is good, bad, and indifferent. But my eye was certainly caught when I saw a new collection out on the market: a collection of personal essays by persons of faith, The Spirit of Adoption. Rather than being a direct exegesis or application of adoptive motifs in the Bible, these essays—when and if they do range into the theological—are highly personal accounts of how these biblical motifs worked out in individuals lives and families. Testimonies, in a word; living test cases for how the Scripture is interpreted and expressed by believers in varying circumstances, and here the common thread is adoption.

The range of perspectives is quite good. Adoptive parents lead the pack—including a particularly unusual and impressive story of the person who was the first to adopt a child in Turkey as a man, as a single person, as a foreigner, and as a Christian, and all because some friends simply informed him that a birthmother had chosen him! Adoptive children have their say as well, some reporting an easy time accepting and processing their family realities, others confessing to how seriously and painfully they struggled. There are a handful of birthmother stories, too, a good corrective to what appears to have been a longstanding urge to hush them up as the “fallen women” whose sin has to be covered over by heroic adoptive parents. Unfortunately, though probably not surprisingly, birthfathers are absent from this collection. They tend to be forgotten where both accolades and blame are spoken.

I gather from some of the comments and the institutions or schools with which many of the authors are associated that the writers and their imagined audience veers toward the Evangelical with a distinct Nazarene/Holiness presence. So, accordingly, several of the writers emphasize that adoption is not first and foremost a missionary strategy—i.e., rescuing colored babies from the heathen religions into which they were born and would certainly perish in damnation if not otherwise removed by adoption. If there are some who actually think that, then I’m glad someone is making the effort to persuade them otherwise. More interestingly for the LF audience, one of the recurring themes is how the adoptive parents came to realize through adoption that it’s not they who choose God but God who chooses them. The adoption experience and its corresponding New Testament images don’t allow for a decision-oriented soteriology.

Adoptive parents apart from God don’t get much air time in the Bible. There’s Pharaoh’s daughter, but other than the sheer fact of adopting Moses we never hear anything else about her. Eli raises young Samuel but hardly seems like an exemplary figure, especially with his ill-behaved biological sons. Joseph heroically decides to stand by Mary and the infant Jesus but other than the lost-in-Jerusalem episode you never here another thing about him. To me, by far the most disturbing story is Solomon’s famous judgment over the two mothers, the implicit point being that the “adoptive” mother of the living baby would be glad to see it die while the “real” (=biological) mother would rather lose it to another woman than let that happen. Any adoptive parent will happily testify that we would fight tigers barehanded for our children, just like biological parents.

Happily, though, one of the contributors to this collection found an ideal adoptive parent in the Bible after all—Mordecai, Esther’s older relative. He keeps an eye on her throughout and remains her refuge and confidant. They even maintain a relationship into her adulthood. There is a blood tie, to be sure, but that’s not uncommon in the world of adoption; taking in distant relatives is probably one of the oldest and still widely practiced forms of adoption. The point is, birth does not make the church, and birth need not be the only way to make a family. Adoptive families and birthparents of adoptive children will find much comfort and insight in this book, and those of strictly biological families will have their horizons expanded and enriched for the good of the church and the kingdom.

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