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Ramon Presson thought he was fine with his parents’ divorce, until he had to play Jesus at vacation Bible school when he was in second grade. This was the childhood memory he submitted to the readers’ essays section of this month’s Christian Century.
Presson writes that any observer would have seen him as resilient after his father left his mother a year earlier. One would have described him as caring and funny, he writes, not hurt or angry.
But he never realized he might be pushing those emotions back until he was assigned the role of Jesus cleansing the temple in the church play. He surprised himself by how much he got into the part.
“I belted out my memorized line between threatening yells and growls, thrashing my whip at the wide-eyed seven-year-old money changers as I knocked over a chair and kicked over a card table littered with fake money,” he writes. “This was not the way we had rehearsed it in class.”
Only after seeing the shock in the eyes of his VBS teacher and the congregation behind her did he realize what he had done. Reflecting on it, Presson sees this experience as a kind of catharsis, “the relief of dropping my mask for a moment and releasing my own anger about the injustice in my house.” That little child didn’t know how to express what was happening inside him, but his version of Jesus did.
This story haunted me as I read philosopher Stephen Adubato’s analysis in Plough Quarterly on, of all things, the movie Mrs. Doubtfire.
Long before debates over drag queens in local libraries or in the United States Congress, the 1990s-era film featured Robin Williams as a divorced dad who donned the disguise of a kindly elderly woman to become a nanny for his own children.
Adubato writes about his experience as a child of parents who had recently divorced, watching this movie with its sentimentalized theme of the “good” divorce, in which the parents don’t fight and love is “the ties that bind.”
Although out of step with 2020s cultural sensibilities in various ways, Mrs. Doubtfire is a “cultural artifact” reminiscent of a thought pattern that transcends the cinema and filters into self-help books and therapy sessions. A “good” divorce, the narrative goes, is one in which both partners can walk hand in hand at their daughter’s wedding—exes who can stay friends as part of one big, happy family.
But the reality, Adubato notes, is quite different.
He cites the recent work of sociologist Elizabeth Marquardt on the inner lives of “well-adjusted” children of divorce. They do not grow up to become arsonists or drug addicts or cryptocurrency grifters, and they’re usually not divorced themselves. What affects these people into their adulthood, she argues, is not the external factors of parents fighting or implicitly blaming them but rather the “radical restructuring of the child’s universe.”
Both Adubato and Marquardt acknowledge that many aspects of the so-called “good divorce” are much better than the alternative, and I agree. I’ve heard of a wife and an ex-wife getting into a fistfight at their late husband’s funeral. (At the time, my grandmother said, “Was he really that much of a prize?”) And I’ve seen horrific situations in which a child is put through endless rounds of custody battles in court.
The Mrs. Doubtfire era did show us some necessary things. For instance, children of divorce often think the marriage’s failure is their fault, and they should be explicitly reassured that such is not the case.
But Adubato rightly notes that the difference we’re making here is not between “good” and “bad” divorce but between “bad” and “worse.”
I firmly believe the Bible gives grounds for when a one-flesh covenant is severed, in which case divorce and remarriage are morally legitimate. I’ve also argued that there are cases (such as an abusive household) where a separation or a divorce is the right thing to do—for one’s children and/or for oneself.
That said, while divorce is sometimes necessary, it is never “good.”
Divorce, after all, is not just the rearrangement of a living situation or the moving of a name from one government registry to another. Divorce is dismemberment. In the union of marriage, a husband and wife are, as Jesus teaches, “one flesh.” In essence, spouses are members of each other’s body.
Yet sometimes dismemberment is necessary.
A person caught in a bear trap might well need to saw off a leg to escape and survive. In that case, dismemberment was necessary. The alternative was far worse. We might even say to one another, “Thank God there was a bone saw within reach!” But we should never pretend that the act of dismemberment is anything other than traumatic—or that the missing limb is anything other than a loss.
The good news, Adubato notes, is that those who suffered as children of divorced parents are often the most committed to making their marriages work. They want to spare their own children from the sort of pain they experienced. And I know of many who lived through the trauma of divorce—as husbands, wives, sons, or daughters—who are now caring for others in similar situations. Some are marriage mentors, while others simply know how and when to hug someone tightly and say, “I love you.”
I don’t know firsthand what it’s like to experience the grief and disruption of a parental divorce. But I do know what it’s like to walk with people through it. Some of them knew their parents had no alternative, but not one of them would dismiss the divorce as inconsequential to their lives.
Years ago, I remember standing at the front of the church after preaching—during the “invitation hymn” in which people could come forward to make public faith in Christ or to ask for prayer at the altar.
A little boy came down the aisle toward me, and I wondered whether he was old enough to know what he was doing if he requested baptism. But as I knelt down, he said, “Pray for my mom and dad, that they don’t get a divorce.” All my mental theological abstractions fell away, and all I could do was feel the tears on my face and see the grief in his.
His pain was enough that he was willing to walk down an aisle—in front of everybody—to ask someone to pray that his world would not collapse. I don’t know the depths of his grief or anger, but I imagine he could have kicked over some chairs, shredded some fake turtledoves, and thrown over some card tables like Ramon Presson.
And I think the real Jesus would have understood.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads their Public Theology Project.