The Education of Emma

Monument for Great Emma

Emma watched her six-year-old daughter push the tear off her check with the heel of her hand.

“LaRue,” she murmured, “you catch more flies vith honey than vith winegar.”

She looked down at three-year-old Arlan collapsed in a deep sleep against her arm, exhausted from the fight with his sister over who got the window seat.  LaRue had closed her eyes, too, with her cheek resting on the cool bus window.

Glancing around at the other riders, Emma noticed two women who sat murmuring to each other across the aisle.  Diamonds sparkled from the ring fingers on each of their left hands.  Suddenly, she felt the nakedness of her own finger now that she no longer wore her wedding band.

Her marriage was fine, thank-you very much.  But the ring Elton slipped on her finger during their wedding had to come off.  In the eyes of her in-laws—and their Mennonite Congregation—her reputation as a woman of virtue depended on it.

Before moving to the farm of Elton’s Uncle Timothy so he could work as a farm hand, the young couple attended her family’s Dutch Reformed church.  But the move into the farm’s cottage came with strings attached.  Taking the house and the job obliged them to join the Mennonite congregation Timothy presided over as elected elder.  Emma was vaguely aware that Mennonite women, including her in-laws, never wore jewelry, but it never struck her as a problem because she didn’t have any jewelry either—save the gold ring on her left hand.

The afternoon before their first Sunday as Mennonites, Aunt Sadie rapped sharply on the cottage’s front door.  Emma welcomed her, thankful she had just pulled a hickory nut cake warm from the oven, and put a pot of coffee on the cookstove.

They sat down at the pine kitchen table with their coffee cups and Aunt Sadie grabbed Emma’s left hand.

“So this vill haff to go,” she declared.  “Goot Christian vomen do not vear sutch pauples.  They shpend their time and enerchy being useful to others and don’t haff time for glitter and gold.”

In their bedroom that night, Elton watched as Emma removed her ring, placed it back in its velvet box, and tucked it away deep in her oak dresser’s top drawer.  He agreed this was the right thing to do after she described his aunt’s visit.

“The matrons haff spoken,” he announced.  “The men might lay town the law, but the vomen vield da vip!”

A few Sundays later, Emma saw the whip in action when 15-year-old Anna Musselman stepped into the chapel’s choir loft.  The congregation gasped as sunlight sparkled playfully over two gold crosses dangling from Anna’s ears.

“Vat a pity,” Aunt Sadie announced on the way home.  “Such a beauty, but doplich!”

Emma sat back against the bus seat, congratulating herself on the maturity she had shown in adapting so readily to the ways of Elton’s family, even after her growing family had left Uncle Timothy’s farm and bought a home of their own. She was doing everything right, she thought.  She submitted graciously to her husband, no matter what she thought of his demand.  She kept an immaculate house, cooked hearty food, and supplemented the family income by taking in ironing.  She loved her children but never spared the rod.  She even loved her monthly shopping trips with the children, no matter how tired and cranky they were by the end of the day.

She stretched her neck and kissed the top of Arlan’s head, slowly becoming aware that the conversation of the lady passengers had turned in her direction.

“Look at that woman with the beautiful children,” the first woman whispered loudly.  In her mind’s eye, Emma saw the speaker’s hand wave vaguely in her direction and smiled smugly to herself.  Others often spoke so admiringly of her children when they were out and about.

“What a pity!” the second woman said.  “Such a lovely family, but look at her hand!  She isn’t even married!”

She slunk down in her seat, and her face flushed hot and red.  Suddenly, she wished herself far away.  For the rest of the trip, she kept low and refused to look over at the whispering women.

Emma saw the front porch of her house approach as the bus slowed.  Squaring her shoulders, she gathered her children and herded them down the black rubber-steps and through the folding plastic doors.

Once inside, Emma ignored Elton’s greeting and ran up the stairs to their bedroom.  She yanked the top drawer of the dresser out and rooted around until she felt the velvet box.  Pulling it out, she snapped it open, snatched up the ring, and shoved it back on her left ring finger where it belonged.

She marched towards the kitchen to start dinner, but stopped when she saw the worried look on Elton’s face.

“I haff put my vedding ring back on my finger where it belongs,” she declared, waving the hand with the ring in front of his face.  “And it von’t come off again!”

 

Advertisements

Moving the Nation

Recently, I found myself in a conversation with a friend about the Colin Kaepernick controversy.  My friend expressed her outrage over his “taking the knee” at NFL games.  As a professor of literature whose job is to teach people skills in reading figurative language, metaphor, and symbols, I disagreed.

My friend defined kneeling in this NFL context as unpatriotic and declared it to be an act of the utmost disrespect for soldiers who fought and continue to fight under the American flag.  Her perspective is not unique.  President Trump himself shares her view.  On Sept. 17, 2017, he tweeted “”If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem.”

But to read the act of kneeling as defiant or disrespectful is to ignore how the sign of kneeling operates in our culture—in most cultures.  When we read signs and symbols, we do not understand them in isolation.  They derive meaning from communities rather than from any one individual’s solipsistic imagination.  To understand the sign of a football player kneeling instead of standing, we need to have a sense of what kneeling means for the community in which that act takes place.  We need to consider how the symbol operates in relation to governments, our religion(s), our species.  Examining these contexts reveals that we kneel during prayers, at the altar, when receiving a blessing, when in the presence of God.  A citizen of a kingdom kneels before the monarch.  A man begging for his life might kneel before the executioner.   All of these examples show kneeling as indicating respect and devotion.  We have to look at other postures to understand how we  express defiance and disrespect.

If my word on the subject is not good enough for you, consider the words of Nate Boyer, the former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk who convinced Kaepernick to get off the bench during the National Anthem and kneel because it was more “respectful” than simply sitting.  Just eight days prior to Trump’s aforementioned tweet, Michel Martin, a National Public Radio host for the show “All Things Considered,” interviewed Boyer about this conversation.

“[K]neeling’s never been . . . seen as a disrespectful act,” Boyer told Martin during the interview.  “I mean, people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to pay respects.”

Kaepernick’s comments before he heard Boyer’s advice suggest kneeling has changed his protest.  On August 27, just a few days before Kaepernick’s conversation with Boyer, NBC.com’s Steve Wyche reported the football player as saying “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” (http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-protest-of-national-anthem).

When Kaepernick chose to kneel a few days after making this comment, his stance towards the flag changed from a refusal to “show pride” in it to one of submission to what Americans understand the flag to represent—submission to our ideals rather than our reality.

Boyd’s NPR interview states a clear case for reading kneeling at the NFL stadium as an exercise in the vital project of American democracy.  Kaepernick’s protest honors the flag by calling attention to it, he notes.  Even those angered by Kaepernick’s “taking the knee,” he said, have become more conscious of what the flag signifies.

“The people in the stands that are upset for [Kaepernick] . . . sitting or kneeling or whatever . . . are now taking the time to really focus when that anthem’s being played in the stadium,” Boyd explained, “where before, I don’t think a lot of people really cared.”

Instead of defying the flag and the nation, then, Kaepernick’s protest against violence and injustice fulfills its mission.  Proclaiming ourselves to be “the home of the free and brave” does not make it so.  The American people have always existed in a state of becoming.  We have not arrived at the realization of our aspirations as a nation.  Our collective aspiration to become a free land type requires brave citizens—such as Kaepernick—who point out the difference between an image of equality and its realization, the distance between reality and our American dreams.

Moving On

(for Juja)

I feel “taken out of context.”

For 21 years, I lived, taught, thought, and worshipped in an intentional intellectual and spiritual community—a small Christian liberal arts college in Massachusetts.  In this place, I grew to know myself intellectually, spiritually, politically.  I developed treasured friendships.

I raised my family in this community.  My children also came to know themselves within this context.   Their closest friends were the children of my colleagues.  Some of their favorite traditions involved annual college events.

This changed when an administrator, with the blessing of the trustees, decided to eliminate the English major and my department, including those of us who held tenured positions.  The high cost of living in this area forced us to move to a different state, to buy a new house, to find new work.  For a long time, I only felt a devastating loss.  But now, I recognize these changes for what they could be—serendipity.

As a college professor, I often discussed future career plans with my students.  One bit of advice I frequently repeated was to let serendipity into the picture.

We can map out the desired course of our careers.  We can complete a major, comb through internet list-serves of open positions, and pump out cover letters and resumes.  We can interview and accept positions.  In the process, however, we should also pay attention to unimagined possibilities and opportunities that excite us and give them a try.

At this moment in my life, serendipity is a function of evolution.  Being “taken out of context” refers to a change of environment.  According to the principle of evolution, the friction between an organism and its environment results in changes to that organism.  Organisms that adapt most effectively to the environment thrive and reproduce.

Thinking about the feeling of “being taken out of context” in relation to the theory of evolution has helped me recognize these changes in my life as opportunities to ride the wave of serendipity into the future. Considering this relationship has helped me move beyond my grieving into a new phase of reflecting upon the differences between my current and former contexts and identifying how this new environment can help myself, my family, my children to for thrive in previously unimagined ways.

I still feel loss when I think about the community that rejected me, the community that I left behind.  I miss the rhythm of our life there.  I miss the recognition I found in the faces of my students.  I miss finding the seat my colleagues saved for me in the cafeteria.  I miss the office that made available all the tools of my profession.  I miss the satisfaction of my work.  I miss my pastor and my church.

But now I am moving forward, and the excitement grows within me as I keep my eye out for opportunity—for serendipity.

I don’t know where it will carry me—us.  But I will let you know when we get there so you can visit.

Moving: The Hayride That Wasn’t A Hayride To The Pumpkin Patch That Wasn’t A Pumpkin Patch

Here’s a favorite family story about moving on, moving past, and moving fast.

When I was pregnant with my third child (nine years ago), my family drove to Connecticut to meet my mother, my sister, and my sister’s family at a Buell’s Orchard, a UPick apple and pumpkin destination in Eastford, CT.

We paid for the bags and headed towards the McIntosh trail. The day was lovely—sunny, cool, crisp. Our bags filled quickly and grew heavy. Before long, we were heading to deposit our apple stash in the trunks of cars. It was time to head to the pumpkin patch.

As I packed my car, a hay wagon pulled up in front of the orchard store and then pulled away before I could gather my crew together. We wanted the full UPick experience, so I was ready when the next truck pulled up a few moments later.

“Come on everyone.. Hurry up and jump on this wagon!” I yelled across the parking lot.

My sister, her two daughters, my mother and my two daughters all followed me and hopped on the flat aluminum wagon attached to an old truck cab. We leaned back against the side rails of and made room for others. Soon the wagon was full.

In a moment, the truck was driving down the road. Overly sun-warmed from our orchard hike, I enjoyed the cool breeze as the truck pulled past the groves of apple trees: first the McIntosh, then the red delicious, next the Granny Smith trees, some pear trees, a lane of peaches. Finally, I looked ahead and saw the orange pumpkins dotting the field to the left of our truck. We got ourselves prepared to get off the truck . . .

. . . and it went right on past the first pumpkin patch, the second patch, the third. Suddenly, pumpkins were no longer visible anywhere. The trees and brush alongside the road started to get thicker. And the truck picked up speed.

The truck’s increasing speed turned the cool breeze into a biting wind. My daughters’ teeth started to chatter and I pulled them close to share my body heat.

The truck pulled into an intersection. Then, to my dismay, it turned onto the highway. Now the truck was flying along at 60 mph. My mother, sister, and I looked at each other in bewilderment, but we were the only people who seemed dismayed by the kidnapping of a rather typical autumn orchard crowd of parents, teens, and young children.

“Where’s the pumpkin patch?” we yelled in unison, so the other riders could hear us over the roar of the wind and the engine.

“What pumpkin patch?” the woman next to me yelled back.

“The pumpkin patch where you can pick out pumpkins!” I shouted.

“This truck isn’t going to a pumpkin patch!” the woman yelled again. “We’re going back to the campground!”

My mother, sister, and I looked at each other in surprise. We had no idea how far we were going or where. Our gloveless fingers started to stiffen in the cold. The only thing we could do was ride it out.

After half-an-hour on the highway, the truck pulled onto an exit ramp and turned onto a dirt road that led to the campground store.

“We need to call the guys,” I said to my sister. “Have them come and get us.”

Of course, as usually is the case in such moments, my mother had left her phone in the car, my phone was out of charge, and my sister’s couldn’t catch a signal.
Fortunately, the driver was heading back to the orchard after a quick coffee break, so we warmed ourselves with styrofoam cups of camp-store hot chocolate and prepared for the return trip.

The youngest children in our group, dressed in jeans and tee-shirts, began to climb reluctantly on the back of the truck when the driver invited them to join him in the cab. The girls eagerly accepted the offer, despite the reality of sitting with a stranger, something neither child usually liked to do. Recalling the cold wind on the highway, we thanked the driver and let the girls get in front.

The drive back to the orchard was equally cold for the adults—and the teenagers—on the trip.  Typically, my niece and younger daughter reveled in their comfort.  They turned backward in their seats to smile coyly at us and stuck out their tongues at their older sisters.

My nose, my fingertips, even the third child in my belly were frozen by the time the trunk exited the highway and turned onto the road to the orchard. Soon, trees flaming with orange leaves once again flew by, the spaces between them widening gradually until we saw an array of pumpkins spread across the fields.

The truck gradually slowed as it passed the second patch, then the third, until it came to a full stop in front of the orchard store, pulling up right next to the farm’s hayride sign.

We hopped off the wagon and watched a new group of passengers climb on, while the music of trunk doors slamming shut on bags of apples played in the background.

As we headed to the line for cider donuts, a blur of denim and plaid raced by me.

“Come guys!  The hayride’s here!” a woman yelled, carrying a small boy and climbing after him onto the back of the truck.   Before I had a chance to warn her, the truck was on its way again.

The Dame and the DMV

After I got married on Jan. 1, 1994, I visited the DMV to update my license.
The Dame and the DMV
“How do you want your name to appear?” an older woman behind the counter asked me, fingers poised over the keyboard to enter the information.

“You can type Karen Christina Cubie Henck,” I answered.  “No hyphen please.”

Her fingers did not move.  She turned her head and looked straight into my face.

“Ummm, are you sure?” she asked.

“Why?” I responded.  “Doesn’t it fit?”

“Well, it fits,” she replied.  “It just doesn’t look right.  And besides, you’ll have to write this long name every time you sign documents.”

“I’m not the president,” I said, confusedly.  “I don’t expect to sign hundreds of documents a day.”

“But it just looks so squished,” she declared.

“Can I change it later if I think it’s a problem?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said.  And, seemingly satisfied that I understood what I was getting into, she completed the form.  My new, wifely identity was under way.

I was glad for the trace of my maiden name in my new identity a few years later, when I sold the car I had brought into our marriage.  The legal documents were in my maiden name, and I was able to demonstrate continuity of identity and sell the car without a problem.

But getting a driver’s license in my new home state of Connecticut has not been so simple.

Armed with my birth certificate (with my maiden name), the driver’s license from my previous state (bearing my full name), and mail I had received at my new address, I approached the DMV counter and told the woman at the keyboard why I was there.

She took the documents from me and shuffled through them, pausing to compare my birth certificate to my driver’s license.

“Okay,” she said, “but where’s your marriage license?”

I looked blankly at her.

“You need your marriage license,” she declared.  “Because the name on your license is not the same as on your birth certificate.  You have to prove continuity of identity.”

She pulled a form from her file and clipped it to my pile of papers.

“But doesn’t the inclusion of my maiden name on my driver’s license cover that?” I asked.

She pushed the papers to me and shook her head.

“Make sure you fill everything out before you come back,”  she said, looking behind me and waving the next person in line forward.

As I carried the documents to my car, I reflected upon what this demand for continuity of identity highlighted about women’s lives.  I pondered the social pressure the women of my generation faced to “give up” their names when they married, how some people became angry even at the idea that I would maintain my maiden name while taking on my husband’s surname.  “A man’s name is all he has when he comes into this world and it’s all he’s got when he dies,” one relative exclaimed, suggesting that a wife who maintains her own identity is stealing something from her husband.  Good girls, I gathered, should not be so selfish as to insist on their own names, nor should they desire to carry this single inheritance from birth unto death.

My registry experience demonstrates the persistence of traditional gender relations, a tradition shaped by the old system of coverture in which Eliza Jones became Mrs. John Smith, losing even her birth name as her newly married status submerged her entirely into the identity of her husband.  “The two shall become one,” I remember people reciting at weddings, a saying intended to affirm this understanding that the wife is too delicate, too dependent to require her own identity.

“It’s just easier,” one well-intentioned friend insisted to me, with a comment that directly contradicted my registry experience, making me question just how dependent she was on her own significant other.   Would she still maintain that position today, I wondered, when she has to arm herself with additional documents linking her adult identity to her birth certificate?

A few of my bolder friends refused to alter their identities at all upon marriage.  I, however, hoped to have the best of both worlds, retaining “good girl” status while also bearing a name that links me and my pre-marriage career equally to my birth family and our future children.

But such a compromise was not enough.  It has not prepared me to navigate the sea of bureaucracy more easily than women who simply dove head first into their husband’s names.  I’m beginning to think my boldest sisters were also the wisest.  For the rest of us, a trip to the DMV ends with question of  logistics.  What is a better expenditure of my time?  Spending hours digging through a storage unit hunting for documents or waiting to change my legal address until a new marriage certificate can fly to me from a distant state?

Evolution is Theologically Delicious

Scientific subjects are just as theologically delicious as scripture and literature.  Consider, as a case in point, the theory of evolution.

My first window into today’s debate between conservative Christianity and science was when I came home from school and told my grandmother what we were studying in science class.

“Your grandmother isn’t a monkey,” she told me, in her own version of the Ken Ham song, patting herself on the chest.  “And your ancestors did not swing by their tails from the trees!”

This surprised me greatly, and my views on science suddenly became another topic I scrupulously avoided discussing with my grandmother, a list that included whether nice girls played sports (no), if dancing was a sin (yes), and the length of my hair.

When I entered a liberal arts Christian college as a freshman in 1981, I was equally surprised to discover the heated nature of the debate on campus.  Thankfully, my professors did not refrain from teaching the history of evolution, though they carefully allowed time for students to air their views that God spent six days creating everything and then stopped.

A literal reading of scripture, of course, is at the bottom of this reaction to Darwin’s work and the science evolving from it.  Such a reading rejects the validity of labeling the Bible’s creation stories as “myths,” equating this ages-old category of story with falsity,  as in “25 Popular History Myths Debunked” (at https://thebestschools.org/magazine/25-popular-history-myths-debunked/) or  “10 Myths of Psychology Debunked” (a TED Talk video featuring a speaker named Ben Ambridge).

My choice of major (English), as well as my upbringing by a journalist and an English teacher, “saved” me from this point of view.  My  life-long relationship with language and story made me aware that one of language’s greatest tools is the power of saying multiple things at once, of expanding one’s understanding, of connecting seemingly incompatible things to arrive at a fresh insight.   Karen Armstrong, who wrote the wonderful A Short History of Myth, explains how English majors such as myself think of myths.  In a Nov. 7, 2005, National Public Radio interview with “Talk of the Nation’s” Neal Conan, she stated that myth “is something that in some sense happened once, but which also happens all the time” (“Karen Armstrong: Myths and the Modern World,” https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript.php?storyID=4992705).

When I refer to the very different creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis as myths, then, I do so not because I understand these stories as lies, but because I recognize the truths they convey transcend fact.  Thus, Genesis 1 does not tell me how God created everything and then stopped.  Instead, it depicts creation as the way of God’s being, as the way God interacts with our world and the beings continually changing and growing within it, as a way of God that never stopped, as a way of God still at work in the world today.

God, we learn as children, is perfect.  One persistent thread of thought suggests this means God is static—never changing.  This view rejects the idea that an awareness of changing cultural realities might allow us to understand scripture, as well as God, more powerfully than our ancestors.  If God never changes, then any requirements God makes of the Israelites in scripture bind us still today.

Yet is this the best way to understand the “perfect” nature of God?  Is it possible to conceive of perfection as dynamic rather than static?  As interactive and responsive?  Perhaps God’s “perfection” derives less from historical fact and rigid adherence to a code of conduct than it does from a desire for relationship with creation, an orientation that allows God’s understanding of creation and even Godself to evolve as God contemplates God’s image in our faces.

The theory of natural selection grounding Darwin’s ideas about evolution is theologically delicious in relation to such an understanding of a dynamic, mobile God who interacts continuously with creation.  Indeed, why would we expect any less from a dynamically “perfect” God than that the creator would imbue all of creation with the power to continuously change and remake itself?

Early theologians considered God as having created two “books” through which we can come to know God better.  One of these “books,’ of course, is scripture.  The other is nature.  In my view, this means that scientists, whether Christian or not, are doing important—even sacred—work for believers because, if we want to know God better, we should pay attention to God’s handiwork.

When I study the world around me, I find continuous evidence of a dynamic, creative God, one who not only continues to create but who bestowed a similar creative power on creation.  This creativity becomes visible when I look at the children born from my body, at the new plant life sprouting in spring out of the piles of leaves we raked in the fall, and about the coevolution of the sword-billed hummingbird and the passiflora mixta flower, which stores its nectar at the bottom of a long flower tube matching the length of the hummingbird’s bill.

The power of the theory of evolution lies not only in what it tells us about nature.  It also helps us to understand better how languages evolve, how cultures emerge, and the effect of a culture upon its environment.  It can help us better understand the roots of problems confronting the human race, such as the toxic effects of some technologies on the planet.  It can help us wrest control of the situation and develop creative solutions so we can serve as better stewards of God’s creation.

What kind of God do you worship?  I find evolution to be theologically delicious because I cannot fathom a frozen, immobile God.  My own observations of evolution convince me that creation did not stop on the first seventh day.  An infinity sculpture, the world keeps moving and changing.  Environments press against the organisms, the bodies, the culture of a species and the process continues, on and on, from Alpha to Omega, Genesis to Revelation, Boston to Japan.

The Handmaid’s Tale: A Theologically Delicious Text

Even fiction can be “theologically delicious.”

A case in point is Margaret Atwood’s 1985 work of speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel which has enjoyed renewed attention as a popular Hulu Originals series.

All Christians do not agree with me on this. Stan Liv reports that Atwood’s story about a dystopian theocracy has frequently made the American Library Association’s list of banned books for being “offensive to Christians,” as well as for its “sexually explicit content” (Newsweek, April 28, 2017). But those who immediately jump to ban the book are missing Atwood’s point. Atwood doesn’t denigrate Christian faith, though she rigorously critiques religious fundamentalism. She depicts a world where religious rhetoric fuels both the theocracy and its opponents. Her novel rises to the level of being “theologically delicious” in its complex depiction of how religious rhetoric can serve as a tool for both oppression and liberation.

Atwood published her novel after visiting Afghanistan in 1978, where she glimpsed women garbed in the chador, a garment she describes as “more comprehensive than any other Muslim cover up” (Atwood, “Taking the Veil,” The Guardian Weekly, 16 Nov. 2001). Less than a year later, in 1979, the Iranian Revolution took place, resulting in the rise to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini. His Republican Guards acted immediately to enforce Sharia law. The result was a systematic and ongoing restriction of the lives of women. Atwood published her novel six years later.

During the same period, Atwood witnessed the rise of the Moral Majority, the political arm of the Christian right in Ronald Reagan’s America. Her observations of the intersection between religious fundamentalism and politics in both the Middle East and the U.S. gave rise to the central worry of Atwood’s novel, which Mary Adams explains as “a concern with what could happen if right-wing rhetoric were actually empowered” (“Rereading Atwood After the Taliban,” World Literature Today, June 22, 2002, Letter to the Editor). The result is a book that operates as an eerie prophecy of women’s lives in the Middle East today. “Atwood saw cultural conditions that might support the oppression of women,” Adams explains. “Most of her readers did not. We read with interest, not with empathy. We could not imagine our America in ruin. We could not imagine ourselves as Marthas or Econowives or Handmaids. We failed to imagine a government ruled by religion. We entertained ourselves with an unbelievable story, but Atwood had predicted the Taliban.” (75)

Atwood’s novel, however, isn’t about a fundamentalist regime in the Middle East. Her dystopian theocracy sits atop what remains of Cambridge, MA, and takes its name from the ancient Hebrew home of Jephthah, the judge of ancient Israel who sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. Jephthah’s story is part of the Bible’s depiction of what results when humans distance themselves from God. An oppressive patriarchy, where might makes right, appears not as an ideal image of human community but as the natural state of humanity when left to its own devices. God exiles Adam and Eve from the garden and from God’s presence. The result is that brother kills brother; father kills daughter; the Jews kill the Canaanites; David kills Uriah; Amnon rapes his sister, Tamara; and the cycle of oppression and violence spirals onward into the present.

The depiction of Gilead as displacing the site of the first institution of higher learning in the U.S. drives home the question of whether or not American women could suffer the same fate as their sisters in Iran. In the 1980s, Boston, Cambridge, and Harvard were viewed as bastions of liberalism, with Harvard serving as the nation’s liberal think tank. Religious conservatives, as they still do today, equated this liberalism with an anti-Christian attitude (see Ron Dreher’s Feb. 23, 2018 article for The American Conservative, “Anti-Christian Harvard,” at https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/anti-christian-harvard/). Such an attitude amongst members of the Christian right stems from the university’s association with organizations such as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, who published the groundbreaking Our Bodies, Ourselves, as well as researchers and academics whose scholarship laid the groundwork for the nation’s growing fascination with such issues as feminism, gender, sexuality, and racism.

Atwood, who lived in Cambridge herself when she was pursuing a graduate degree at Harvard, does not beat around bush. Her depiction of Gilead, the descendant of the rising Moral Majority of her day, is scathing. Atwood roots her novels as much in Phyllis Schlafly’s insistence on traditional gender roles as she does in the anti-feminist politics of the Middle East. The founders of Gilead refer to scripture to lock women entirely in the domestic sphere. Women who are wives stay at home and crave children. But Gilead also confines women who are not wives to the domestic sphere, with Marthas (housekeepers and cooks). Even the aunts at the Red Center play a role in the domestication of women because they police the limits of Gilead sexuality by preparing the women of questionable reputation for their enslavement as replacement wombs and vaginas.

Atwood’s novel suggests that right wing rhetoric could pull women back to their historically normal position in the Judeo-Christian west. The plight of the women in Atwood’s novel echoes the historical western system of coverture in how a woman of Gilead has no legal or social identity of her own. Atwood’s female characters live utterly dependent lives. Indeed, the name of Atwood’s heroine, Offred, simply combines the name of the man of the house with the possessive preposition “of.” Thus, Atwood makes clear that a handmaid is essentially chattel—a human being enslaved to a man who owns her as he does an object. Even the women who played a political role in the creation of Gilead find themselves living dependent lives. Fred’s wife, the barren Serena Joy, his pre-revolution partner in a public ministry reminiscent of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, finds herself without any goal outside that of bearing and raising the children she has not been able to conceive. While she enjoys a superior position in the household to that of Offred and the Martha, she experiences similar limitations on reading and activity outside of the household. Clearly, her pre-revolution politics have not expanded her sphere of action or her ability to pursue individual goals and desires but severely curtailed them. This, Atwood suggests, could be the fate of Phyllis Schlafly, the constitutional lawyer, if she were to realize her ambitions.

One common observation among those who read Atwood’s novel as unfairly condemning Christian religion is that the Old Testament rather than the New Testament provides the foundation for the Gilead regime. Atwood certainly draws the new regime in her novel along Old Testament lines. A quote from Genesis links Commander Fred’s household organization to that of Jacob and his barren wife Rachel, whose handmaid becomes a replacement womb and bears children for Rachel to count as her own. The family structure of such households follows along strictly Old Testament lives as well, for the idea of Judeo-Christian marriage it presents is polygamous; these are not the marriages of “one man and one woman” that today’s religious right insists upon as the Biblical ideal.

While Atwood’s patriarchal Gilead is clearly a Christian dystopia, the oppressive regime of Gilead is not the only representative of Christianity in the novel. The walls of Harvard figure prominently in the landscape through which Offred and the other handmaids move as they go about their daily routine. Hanging from these walls are the bodies of revolutionaries against the regime who have been captured and executed. Many of these, we learn, are from groups that live out the true roots of Protestantism. Resisters include Baptists, Quakers, and Roman Catholics, as well as women who might have held memberships in the Boston Women’s Health Book Initiative, such as Moira and Offred’s exiled mother. Religious rhetoric, Atwood makes clear, provides inspiration to those who desire to liberate as well as those who oppress.

Gilead’s treatment of the Bible itself, however, is the aspect of the novel that reveals its power to liberate as well as to oppress. The source of this power is the ability to read and interpret for oneself.  Gilead maintains its power over women by refusing women independent access to such reading and intepretation.  By keeping scripture under lock and key, the leaders indicate their awareness of this reality.   One might expect the Bible to be required reading for everyone in an Old Testament theocracy, but Gilead’s leaders rightly recognize that women might find support for a female uprising in scripture, as well as justification for the regime’s oppression of them.

A statement by Moira, Offred’s lesbian friend, calls attention to the revolutionary capacity of scripture. Referring to Jeremiah 8:22 (“Is there no balm in Gilead”), Moira declares that “There is a bomb in Gilead.” Clearly, this bomb is scripture.

What is the content of scripture that frightens the Gilead regime? Perhaps it derives from how the Bible depicts patriarchy as an effect of the fall from the garden. As a patriarchy, Gilead has a male form. Its leaders are male. Only men have political voices. Every aspect of the society centers upon addressing the needs and desires of the male body. Because men find women visually alluring, the women cover themselves up thoroughly. Because men attend to business in the public sphere, women need to stay home and tend to the needs of the family—the cooking, the cleaning, the child-rearing. In such a society, the needs of the female body are unimportant. In fact, the female body becomes marginalized as not normal, as exceptional. But a careful reading of scripture, what Gilead will not allow its women, suggests that a patriarchal social structure is far from God’s ideal. In Ephesians 3:28, Paul declares “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What would happen, we must wonder, if the women of this society were to read that verse and demand fuller participation in the church, the body of Christ, which the New Testament often depicts in the form of a woman, such as the “bride” of Christ of Revelations 21, for example.

If Atwood’s novel doesn’t “denigrate Christianity” (words used to support the case for censoring it at Grimsley High School in Guilford County, North Carolina), then why does it appear so often on the list of banned books? This reality, I believe, has more to do with the narrow thinking of many Christians than it does Atwood’s novel. Perhaps Christians, sometimes called “People of the Book,” need to learn to read more carefully and closely, to spend time discussing works before condemning them, to benefit from the ideas of a community of readers rather than relying simply on their own personal reaction to the text. Perhaps the church would benefit from a greater number of English majors.

For years, I taught this novel as part of a unit on gender in a general education world literature course at a Christian, liberal arts college. Many of my students reacted viscerally to this as “anti-Christian.” But when I would scratch the surface of this response, what I discovered more than anything else was fear—of women who insisted upon economic, legal, and social parity; of the idea that men must take responsibility for the desires of their own bodies; of the notion that God does not reserve power, agency, and self-hood for men.

James LaRue, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, notices this same fear as the reason for the controversies surrounding the book. “People have objected to the book because of ‘profanity; lurid passages about sex, statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled,” he explains to Ziv in the Newsweek article. LaRue believes the real reason for the anger at the book stems from “discomfort with the message.” “People don’t want to see the message, so they complain about something else,” LaRue states. “They say, well, this is about sex. Well, no it’s about more than sex, it’s about the harvesting of women’s bodies.

As a Christian and a feminist, I find Atwood’s novel to be “theologically delicious” because of her complex treatment of religion, especially in relation to gender, in this novel. She does not shy away from the aspects of Christian texts that depict a world where women are second-class citizens. She does not refrain from critiquing religious groups today that assert this second-class position for women in society is what God blesses. Her novel, instead, weaves references to scripture in and out and around this society to force us to reflect upon how our unthinking assumptions about religion actually contradict the ultimate point of the Bible, which uses the image of a male body on the cross, re-imagined as a tool of service to others rather than of enslavement, to overturn the patriarchy.
.