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.