The Handmaids Tale REVIEW
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is the next in my series of reviews on dystoian/utopian novels. Dystopian novels are supposed to disturb and this one does not disappoint. I have no doubt that Atwood intends the novel to be a cautionary tale – a prophetic warning. – a “Here is where we are heading if you let it happen” sort of tale. Clearly, the book is not overtly anti-religious in that it presents us with heroic Christian sects (Catholics and Quakers and Baptists) who oppose the patriarchal system that has established the Gileadian theocracy where women have no rights. The novel is really about misogyny more than religion though it is undeniably a religious misogyny. Ironically, I suspect that the society that the Republic of Gilead portrays in the novel is what many “liberal minded” people think is the secret utopian wish of evangelicals.
Gilead is a place where men rule and a select few men are given concubines in the interest of procreation. It is a society where women have no voice, where their bodies and reproductive capacities are owned by the state and doled out to the faithful. It is a society where people are watched, heresy is punished, and natural instincts are repressed or corrupted to serve the State. The leaders of Gilead are part Old Testament patriarch, part ISIS, part inquisition, part New England Puritan, part gnostic, and part Pharisee (double standards and all), and no small part, cult. With respect to their policy on women, I can almost imagine a church father like Tertullian reading about Gilead and asking “what’s not to approve?”
[Long aside; Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus) was one the earliest church theologians who, along with teaching doctrine, took firm stands on social issues of peripheral concern (like the adornment of women). He was a writer who was not bashful about calling his theological detractors fools, morons, and heretics. He was a member one of the strictest sects of early Christianity, seeing no justification for allowing fornicators and adulterers back into the church. One of Tertullian’s more infamous writings is a piece he wrote on the adornment of Christian women. Here are just a few of the chapter titles to give you the flavor:
(Chapter 1) Introduction. Modesty in Apparel Becoming to Women, in Memory of the Introduction of Sin into the World Through a Woman (Chapter 2) The Origin of Female Ornamentation, Traced Back to the Angels Who Had Fallen. (Chapter 5) Some Refinements in Dress and Personal Appearance Lawful, Some Unlawful. Pigments Come Under the Latter Head (Chapter 6) Of Dyeing the Hair (Chapter 7) Of Elaborate Dressing of the Hair in Other Ways, and Its Bearing Upon Salvation.
And, lest you get the wrong idea, (Chapter 8) Men Not Excluded from These Remarks on Personal Adornment]
Consider for a moment that a religion is a collection of ideas and assertions about who God is and who human beings are (or, if it lacks a concept of a monotheistic God, who the gods are, or who the spirits are, or what the forces are beyond the seen world). More, a religion is a history of these ideas in time as they are introduced, accepted, tried, modified, kept, rejected, replaced, superseded, forgotten etc. Just as sedimentary layers worn down by time and elements can make a solid rock, so also thousands of years of thinking about God can make a religion a solid record of a dynamic and ongoing process.
Just as a high school football team graduates players, adds players, cuts players, and has players go on injured reserve when they get hurt, a religion assimilates doctrines and rites and practices and, in time, replaces them with other doctrines and rites and practices. Sometimes a player is repurposed. Sometimes a player is coached in such a way that they almost seem like a different player. So also, religious ideas. Some of any given religion’s ideas may serve perfectly well for a time and then may age and be discarded for other ideas. One does not argue that the Buffalo Bills are wrong to have Shady McCoy as their running back now just because O.J. Simpson used to be.
And yet, like a sports team, some things may stay unchanged. The mascot, the home field, the coach, the names of the various roles and positions, the plays, the uniforms, etc. On any given team, there may be some players who are particularly good and others who are not so particularly good. Even so, in a religion, an idea may be introduced that turns out to be a “non-starter” after just a few games. Take polygamy. One finds it practiced in the Hebrew Bible in a few instances. Abraham takes his wife’s handmaid, Hagar, to bear a child. Jacob marries Rachel and her sister and then takes their handmaids as concubines. The book of Samuel begins with a story of a man who takes a second wife in the interest of offspring. Solomon appears to have accumulated wives as part of a network of alliances. The Bible never records some prophet going to these patriarchs and telling them that what they have done is somehow evil but in each case, the results suggest that the practice is not to be encouraged. And there certainly is not stamp of divine approval beyond prophetic silence.
Generally speaking, religions that can identify “problem ideas” –and religions can isolate those ideas and archive them in lieu of better ideas. If they do so, they stand a far greater chance of surviving and thriving. There are religions that have perished, despite having some great ideas, simply because they were not willing to mothball their lousy ones. A religion that asserts that any idea that one of its great thinkers has ever had must be eternally accepted and promulgated is going to suffer for doing so. For example, Martin Luther is esteemed highly in most Protestant churches for his teachings about faith and grace. But what modern American church would survive if it continued to teach Luther’s anti-semitic attitudes? Getting trapped in the inertia of a destructive, harmful, and baseless conviction will spell the end of any ideology, regardless of how many good ideas it esapouses. I would regard the sprinkling of gender-injustice found in some Biblical texts as a case in point. No modern church is going to survive while suggesting that its pastor is encouraged to take a concubine as a solution to a fertility problem.
So, if a religion like Judaism or Christianity or Islam generates a misogynistic idea (and lets face it, over the course of centuries, you are eventually going to have a few misogynists make their way into leadership positions) and concludes that all ideas asserted by such people must be integrated into the fabric of religious life indefinitely, its days are numbered. It cannot survive such an epistemological stranglehold on its common sense. It has to be allowed to say, “we had good reason to think this idea was true for a short time but experience has made it clear that it is not.”
No one who reads The Handmaid’s Tale wants to live in Gilead, no matter how many social problems their theocracy may have solved otherwise – no matter how many passages from Leviticus or the Apostle Paul they cite as justification for their lack of charity. Gilead is a society that Jesus would condemn unequivocally. And for that reason, my concern over some church-led campaign to instate it in the society in which I live and work is slight. Indeed, from the surface of things, it would appear that Gilead took all of the worst ideas that it could find in American religious traditions, and archived every idea that was beautiful.
But, some stalwart deacon may object, how is one to know which ideas are worthy? Won’t the church as an institution fragment into a million pieces if there is no consensus as to which ideas had their origin in the divine will and which were human abrogations?
I suppose the answer to that question might sound something like this: If there are two opposing ideas and there is no way to be certain which is correct, pick the one most loving to most people and assume the best until the idea proves itself to be otherwise.
Question for Comment: Where would a Christian utopia get its blueprint?