Opinion: The Handmaiden's Tale - a reality check for the church
Instead of a democratic republic founded on the will of the people, the United States is a dystopian theonomy ruled by the divine law of the Judeo-Christian God. This is the premise of Hulu’s “The Handmaiden’s Tale,” a television adaptation of Canadian Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel.
The show’s third season will be released June 2019, and people are anxiously awaiting it. Rotten Tomatoes gave season one a 94 percent “fresh” rating and season two a 90 percent “fresh” rating. In 2017, the show received the Golden Globe for Best Television Show.
However, even prior to the TV adaptation, the work sparked interest. There was a 1990 movie, an opera and even a ballet, on top of 40 additional translations of the novel.
Writing while under Soviet oppression, Atwood broached numerous controversial topics including female rights, individual liberty and the nature of religion within the state. The work is a harsh reality check for various aspects of modern American society. Yet while there are many areas being challenged, I found upon watching only the first episode of season one that "The Handmaiden’s Tale” is also a disturbing reality check for mainstream Christianity.
“So the book is not ‘anti-religion,’” Margaret Atwood wrote in her essay published in the New York Times in 2017. “It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny.”
The foundation of Gilead, the name of her dystopian world, is rooted in Puritan themes and practices that dominated a bulk of American society in the 17th and 18th centuries. Atwood hyperbolizes these themes and portrays them on an exaggerated scale which points out a major problem in society’s perception of Christianity.
Yet in order to fully understand this connection, it is important to note exactly who were the Puritans Atwood so heavily draws upon in her work. The Puritans emigrated from England and Holland in the 1600s to establish themselves in the American colonies. They had strong opinions about the nature of the Church of England, which had only recently been established by King Henry VIII.
They advocated for fervent faith and piety, which was often misconstrued as characteristics of a strict, hypocritical and heartless faction like in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“And in its bequest of intellectual and moral rigor to the New England mind, it established what was arguably the central strand of American cultural life until the twentieth century,” an article from The History Channel says.
This “fervent intellectual and moral rigor” influenced the spread of Enlightenment ideas and the establishment of the United States. It has since been a backbone of the American way of life. Even still, there is a nasty implication associated with Puritans due to books and movies, as well as the gradual shift to a more secular society since the 1960s.
So Puritan culture, although extremely important to the foundations of America, has a negative connotation that Atwood used in her novel and that Hulu later depicted in the television adaptation. Now why should the Christian community care?
I think the reason is twofold. First, we are tainting the message of the gospel our community sees, and second, there is a growing hostility towards Christianity due to these shortcomings.
Christian Conservatives or the religious right was formed in the 1970s following hippie movements and the sexual revolution of 1960s America. Largely in response to the threat of communism and a traditional approach to family and society, the religious right became strongly affiliated with the Republican party.
“Leaders and organizations associated with the Religious Right made a broad-based religious appeal to Americans that emphasized traditional family values,” Michael J McVicar wrote, an assistant professor of religion at Florida State University. “They also criticized secular and materialistic trends in American culture that many in the Religious Right associated with the moral and economic decline of the nation.”
In McVicar’s article published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, the rise of the Christian Conservative community is traced through the late 20th century. He points out that Christian Conservatives are associated with strict values and appreciation of traditional units like marriage and family.
This leads to tension between more liberated and reimagined constructs of marriage, gender and the family unit and the traditional Judeo-Christian understandings. The media has made this tension evident, and Christians have not done enough on the national scale to coincide with different values. Often, the leaders and figureheads of evangelicals approach these controversial issues with a lack of empathy and stubbornness, refusing to acknowledge change and, more importantly,to always act in love.
The core of the Bible and the gospel of Christianity is love. It is the root of the process of salvation and the source of redemption. This is a principal driven home at an early age in the church, which I experienced firsthand. From the time I can first remember going to Sunday School, I was taught, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Why are Christians then perceived as inhumane and heartless, concerned more with doctrine than love?
As Atwood portrays in her novel, the Christian community should take to heart the way society views us. Instead of being overly concerned with proper demeanor or traditional family units, we should be boldly acting in love for all mankind.
“We love because he first loved us,” the apostle John writes in I John 4:19-21. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
So, while there is nothing wrong with holding fast to the truth of the Bible or God’s command, we cannot forget that his foremost command is to love. Despite the social issue or controversial topic or even political candidate, the way people should perceive the Christian community is one who loves.
By Maddie Coggins