Yesterday I talked with Margaret Atwood. We asked each other questions. We smiled at one another. Her eyes are sharp. Her mind is sharper. I asked her about religion. I’ll tell you a story, then I’ll tell you what Atwood said.
This is the Story
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale a decade ago in a Feminist Theology class. Studying liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez and hardcore social justice nuns and professors like Joan Chittister and Mary Daly, we small crew of midwestern twentysomethings paged through the entirety of Atwood’s beloved and infamous work in the comfort of discussion circles. I talked about it with conservative Catholic friends and Evangelicals, with atheists, with my roommates back in the dorm. Hell, I talked to myself about it. Each of us had scenes burnt into our minds. I’m sure you do too, if you are one of millions who read it over the last thirty years. Or if you’re seeing it for the first time through your computer screens via Hulu. It is brilliant. It is haunting.
In my class, at a politically moderate Christian college, Handmaid’s Tale was the first book of the course: we cut our teeth on this dystopian fiction, and compared & contrasted it to actual biblical texts. This was, for me at the time, a strange and pure bliss. I’m what they call “Very Lutheran,” so I like the Bible, and I know it relatively well, and I love analyzing it in justice-centered settings. I knew the texts that lawmakers in Gilead (Handmaid’s fictional theocracy, set in an overthrown USA) interpreted to build the totalitarian social structure. Axioms that popped up in the book as rationale for the horrors held in its pages… I could recite the actual scripture verses they referred to. I grew up in “Very Christian” circles, Bible camps, religious intentional communities. Both my parents studied theology and ministry from pacifist, anti-racist, pro-worker perspectives. I was baptized in an Episcopal church when my family were practicing Quakers, by a Lutheran pastor who used to be a Catholic nun. Like the handmaids in the book, I have lived, not just worshipped, but lived in camps and once even an entire village shaped by the Bible. I have been molded by scriptural axioms, too– religious ritual folded, baked into almost every aspect of daily life in my Christian communities: the way we did the dishes together, when we met for worship, how we mashed the compost, how we were to civilly address conflict. I know at least fifty ways to sing a table prayer. I have acted out skits as Mary, Joseph, a sheep, the good Samaritan, Gabriel, Moses, Jesus, God… I have posed, costumed, as a cup of communion wine, an offering plate, the ten commandments, a dancing holy mime, and even the Giving Tree. I have been leading worships since I was five.
Maybe you’ve seen communities or families like this in the media: in documentaries like “Jesus Camp,” or paraded across our screens through the reality-TV Duggar Family, producing baby after baby. I always knew that my experiences were very different from those, but I also knew how easily my own progressive faith communities could be mistaken for something else. One summer evening as a camp counselor, leading a candlelit vigil to close the week, I realized that if some random person walked off the street and into our camp community, they’d find a scene that looked almost cultish: I grasped a mirror, held it up to each individual kid in my group, reflecting their young faces and the flame that surrounded them. We each carried candles, real fire. We quietly chanted a song by memory, some kids were hugging, many had tears streaming.
Go ahead. Picture it. Freaked out?
How about if I explain?
I was holding up a mirror as a symbol to reflect my campers’ goodness, their wholeness, their worth– to show them that each of them is made in the image and likeness of our Creator, no matter who they were, and that there is something powerful in each of them, beloved. We were singing a song about fire- that our hearts might come alive and have an eternal flame to care for other people. They were crying because I had gathered affirmations throughout the week, specific gifts I saw in them and good things they had done, so they could know that they were seen; they mattered, and could go into the world and use those good gifts. This is all scripturally based ritual and, of course, a very different scene than the abusive religious rituals we read about in Handmaid’s Tale. The scary thing is, the basis for these drastically different rituals stems from the same source: the Bible.
The deep dissonance for me when I was in college, reading Atwood in my dorm room, was that I saw how easily my beloved, life-giving, Very Christian, Very Justice-Oriented, communities could pivot, hijacked, to become something like the terrifyingly possible world Atwood had cooked up. Indeed, Atwood has said there is nothing in her text that does not have some real historic precedence, or that we don’t already have the technology to make possible.
But, encouraged and informed by Christian communities, I grew up to be a feminist writer and scholar. The handmaids? Not so much.
So what’s the difference?
The difference lies in the people who get to interpret what religion means in our everyday lives.
And make no mistake: religion does mean something in our everyday lives. Whether or not we practice it.
They key is: who get to be the meaning-makers?
Religion is not the tincture that poisons our social systems. It is we- we who interpret it (or let others interpret it for us) that can deliver goodness or harm in how we manage and apply religion.
I have so many beloved friends in my social justice circles- activists, academics, nonprofit leaders- who describe themselves as recovering from religion. I get it. I hear their stories and I know why they left. I support them.
And I couldn’t do anything to prevent what happened to them to bring about such pain.
But I can do something now.
I tell my students, I write it, I speak it clearly for groups: Remember. Jesus was an activist. He turned tables and even broke unjust laws so that the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized groups would have a spot at the feast and in the conversation. He told stories of how we are to live together in beloved community. He was gentle and surprising and a wicked good storyteller. And he was a prophet, like Margaret Atwood, speaking truth to power.
The Bible is not perfect, but I’ve been raised on the best of it. Sadly, when the Bible is mapped onto a culture of domination, that’s how we get the horrors of Atwood’s Gilead. And we’re not there yet, as Atwood has said, but we could get there if we’re not careful
I won’t let that happen. You won’t let that happen.
As for me: I refuse to let greed, domination, hatred, or fear hijack the verses that informed who I am, or take my God from me. I claim God as mine, in my image, in the image of Jordan Edwards who was shot dead by the police this weekend. In the image of my powerful Latina friend who marched today for workers’ & prisoners’ rights in Milwaukee. That is the mirror, the image I hold up for all to see.
I say no to Gilead and yes to the Bible. And I pledge to do all I can to build a better Village. Because I’ve seen it.
And this is what Atwood told me:
“People have sometimes said to me, ‘Oh this book [The Handmaid’s Tale] is really anti-religion.’
And I’ve said, ‘No, that’s not the point.’
Religion has been- and is in other parts of the world today- used as a hammer to whack people on the heads with.
But it also has been- and is today- a sustaining set of beliefs and community that gets people through those things.
So, in my book, I have the regime doing what totalitarian regimes do, which is eliminating the competition. They get rid of all the other religions as much as they can, and some of them go underground. Noteworthily, of course, the Quakers take the role that they have before, setting up underground escape routes for people. So [religion] has always had those two kinds of functions. And that is why the handmaid, in the book, she has her version of the Lord’s Prayer, which a lot of people don’t spot, but careful readers do.
That’s how it goes, and I don’t think that cultures in which the totalitarianism happens to be religious, I don’t think that’s a comment on religion, I think it’s a comment on totalitarianism. And there have been some perfectly respectable totalitarianisms that have been atheist. So that is not the factor.
My dad, who is a scientist, had a joke that he used to tell about the scientific method. There was a scientist who decided he was going to do a study to see what made people drunk. So he mixed up some rye and ginger ale, and then he mixed up rum and ginger ale, and mixed up some scotch and ginger ale, and each one made people drunk. So [the scientist] said, “Must be the ginger ale!” Sometimes we’re just looking at the wrong set of factors and drawing the wrong set of conclusions.
It’s the desire for power (which is a common human desire!). People get hold of something and think: this is going to deliver it. But that doesn’t mean that the original thing that they’ve distorted is necessarily the cause.” -Margaret Atwood. Green Bay, WI 4.30.17
Margaret Atwood and Me.