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The Handmaid’s Tale: a timely indictment of conservative religion

Monday, 24 July 2017  | Sarah Judd-Lam

When I heard The Handmaid’s Tale was headed for the small screen, I dived afresh into the novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, which I had first attempted to read in high school but never finished. Probably not the wisest decision just months out from the launch of the series, which, like all literary adaptations, was bound to suffer from comparison.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Offred (Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men) is a handmaid, a glorified sex slave in the dystopian, totalitarian theocracy of Gilead. Handmaids are captive mothers, forcibly separated from their families and ‘re-educated’ to become subservient vessels of reproduction for the infertile ruling class. They are robbed of their identities and freedoms and brutalised in the name of God.

The adaptation

Diehard Atwood fans may be disappointed at how much creative licence is taken with regard to the plot. Whole episodes diverge almost completely from the novel, mostly to flesh out the experiences of key characters whose fates were previously shrouded in mystery. While I was initially frustrated by these new storylines, they do serve to update the original 80s narrative for a contemporary audience. Unlike the book, the screen interpretation features a number of African-American characters and a deeper exploration of the plight of the so-called ‘gender traitors’.

The expansion of these characters’ journeys also makes the series more thrilling and dramatic, a necessity for the audio-visual format. The solitary unknowing and inner drama of the novel would perhaps not have translated so well to screen. To their credit, the creators have compensated for this loss with an expert rendering of the ‘feel’ of the novel; the bleak colouring, sombre soundtrack and use of slow motion faithfully portray the sense of chronic terror and despair that underlies the narrative.

What I found most compelling about the series, however, was its message. Some viewers have labelled it ‘anti-Christian’ or ‘anti-religious’, but I don’t think this is the case at all. I think the series – like the novel – is an insightful, prophetic warning about the dangers of taking conservative doctrines too far. The Handmaid’s Tale series warns against three key dangers for the church: graceless religion, tolerating abuse and engaging in moral hypocrisy.

Graceless religion

Convinced that a major fertility crisis is the result of immorality, the Sons of Jacob seize control of the United States in order to enforce a return to ‘traditional’ values. They set up a rigid, hierarchical class system and use Biblical language and references to justify control, harsh punishment and ritualised rape. Gilead is an extreme case, however it is a stark example of the dangers of Old Testament-inspired legalism.

The training and treatment of Offred and the other handmaids is strongly reminiscent of the strict discipline, emphasis on modesty and conformity, and harsh punishment often associated with religious boarding schools and other institutions. People who are subject to such conditions often walk away from God because the experience makes faith seem so unappealing. Many wind up scarred for life.

Rules-based forms of Christianity bind adherents to an endless cycle of striving, guilt and inadequacy, leaving no room for error or even individuality. They give people a warped view of God, such that they may never truly experience his unconditional love and acceptance.

Tolerating abuse

Many Christians are quick to point the finger at Muslims for oppressing women and promoting violence. However, few Christians will admit that Christianity has the propensity to be misused in this way. We need only look at history to see countless examples of Christian individuals, groups and institutions perpetrating oppression and violence in God’s name.

Recent revelations about Christian doctrines being used by perpetrators to justify domestic violence, and the legacy of shame unearthed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, are two pertinent, local examples of Christian principles being misapplied to bring about considerable harm.

In his book, Less than Human, David Livingstone Smith argues that dehumanisation is usually a precursor to unjust treatment and atrocity. In the Handmaid’s Tale, fertile women are reduced to walking wombs and are treated cruelly as a result. Infidels – such as doctors performing abortions and people of other Christian denominations and religions – who cannot bear children are dehumanised completely and often put to death. As the Commander says, ‘Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.’

Engaging in moral hypocrisy

One of the most concerning things for Christians opposed to Donald Trump has been the religious right’s willingness to overlook his many indiscretions regarding women in favour of their ‘pro-life’ agenda. The propensity for religious conservatives to tolerate private moral indiscretions, especially of the sexual variety, is explored in the Handmaid’s Tale, where the moralistic leadership is more than happy to remove someone’s limb for committing adultery, later to be found cavorting with prostitutes in a secret and illegal bar.

This kind of hypocrisy is reminiscent of the kind of religion peddled by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness… You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!...You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. (Matthew 23:23-28)

Where to from here?

The Handmaid’s Tale is a stark and bitter-tasting portrayal of bad religion, the kind that lurks in the shadows of our own hearts and histories and that can insidiously pollute our churches and communities. How will we respond when we see graceless religion being taught and practiced, oppression and violence being tolerated, and leaders engaging in moral hypocrisy?

Will we be like the Commander and his wife, who started off as dynamic idealists but were sucked into a brutal system that left them joyless, harsh and hypocritical? Will we be like Aunt Lydia, so convinced of her black and white doctrine that she is willing to harm others in its name? Will we be like Offred, who sees the system for what it is and risks her life to fight for freedom? Or will we be like Christine, the nun we meet briefly in episode seven, who dedicates her life to freeing others as part of the resistance?

The choice is ours.

Sarah Judd-Lam was raised an avid film buff and enjoys everything from foreign art-house dramas to cheesy blockbusters. She is passionate about social justice and has a particular interest in the interface between faith and just action. Sarah works in the community sector, however all views expressed here are her own.


Mary Fisher
July 24, 2017, 4:08PM
Thank you for a coherent, insightful review.

I was beginning to despair after reading too many 'we're under attack' responses.

I was becoming weary of such views.

So again - my thanks.
Geoff Westlake
July 24, 2017, 5:07PM
When we put those three warnings into positive terms, we need:
- Graceful churches that
- Don't tolerate abuse and that
- Are able to work that paradox with integrity from the top down.


In terms of solutions, I wonder if the work done since 2000 to protect against child abuse is being applied more broadly to protect against any kind of abuse.

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