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Why does The Handmaid’s Tale and our witness of this perhaps-not-so-fantastical tale matter?

Saturday, 12 August 2017  | Karly Michelle Edgar



(Some minor spoilers of
The Handmaid’s Tale)

In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled before you knew it.

- June, episode 3

To a generation suspicious of truth claims and unconvinced by moral assertions, beauty has a surprising allure. And everything about Jesus Christ is beautiful! His life, his miracles, his grace, his teaching - even his death and certainly his resurrection - are all inimitably beautiful. A Christianity that is deeply enchanted by Christ’s beauty and thus formed and fashioned by this beauty has the opportunity to present to a skeptical and jaded world an aspect of the gospel that has been too rare for far too long. Where truth and goodness fail to win an audience, beauty may once again captivate and draw those it enchants into the kingdom of saving grace. It is possible to tell the Christian story in terms of aesthetics, because the story of Jesus Christ is breathtakingly beautiful!

- Brian Zahnd, Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity,

Loc. 67-72

Over the past few days I have been volleying between two starkly different cultural products. I have been reading Beauty will Save the World by Brian Zahnd, and watching the series The Handmaid’s Tale currently streaming on SBS, based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. I started Beauty will Save the World after a conversation where I expressed my own growing belief that beauty was probably the most significant, and yet under-explored by the church, way to invite people into the Christian faith, so I was very pleased to find that someone else agreed with me! A few days later I could finally start watching The Handmaid’s Tale, something I’d been waiting for ever since first discovering they were making it.

I was surprised that both Zahnd’s book and The Handmaid’s Tale TV series had a similar focus: the use of, and desire for, power. Yet they each attempt to decipher the role and use of power in our lives and in society quiet differently.

Zahnd spends a significant amount of time exploring the Beatitudes: the contrast between what Jesus said and how we often choose to live; how society in general choses to take and exert power; and how easy is it for us to decide that we do want power, no matter what Jesus said.

We find a stark example of this distortion of power in The Handmaid’s Tale:

I just wanted to make the world a better place. Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.

- Fred, episode 5

The world that Atwood envisioned is falling apart from low fertility rates. Humanity is dying and parts of the United States are now controlled by a new faction that has renamed the society Gilead. The tale primarily follows a woman named June and those around her. June has been re-named Offred, literally ‘of Fred’, Fred being the commander to whom she now belongs. June is believed to be part of the small group of women left who may still be fertile, and all fertile women are forced to become Handmaids, based loosely on Genesis 30 where Rachel desires children and tells Jacob to sleep with her servant or handmaid. In Gilead, the fertile women are farmed out to those in power and experience monthly rape as part of a religious ceremony with the hope that they will conceive. Fear and the unexplained are powerful motivators. In Gilead, they try to address the problems of their world through widespread control and suppression. They don’t know how to reverse the widespread infertility and so they are motivated to ‘protect’ those who may still be fertile. This protection comes at a high cost, and as a society they seem to quickly forget their humanity in order to maintain this control.

The society we view in this tale is familiar. The supermarket is familiar, if somewhat cleaner and more streamlined (food production is also diminishing). June’s singlet beneath her red dress is familiar. The city, buildings and streets are familiar, even though they are un-signed, re-painted and sparsely occupied. In this starkly homogenised world, uncertainty, fear and subversion can only be shown through the smallest flicker of an eyebrow or eye in the faces of those whose stories we follow.

In a society where life is dying you might imagine that life would become precious, but we discover that the opposite is true. Everything is driven by fear, not care. It seems that the only freedom many have (even those in positions of power) is how they treat those who are below them. We see this in June’s grief over her friend’s death during her participation of a fatal group beating of a man found guilty of rape - an act I’m sure that, up until that very moment, she would never have considered herself capable of. We see this in the way the girls are re-programmed by the Aunts (those in charge of the fertile women). We see this in Serena Joy’s (the woman she will hopefully be a ‘surrogate’ for, who is married to the commander Fred) often-fierce treatment of June. Serena Joy has lost her own power, even though we discover that she was instrumental in bringing about these very changes. We see this in commander Fred’s treatment of June: initially he appears to simply desire her company and seems to offer her moments of equality; and yet in every interaction, gift and innocuous request that is actually a command, he demonstrates that he holds her life in his hands.

The remnants of our society exist in theirs, the way that the remnants of their society exist in ours:

            Ordinary is just what you’re used to…This will become ordinary.

            - Aunt Lydia, episode 2

What do either of these works of art mean for us: the Christ-focused book and the society-focused TV series? The widespread interest in The Handmaid’s Tale series demonstrates what we are collectively thinking about. It has found an audience for a reason.

Instead of trying to overwhelm a cynical world weary of argument and suspicious of truth claims with the force of logic and debate, what if they were overwhelmed with the perception and persuasion of beauty? Beauty is graceful and has a way of sneaking past our defences. It’s hard to argue with beauty. Beauty is compelling in its own way. What I am suggesting is that we look to beauty as a primary standard for our theology, witness, and action.

- Brian Zahnd, Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity, page 28 | Loc. 474-77

In the society of Gilead, basic humanity is also disappearing. We see moments of growing resistance and we discover that different countries are attempting to deal with the problem of infertility in different ways. Within Gilead, though, with all its ‘religious rhetoric’, how would the true Christ be displayed in such a tightly controlled society?

I certainly don’t have the answer to that, as we never know what we are truly capable of or what truly matters until we are in such circumstances. But what about for us right now; how might we respond? How can we rebel against the moments where Gilead does appear in our society and in the world? What are our actions for preventing this type of possible future? Where do we see ourselves in this story? What about our friends, family, colleagues, business, society, politics, church? What does it mean specifically for us who acknowledge Christ as Lord to watch this tale where the scriptures have been so brutalised for the purpose of control? Does our collective stomach drop when we hear the words being taken so out of context, when we learn that the basis for Gilead’s control is a particular interpretation of scripture?

We’re not so much tasked with running the world as with being a faithful expression of the kingdom of God through following Jesus and living the beautiful life that Jesus sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount.

- Brian Zahnd, Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity, page 13 | Loc. 278-79

Margaret Atwood has said that she didn’t invent anything in this extremely patriarchal society, she only utilised examples that already had happened or were happening in today’s world and combined them into this possible version. This is a stark reminder that, for many of us watching, we have the good fortune to only fear that something like this could happen, because it means that it isn’t actually happening quite like this, right now, for us.

But similar methods of control and extortion of power are already happening in many parts of the world. Women’s rights and freedoms are severely diminished in many places; women are both condemned and revered for their ability to reproduce, without concern for their humanity. And this is what I have found most confronting in watching The Handmaid’s Tale and concurrently reading Beauty will Save the World. It is the fear that it is the small moments of life that could allow some version of it to happen, because that is something that already has happened in certain places. That unless we learn to deal with the small moments of life, how can we possibly expect to impact the larger ones? What are the small beliefs, the small moments, the small actions that we allow, dismiss and don’t think about but that are contrary to the countercultural invitation Jesus extends in the Beatitudes? In episode 2, when the bank accounts of all females are frozen, June’s husband says to her, with the very best of intentions, ‘I’ll look after you’, to reassure her. But June’s best friend is vocally offended. It’s not that June didn’t believe her husband wouldn’t look after her; it is just that she should not have to be beholden to a male to access her own money. He was inadvertently re-enforcing the idea that he would take up the mantle to protect her because of his privilege as male. And his well-intended but unfortunately misplaced words only re-enforced to the two women how quickly they were losing control of their own lives and that there was nothing they could do. It is a small moment, but a significant one. What small words, thoughts, actions do we daily let slip past us?

I often feel very limited in my impact on the broader society when I am confronted with issues such as those presented in The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t feel I have much influence, I don’t work in politics, I’m not in a position of leadership. But after reading Beauty Will Save the World I am reminded that it truly is the small moments focused on the love and care of Jesus that can make the difference. It is by these small acts that a beautiful life is created. To care for the whole person is beautiful. To love the whole person simply because they are a person is beautiful; not because they are a wife, mother, father, child, son, uncle, aunt, grandparent … but because they are human.

What if the greatest act of subversion was to care for others?

Is that enough to transform the world?


Karly Michelle Edgar is an artist whose work explores repetition, the desire for rest and spirituality. She loves to use and re-use old and discarded materials and believes everyone is creative. You can find more information about her work and workshops at www.karlymichelle.com.


A longer version of this blog first appeared at
https://unrefinedthoughtsonfaithndart.tumblr.com/post/162963781843/why-does-the-handmaids-tale-our-witness-of on 13th July 2017. Edited and reproduced with permission.


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