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A Tale of Two Gileads: legalism and grace in the eyes of Atwood and Robinson

Friday, 18 August 2017  | Gordon Preece

A dystopia of biblical distortions

For the first time in my life, I’ve binge-watched a fictional TV series on-demand. I’ve finally made it into the 21st century. That, despite the distinctly dark and late 20th century feel of Bruce Miller and Hulu’s production The Handmaid’s Tale, written in 1985 by the great Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood. I have many Atwoods but have read only one, given my novel-reading is confined generally to Christmas–New Year. The chance to watch The Handmaid’s Tale on screen was a great short-cut to encountering more Atwood, albeit adapted.

The Handmaid’s Tale’s futuristic assault on fundamentalism has a biblical background. It is derived from Genesis 30:3, where one of many sad tales of patriarchal and matriarchal infertility and sibling rivalry, threatening the Abrahamic promise of a great people like sand and star-studied sky, is played out a week’s walk or ride from the hill country of Gilead (Gen 31:23). Jacob the deceiver gets deceived by his father-in-law Laban to unknowingly marry her older sister Leah, unveiled after consummation. Seven more years labour to gain the beautiful but barren Rachel’s hand, he impregnates, to satisfy his wife Rachel’s desperate desire for a child, her handmaid Bilhah, her ample abdomen apparently nestled onto Rachel’s knees for the birth, not the conception as in the TV series.

Atwood imaginatively turns this enigmatic episode into a dystopian novel of a nuclear and ecologically savaged and barren humanity. The handmaids, the fertile few, have been taken into sexual and procreative slavery to reproduce humanity’s best genes. Once the sterile and ritualised implantation of sperm takes place and 9 months of anxious waiting are patiently borne, the infants are torn from their mothers to be raised by their betters, the Commanders’ wives. The infantilised and institutionalised handmaids are banished once their fertility use-by-date is reached or they show signs of rebellion.

First and foremost is Serena Joy Waterford, wife of Commander Fred. She is clearly the brains behind the unhappy couple and the dystopian, inhumane scheme to salvage humanity - an anti-feminist activist and culture warrior of ‘traditional values’. Her own brainchild has however left her dishonoured and despairing, especially after the suicide of the first of the Commander’s concubines, humiliated by his kinky sexual tastes taken out on her in a hidden brothel for the brotherhood.

Into this toxic setting comes Offred - i.e. of Fred, absorbed into his identity and subordinated to the Waterfords’ procreative project. She is tempted to like him as they play nightly Scrabble. She is a strong woman, previously happily married to a black man she believes dead, with a young daughter, torn from her. There is much more to say but others have said it better already in Engage.Mail here and here and I will not risk repetition or a spoiler moment.

More than futuristic fantasy

I am better with non-fiction than fiction so let me take a moment to show that, like the best futurist literature, this dystopia shouldn’t be dismissed as mere fantasy. That was certainly not Atwood’s intention in her excoriating exposure of certain traditionalist, anti-feminist US trends, with a Bostonian Puritan heritage, and her, or the series’, somewhat unsubtle comparison with the US’s liberal sibling rival north of the 49th parallel, where refugees risk all to flee.

Ever since reading Jewish-American historian Simon Shama’s wonderful Landscape and Memory, with its analysis of the cultural sublime-ation of nature and depictions of a form of Green Fascism à la Hitler’s pagan ideology, I have wondered and sometimes warned that, despite much Green heroism today, in an emergency situation it could quite possibly turn totalitarian ‘tomorrow’.

This possibility was brought even closer to home by the recent report in BioEdge that human sperm-counts are rapidly reducing. It raises enough questions about our long-term population future to lead one bioethicist to prophecy humanity’s possible extinction. At the same time, I heard my friend and Relationships Foundation founder Michael Schluter prophesying from present projections of a Japan populated by only 10 million aging citizens in 2200, and similar trends in Europe accompanied by ‘a hollowing out of democracy’.

Some, seeing excess population as the primary cause of Climate Change, will see this as the only hope to curb humanity’s lust for growth and domination of creation, and to end the Anthropocene. Some may even rejoice.

A more mature response will be to recognise the fine balancing population act involved in ensuring humanity and creation’s not mere surviving but thriving. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts Australia study noted that abandoned indigenous homelands would become less, not more, ecologically sustainable, without our aboriginal predecessors’ sensitive cultivation of the land, as Bill Gamage’s work shows.

Others, like Wendy Squires (‘Haunted by a tale’s truth’, The Age, 22/7/17), see The Handmaid’s Tale foreseeing the rise of Trump, strongly supported by many fundamentalist Evangelicals, as a sign of Atwood’s prophetic powers. Trump made gestures to satisfy this constituency by cutting abortion funding to development and population control agencies like Planned Parenthood (see earlier articles debating this on our Facebook page). He also abolished Fair Pay and Safe Work Places order preventing anti-female discrimination and sexual harassment. Ironically, for feminists like Squires, these sometimes include sex-selection. Note especially epidemic-level anti-female abortion in India and China, as astute Christian feminist Elaine Storkey shows in her Scars Across Humanity, a global declaration against male violence towards women. Squires also sees signs of Gilead in Tony Abbott’s Catholic conservative remnants in the Liberal Party plus draconian Islamic dress-codes and female genital circumcision.

Robinson’s other Gilead: religious literature of a different kind

You may feel ready for the anti-depressants after the additional media assaults on perceived Puritan morality from the disturbing ABC report on evangelical domestic violence, plus the shocking survey revelations of an epidemic of rape and harassment on our university campuses. But lest we confuse fundamentalism with the freeing fundamentals of Christian faith let me make a comparison between Atwood’s Gilead and another work - Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead, already a modern classic. It is the first of Robinson's (now three) novels set in the US Midwest, in the Iowa town of Gilead.

I loved Robinson’s Gilead and trilogy, and earnestly pray that one day they might be turned into three series with similar care and imagination that Hulu has shown Atwood’s Gilead. But I won’t hold my breath. CPX’s literary scholar Natasha Moore (‘Justice to the Complexity of Things, 12/2/17, ABC religion & ethics online’) sets Robinson’s work in the context of

the divorce of religion from literature [from which] came a new category: "religious literature". TS Eliot divides this more or less dismissible class into: (1) religious writings that have some literary value (think Pilgrim's Progress); (2) that specialised field of still-legit lit that takes religion as its subject (the devotional poetry of George Herbert, perhaps); and (3) sheer propaganda, ‘the literary works of men who are sincerely desirous of forwarding the cause of religion’. None of these forms, explains Eliot, can be taken seriously when written today, "because they are conscious operations in a world in which it is assumed that Religion and Literature are not related". What he calls for, and implies is rather unlikely to come when called, is "a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and definitely, Christian"’.

We could compare CS Lewis’s wish, not for more Christian novels, romances or other thinly-disguised allegories that some sought to turn his Narnia stories and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings into, but for quality literature that assumes and fleshes out un-self-consciously a narratival Christian worldview.

Moore continues:

Enter Marilynne Robinson, stage left, several decades later. To be fair, this tentative post-Eliot resurrection of the religious element in Western literature is no one-woman show. From the mid-twentieth-century novels of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis or Flannery O'Connor to contemporary work by Donna Tartt, Tim Winton, or the poet Christian Wiman, Christian faith has for some time been stealing quietly back into the quasi-mainstream literary limelight.

… But Robinson's hushed, hypnotic prose, her everyday world crammed with marvels and calamities, above all the utter nonchalance with which she sets forth her characters' faith-fraught lives, have made this remarriage of the openly Christian with the incontrovertibly ‘literary’ much harder to ignore.

For Robinson manifestly does not write something we could label “religious literature”. The life of John Ames, the kind old mid-western preacher who narrates Gilead (2004) and appears in Home (2008) and Lila (2014), is suffused with his faith. He does not scramble to explain or defend it; it's simply who he is, the lens through which he sees and describes his world. His musings on mercy or baptism or death, it turns out, don't need to make any concessions to the supposed gap between religious thought and experience and a secular reading public. For Robinson to make those concessions would be to falsify Ames's experience, to grow self-conscious and clumsy.

Robinson's complex cosmic romance

Robinson’s non-fiction, which a lapsed Catholic friend passed on to me - unable to cope with the cognitive dissonance of the beauty of Gilead compared with her Christian humanist and Calvinist theological and cultural pieces - is informed by Augustinians of the calibre of Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian. It combines, in a ‘Christianly’ way, the rational, emotional and aesthetic, which the Enlightenment tore into competing movements (see Henry May, The Enlightenment in America, 1976), now fully fragmented between cultural postmodernism, populism and the tired, toxic, now old Atheists.

But Robinson would, I believe, be in agreement with the great poetic genius of 20th century Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Barth abhorred apologetic theology, watered down to a liberalism lite of pop psychology emotionality (and/or dry rationalism) tailored to what Schleiermacher (19th century liberalism's founder) called 'religion's cultured despisers'. Instead, he unself-consciously and unapologetically tells a vast story of God’s triune dance through creation and history, encapsulating his experience of Christmas and passion plays performed with great drama in his childhood Basel, bringing to vivid life the story of the incomparable divine human.

Robinson describes something similar of Jonathan Edwards:

I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards's vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.

Moore next describes the last of Robinson's trilogy, Lila, aptly named after an orphaned, abused, almost enslaved wild-child like woman. Like Robinson's other novels, it

doesn't shrink from mystery or suffering, from those vertiginous gaps between our existence and our understanding of it. In one of the most beautiful twists in contemporary fiction, the prickly, vagrant Lila, haunted by a past of grinding hardship and neglect and stumbling on her wanderings into insignificant Gilead, finds herself the wife of the kind old Reverend, carrying his child and living an existence she can't quite grasp as her own.

Both husband and wife, working from very different premises and personal histories, grapple with the scale and the burden of human suffering, as well as the glories of human life. “Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvellous”, Ames writes, and reads aloud to Lila. “Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don't add up. They don't even belong in the same calculation”. Neither Ames nor Robinson attempt a theodicy: a “defence” of God's existence and goodness in the face of evil and suffering not least depicted in Atwood’s Gilead]. Lila is not, after all, “religious” literature. It simply bends its gaze on a faith that is unsqueamish, experientially full, and interpretatively meaningful for those who hold it.

In a time when Christianity Today has replaced John Wilson’s wonderful engagement of Books & Culture with a largely in-house magazine of religious literature, we can only pray for more Robinsons and more glorious awe-dinary Gileads. And in a time when media depictions of messianic male violence make us wince and shamed, we look to more Robinsons for a depiction of humble-Christ-like love and service as minister, husband, father and faithful friend, in the non-hagiographical Rev. Ames. 

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and of RASP, the Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy, University of Divinity.

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