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Not What You Meant: The Bible and the Gospel in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, the new Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, needs a trigger warning. It’s “intended for mature audiences,” but it’s hard to watch if you’ve ever been in a relationship with a total imbalance of power, if you’ve ever been pregnant or nursed an infant, or had a child die, or been sexually assaulted. It took me four tries to get through one scene: I kept pausing and switching windows in my browser, so great was my anxiety about what was coming next.

When I first picked up the novel, I was a freshman in college – a preacher’s kid in an interdisciplinary program in Boston. I’d grown up in Midwestern churches, the words of Psalm 19 and the words of institution and my father’s preferred baptismal covenant and benediction etched on my heart. I could recite them from memory years before I entered ministry myself. But when I read Atwood’s novel, which depicts a dystopian future theocracy where women are not allowed to read, much less own anything, work, or maintain bodily autonomy, I did not recognize the ideological roots of the regime as Christian. Atwood’s world-building is incredible; and though I got references to “Loaves and Fishes” and “Milk and Honey,” I felt certain she’d also made up most of the cited religious language. At the Prayvaganza, as a handful of girls are offered in arranged marriage to returned soldiers, the Commander in charge says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection… [For] Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

I grew up in churches, but my dad had taken Old Testament with Phyllis Trible in the 1970s. I had no idea what 1 Timothy was about. I was sheltered.

I reread the novel last fall, when #repealthe19th was trending on Twitter. The Nineteenth Amendment, you’ll recall, is the one which grants women the right to vote. The hashtag gained popularity after statistician Nate Silver suggested that if only women voted in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton would win hands down. I’m no stranger now to the realities of misogyny, the ubiquitous evidence of rape culture, even as a privileged white woman, but the threat, however far-fetched, of disenfranchisement seemed to raise the stakes.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, both the show and the novel, a violent act that takes out Congress precipitates the imposition of martial law and ushers in the theocratic, totalitarian regime known as Gilead. Facing cultural upheaval and global infertility, fertile women are assigned to marriages, to serve as handmaids to the wives of powerful men in the manner of the biblical Rachel and her slave Bilhah. These handmaids are infantilized and treated alternately as holy vessels and sluts; they are covered in billowing red dresses and starched white veils; they are stripped of their names, known only in relation to the man they serve, Of-Fred, Of-Stephen, Of-Glen.

After November, it feels all the more timely. Read more

Mater Misericordiae

The Church and Sexism: What We Can Do

I live on the Maine/New Hampshire border. The radio in my bedroom gets better reception from Maine’s NPR affiliate, the one in the kitchen tunes into the New Hampshire station. Which means, recently, that I wake up to Maine’s Governor LePage saying that one of the big concerns of the heroin epidemic is that (black) drug dealers are impregnating (white) women; as I pour my coffee, I hear about the NH state legislator who suggested that women who breastfeed in public should expect to have their breasts and nipples fondled.

Mater Misericordiae

Mater Misericordiae

Mornings have been rough around here.

Even without the racially-charged language being used in Maine (horrifying in itself, but a post for another day), these stories have been a constant reminder of the continuing objectification and sexualization of women in our culture. Each morning I am told anew that women are two-dimensional building blocks for the construction of men’s multi-dimensional identities.  Read more

My Relationship With Scripture: Reclaiming the Living Word Through Bible Art Journaling

Exodus 15:11

Exodus 15:11

People assume pastors read the Bible every day for spiritual growth and study. In my experience this is almost universally false. Many pastors say we read the Bible every day, or we don’t correct the assumption that we do this; but get a pastor talking honestly about our complex relationship with the Bible, and many will admit that, no, we don’t read the Bible every day. In fact, many of us only read it when we’re preparing for a sermon or a Bible Study. The Bible is a tool in our belt, a means to an end. We flip it open (or call it up on our web browsers) to figure out how to provide spiritual food for our congregants, but we’re not using it to feed our own spiritual hunger first. How sad, especially given the fact that so many of us became ministers and pastors precisely because of how much the Bible led us into ministry.

I wonder if it’s seminary that made our relationship with the Bible so complicated. I know that is true for me. It started with all of the classes on the Bible, beginning with Old and New Testament 201. Followed by Exegesis, Hebrew, Greek and so on. In seminary the work was always to come up with a new theory or interpretation, something nobody had thought of before. “C’mon Bible,” I would think, “Tell me what I need to know.” I remember sitting in the basement of the Princeton Theological Seminary library one afternoon reading about the lack of archeological evidence for the walls of Jericho and feeling like it was the last straw. Is it true that there may not have been actual walls that fell? It felt like something had been taken away from me. I felt the same way I did when I had to dissect a frog in High School. Seeing all the guts all over the place made me uneasy. I muddled through, though, and graduated from seminary with a new, even deeper love for the Bible.

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My Marriage Isn’t Biblical, Thank God

One of my namesakes is a woman who spent decades trapped in a miserable marriage.  Her story is one of the reasons I often refer to the 1950’s as “the decade of lies.”  Society forced her to lie, pretending that her husband was a good father, that he would never hurt anyone, that they were happy together.  She had nowhere she could go, and no resources to enable her to leave, and of course divorce was nearly unheard of at the time.

After her first husband died, my namesake had a brilliantly happy, but very brief, second marriage, which was tragically cut short with her second husband’s death from cancer. And yet she never gave up hope, and she shared that hope with others.  Specifically she shared it with my mother, who was mourning the end to her own first marriage. My namesake’s perseverance when all seemed dark shone like a beacon, and I was named for her in the hopes that I would share her perseverance, but not her history.

Mom also spent my childhood (as her mother had done for her) drumming into me that I needed to be able to be independent.  She learned early that disasters do not arrive on schedule. I grew up on stories (not just from my mother) of women who suffered because they lacked the tools to be independent, whether those tools were money, connections, education or simply the right to own property in their own name. Having been named after one of those women, to say that my view of “traditional marriage” (when that phrase implies a lack of equality between partners) is negative, is a stunning understatement. I know too many stories of those battered and abused (physically and otherwise) by this system to view it as a cultural value or a folksy tradition.

And when people refer to “Biblical marriage” as something to be aspired to, my reaction is stronger. When I read the Bible I do not find it filled with marriages that function as good examples to the modern-day world. The majority of marriages in the Bible were not anything like what we experience in first-world countries today. The women did not choose their own husbands and many had no ability to own property, decide their own futures, or leave abusive situations. Polygamy and concubinage were rampant in Biblical times, and women were married off very young. Judges chapter 19 is only one Biblical example of how little women were valued in that culture. If you ever wondered what would have happened to Lot’s daughters if the angels hadn’t stopped him…. (Go ahead, read it, I’ll wait.)

But that’s not the only terrible example. Abraham pretended that Sarah was his sister so she could flirt with his customers to improve his business deals, at least twice. King David’s life is filled with troubling marriage narratives, Bathsheba’s being the most memorable, and Abigail perhaps the most positive (though she clearly had no choice in her husbands). Ruth married Boaz quite openly as the best option to avoid starving to death. Dinah, Joseph’s little sister, was married off to her rapist and then her wedding feast became a massacre. Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, had to resort to seducing Judah under false pretenses in order to receive her economic rights as a widow. The heroes of the Bible, the people we look up to as spiritual examples, are very often flawed and broken in the more earthly aspects of their lives.

There are vanishingly few marriages of the Bible which, if we met them today, we would still call good examples. Mary and Joseph had a relationship built on trust (after a little angelic intervention). Hannah’s husband Elkanah loved her dearly, despite her barrenness. Zipporah saved Moses’ life, and he had a good relationship with his father-in-law, though we know little else about their marriage. Many other marriages we know very little about; though the people in them may be good people (Aquilla and Priscilla) we know little or nothing about their unions.

If my marriage were Biblical, how would it be different? My husband would make all medical decisions for me, as my grandfather did for my grandmother.  We still have the paintings of shrunken heads she made, in an effort at therapy, because he wouldn’t let her see a psychiatrist.  My husband is, thank God, not a violent or abusive man, but if he were, and our marriage were Biblical, no one would ever be able to step in on my behalf, and I would not be allowed to leave.  Obviously I would not have had any choice in who or when I married, that would have been decided for me and I’d be informed when convenient.

There are certainly verses in the Bible which can tell us what a good marriage should look like. Ephesians 5:21 and following tells spouses (both spouses!) to be subject to one another. And while Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 can be applied to friendships as well as marriage, the theme of interdependence, rather than dependence, is shown again. Jesus exhorts us again and again to love one another as God has loved us- that is to say, wholly and sacrificially. Yet mutual interdependence is not a theme that appears often in conversations about “Biblical marriage.”

I was married in a Christian church, I was raised in the church and am now a pastor; my husband shares my faith and was also raised a Christian.  Yet, we both give thanks that our marriage is not “Biblical.” We are full and equal partners. I do not aspire to follow in the marital footsteps of Dinah and Abigail and Bathsheba, I don’t want to share their history. But perhaps, if greater blessings even than I have now are heaped upon me by God, I will grow to share some of their perseverance.