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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

“The Gospel According to…”

medium_5196311746A few months ago, I attended a conference about storytelling. As I packed my bags and started to wrap my mind around what storytelling and church might have in common, I’ll admit it, I was skeptical. But what came from that conference is perhaps one of the most beautiful, gospel giving moments I’ve ever encountered in my ministry.

One of the nights at the conference, we learned about sharing our own stories and how they impact our communal understandings of well, communion. Our lives together in this beautiful thing we call church depend so much on hearing one another’s stories, living into one another’s joys, hurts, sorrows and celebrations. And how often do we really get to do this during our worship?

For the season of Easter at my church, we decided to take this storytelling idea and put it into practice on Sunday mornings. Because of the makeup of our church, its urban setting and our culture, Sundays are really the days we see each other during the week. For these weeks of Easter, we’ll read two less lectionary texts and instead hear “The Gospel According to…” in their place. We’ll hear resurrection stories that are current, contemporary and contextual.

Taking the basics from the conference, we invited congregation members to share their own resurrection stories in two to four minutes. We pitched the idea on Shrove Tuesday with a pancake dinner and bacon (people will consider a lot of things when you offer them free pancakes and bacon) and invited church members to take the season of Lent to reflect on a story of resurrection in their own lives. During Lent, they met with pastors, reflected on their idea, put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) and looked for signs of resurrection all around them.

And this pastor has had quite the moving experience. I’ve sat in my office and listened to resurrection stories full of hope, promise and the presence of God. And I’ve listened to messy stories where everything isn’t resolved, but light still pokes through the darkness. The promise of resurrection leans in and it can’t be stripped from the story. I never would have known these stories if we hadn’t tried this endeavor in worship.

Barbara Brown Taylor has a sermon based on the Magnificat for the season of Advent. She calls Mary’s song “singing ahead of time.” I can’t help but think of that sermon each time I’ve sat down to hear the stories of church members. Over cups of coffee and homemade pastries, we’ve cried and we’ve laughed reflecting on God’s goodness and how we all need to slow down a little more to look for signs of resurrection all around us. We’ll hear stories about lost jobs, lost loves, healed family relationships, experiences in courthouses, our own health and meals around tables.

The fear everyone had in the beginning was that they wouldn’t have a resurrection story in their own lives. They couldn’t think of a tomb-rolling-away kind of situation. Turns out, the stories that most encourage us and show God’s activity in our lives are the stories involving relationships, ordinary time and in the midst of chaos. Life is not peaceful, but resurrection is still present. Life was not peaceful when Jesus resurrected. It was full of questions and chaos and pain.

Our church members are singing ahead of time as they long for the completion of what is to come. They hope, they search for hope and by sharing their stories, we all have streams of light pouring into our lives.