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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

United States flag, backlit

Of Streaming and Spies

United States flag, backlit

I’ll admit it. I’m late to binge-watching TV. Six months ago I didn’t understand why people would view all the episodes of a newly-dropped season over the course of a weekend. If you like the show so much, why don’t you stretch it out, savor it? I wondered.

That was before I had access to streaming television services. Now I have a couple of them, and I get it. By watching every installment during a compressed timeframe, you can really enter into the world constructed by the show. And right now my favorite world to inhabit is the one created by Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, showrunners for FX’s The Americans. (Fair warning, there are minor spoilers below.)

The Americans, now on hiatus after its fourth season, is the tale of two KGB spies in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell (in a dramatic departure from her eponymous role in Felicity) play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, travel agents and parents to a pair of teenaged kids. But when they’re not booking hotel reservations or helping with homework, they’re blackmailing visiting dignitaries, seducing contractors with high security clearance, shepherding new KGB recruits, and killing anyone who interferes with the missions they undertake on behalf of Mother Russia.

Part of the show’s appeal for me is the chronologically-appropriate soundtrack and clothing, plus the occasional quick glimpse of a vintage toy or an authentic news clip in the background. I am, after all, a child of the 80s. I’m also glad for the chance to bone up on aspects of history that were red-white-and-blue-washed for my textbooks.

More importantly, though, I love the show because of three story strands that relate to my life as a minister. Read more

Episodes of Holiness: Clergy on TV

 

It really is a shock that there aren’t more TV shows about clergy. Doctors, lawyers, police, firefighters, college students…honestly, they have nothing on the wonderful strangeness of our careers. In what other profession can one day encompass breakfast with a group of teenagers, an office crisis situation around the location of a set of church keys, a bittersweet visit with a dying 97 year old, a session of coloring with the 2 preschoolers whose parents are late to pick them up, adjudicating an argument between two people over carpet color in the fellowship hall, and maybe, if you’re really blessed, 15 minutes of prayer?  And that’s just the day at work…add in family or a social life, and you’ve got several seasons of wonderful material!

Clergy people are always on the lookout for portrayals of our profession, partly to be reminded the world knows we exist, partly to see ourselves, and, usually, for the fun of critiquing the accuracy of the portrayal. Sometimes, we cringe and hope our church people don’t watch these shows and get the wrong idea. Sometimes we wish we could force them to watch so they would understand what we really do. And sometimes, we aspire to be like the clergy we see on TV, even if we know it’s impossible to hope for.

Here, from a recent online conversation about TV shows between young clergy women, are some broad categories of TV shows that attempt (or, don’t even attempt!) to portray clergy. Happy watching!

Shows Where Clergy Are Conspicuously Absent

Several hospital shows seem completely oblivious to the existence of chaplains. ER didn’t have a chaplain character until the bitter end. And several of us note that Grey’s Anatomy often leaves us wondering why someone doesn’t call the chaplain.

Six Feet Under, though, is particularly at fault. Clergy spend a lot of time in funeral homes. They barely play a role in that show (except for a brief appearance by a young, female Rabbi).

Shows That Don’t Quite Get It (Or Maybe Get It a Little Too Much)

The classic TV show about clergy that completely misses most realities of church life is Seventh Heaven.  Among other errors, I can confirm, as a the daughter of a pastor myself, that working as your Dad’s associate pastor is about the unlikeliest thing (unless we’re talking about a mega church).

The Book of Daniel didn’t make it through one season, and was controversial for all risky moral issues and twisty relationships it portrayed. Maybe it was exactly what people don’t want to believe about clergy. And sometimes, satire is so funny that it’s true.

Many of us knew a guy in seminary who was just a little bit too much like the Rev. Casey Peerson, Mindy’s love interest on The Mindy Project.

And on those days when you just need to laugh? Father Ted  is pure humor. Inappropriate, and nearly always the complete opposite of any clergyperson you’d hope to encounter, but exactly what’s needed when you need something ridiculous after a long Sunday.

True to Life Pastoring

Two recent series from the UK do an incredible job of portraying ministry. Both are so real that I know of people who have stopped watching because it cuts too close to real life. Rev. was two brilliant seasons portraying the life of the priest at a struggling urban church, the Rev. Adam Smallbone. It is honest, funny, sad, and human. If you’ve been a pastoring for awhile, you know that even the scenes that might seem bizarre could probably happen. And Adam is by no means perfect, but he’s a good guy.

Call the Midwife was tender in its portrayal of a clergyman as he courted one of the young midwives. But the real honesty about ministry in the show comes from the wisdom of the older nuns and the hands-on ministry that the nuns and the young midwives do with mothers and families in their neighborhood. I wonder, as well, if it resonates with clergy because it portrays a group of people residing together and then going out to do ministry: when we are off on our own, scattered about in parishes, we often miss the camaraderie of seminary.

Clergy We Aspire to Be

It’s only one episode of The West Wing, but when President Jed Bartlett brings in his former priest to help him reason through the ethics of a decision, it provides a glimpse into some of the hardest and yet most rewarding moments of ministry: helping people work through God’s call on their lives. And this priest does an incredible job of it.

Firefly gives a futuristic possibility for clergy (giving us hope that we will continue to have calls in the future, perhaps to steam-punk-esque space ships!). The character Shepherd Book is a good person, but with a hint of mystery to make it interesting.

But, for most clergy women, there is no TV clergyperson we would rather be than the Rev. Geraldine Grainger on The Vicar of Dibley. She is funny, and smart, and pastoral. And she is confident in her role as pastor, through success and failure.

There’s Hope for Romance

This category is especially dear to many young clergywomen, and not just single ones. Shows that portray clergypeople as desirable partners are a reminder that we are very real, looking for companions just like everyone else. The sweet romance between a priest and a midwife in Call the Midwife isn’t that contemporary, but it’s adorable. The Mindy Project portrays a much more contemporary Rev. Love-Interest, imperfect a pastor as he may be.

But then there are the shows that have clergywomen as the object of someone’s affections. Lucinda, in The Goodwin Games; the chaplain Julia, in ER (who is pursued by John Stamos!); and, of course, The Vicar of Dibley, who marries Harry (in spite of her parish’s predictable accidental attempts to derail the wedding).