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

When I Grow Up

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know about you all, but I was certain that I was going to be an agricultural veterinarian. I was going to specialize in Equine Care, and spend my days travelling to horse farms and stables caring for the these large, stately animals and the people who loved them.

But somewhere along the way, church caught me. It hooked me by the mind and the heart, and I found myself incapable of surrender. Church felt important—it oriented me outside of myself and towards justice, righteousness, and making the world a better place. My previous dreams simply couldn’t compete with the larger, big-picture worldview of God in Christ. Suddenly I was planning my future ministry, dreaming of ordination and robes and preaching and teaching, wondering if getting arrested is the sort of thing that a really committed pastor would do for the cause of justice, thinking about environmental ethics and the poor and multicultural church, and fantasizing about a Godly Play Classroom of my own.

Fast forward a few years, and these days I am not so sure. Sometimes I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing in this very moment, serving a small suburban church near a big city. When we serve our neighbors, when I preach the Gospel, when I catch the neighborhood kids singing church songs at the playground and playing “baptism” with their dolls, I am caught again.

But other days, the days filled with long meetings, marked by congregational conflict and uncertainty, the days when we are fighting over carpet colors or worried that we don’t have enough money to feed the poor and help the helpless, the days when my church sucks the life out of me with endless meetings and neediness, … Those days I find myself returning to the same question: what on earth I was thinking?

I know I am not alone. Read more

What White Christians can Learn from Get Out

the author

The author

I’ve watched white churches attempt to confront racism in ways their members can digest, whether it be with campaigns or curriculums. So I’d like to add a suggestion. Predominantly white churches who want to confront their racism should watch Get Out.

In Jordan Peele’s horror/thriller, a young black photographer named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams from Girls) for the first time. The audience travels with Chris and Rose to the secluded and expansive home of the rest of the Armitages: Rose’s neurosurgeon father, Dean (Bradley Whitford); Rose’s psychiatrist mother, Missy (Catherine Keener); and Rose’s mixed-martial arts enthusiast brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones).

The Armitages appear to be the average “liberal” white family, but there is an eerie mixture of condescension and forced politeness molded into their kindness that makes Chris uncomfortable from the moment he arrives. When Chris meets the Black housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Black groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson), who are subservient in a way reminiscent of slavery, it’s clear something isn’t right.

Chris eventually finds pictures of Rose with numerous Black men and a picture of Rose with a less hypnotized, more modernly dressed version of Georgina. The photos lead to the big reveal of the terrifying truth about Rose and her family. Rose lures Black men (and Georgina) to her family’s home so her mother can hypnotize them, and her father and brother can then transplant the brains of white people into the bodies of their new Black hosts. The process started with Rose’s grandparents, whose brains were transplanted into the bodies of Walter and Georgina. The brain transplants leave their victims in the “sunken place”: a place in their consciousness where they are passive observers of everything they say or do.

Peele’s “Get Out” is a love letter to the Black community, validating our anxiety about the racism of all liberal white people—an anxiety that is no exception for Black people who work with or worship with liberal white people in predominantly white churches. White church folks invested in anti-racism work understand that unpacking their racism (and the work that comes with it) rests solely on them and not on Black folks.

 

If you’re a white liberal churchgoer watching “Get Out,” here are some takeaways from Get Out that you don’t want to miss: Read more

Becoming a Sanctuary Church

“Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.” In resistance to the Executive Order banning refugees from seven majority Muslim countries and discriminating against Muslims, those have been the words on our sermon boards on both sides of our church. Until the Executive ban is fully rescinded, until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is no longer directed to raid immigrant homes in our community, and until DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals) candidates no longer live in fear of unfair deportation, that sign will continue to hang prominently in front of the church I serve: The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. As Christians seeking after God’s justice and because of our physical positioning — just four blocks east of the White House — we feel a deep calling to stand up as a Sanctuary Church.

Last spring Kathy Doan, a ruling elder at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and a longtime advocate for the immigrant community, and Maricelly Malave, Co-Founder of Sanctuary DMV (District Maryland Virginia), met with me to share an evolving need for churches and communities to join the New Sanctuary Movement. They shared the history of this ancient practice for temples, churches, and even whole cities to declare themselves as a place of refuge for people accused of crimes in which they feared unfair retribution. They shared that churches in the U.S. first provided sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad, helping slaves pass to freedom during the Civil War. In the 1970s, when refugees from the civil wars in Central America came to the United States seeking shelter, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees seeking asylum. Many were deported and faced death squads on their return. In response to this dire situation, the Sanctuary Movement was formed. At its peak, there were over 500 member congregations. In 1986, the Sanctuary Movement won the inclusion of Central America as part of our immigration laws.

Starting the summer of 2014, we started seeing the return of the humanitarian crisis with thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and forced gang participation in Central America seeking safely in the United States. Moreover, eleven million undocumented persons are living in the United States, many of whom have lived here for more than ten years. These members of our community — these friends, family members and neighbors — are all at risk of deportation. Read more

Becoming a Bat: A Pastor’s Journey in to Aerial Arts

The author and her trapeze

The author and her trapeze

“I’m a bat!” No, I wasn’t flying around in the middle of the night. Those were the first words I uttered when I found myself hanging upside down from a trapeze bar. A seminary friend had invited me to take an aerial arts class with him at a studio called Sky Candy, and though I had no idea what I was getting into, I agreed. The class exposed us to different aerial apparatuses: silks, lyra, the static trapeze, and the hammock. Now, I don’t consider myself an acrobat. I am a tap-dancing, yoga-doing theatre kid – activities that are done right-side-up, standing on your feet. For the first part of the class, I didn’t really enjoy anything. Then, we got to the static trapeze. The static trapeze was unlike anything I had ever done before. Hanging upside down, I loved it, and I was up for the challenge. After the first class, I knew I wanted to continue. It turns out “being a bat” was exactly what I needed at the time.

By the end of my senior year of seminary, I performed in the student showcase at my studio and had found two amazing coaches to work with. I had the opportunity to train with Elsie Smith, the founder of the New England Center for Circus Arts, and former Cirque Du Soleil performer. Post-graduation, I continued to train back at home in Kansas City while looking for my first call. While I had many typical requirements one considers when searching for a call, I might be the only pastor whose primary requirements included a city that had a studio with trapeze. My aerial arts classes came up in conversations with search committees as I interviewed. People were constantly surprised and found it an interesting hobby. When I arrived at Germantown Presbyterian Church last October, I was thrilled to find out that there was an aerial arts studio in Memphis with a trapeze.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” This quote echoed in my mind as I learned how to climb to the top of a warehouse on a silk, or when I learned how to balance on the trapeze bar on my stomach. Read more

woman sitting alone in coffee shop

Narrative Envy

woman sitting alone in coffee shopNot long ago, I was making small talk with a new acquaintance before a board meeting began, and we were sharing about our recent respective vacations. I said, “I went to Chicago with my parents, and we had a lot of fun exploring the many museums, restaurants, and Frank Lloyd Wright houses.” She made some affirming listening noises, but then she paused. “So …you don’t have a family?”

I felt trapped by the limitations of her question. I had said that I had been traveling with my parents, but obviously they didn’t constitute a family in this woman’s mind. I could say that I’m a thoroughly invested aunt to my sister’s children, but that seemed to circumvent the intent of her question. So, resignedly, I gave her the answer she sought, “No, I do not have children; I’m not married.”

This happens to me more often than I’d like in my Midwestern context. I’ll meet a new female acquaintance and one of the first questions she’ll ask is, “Do you have children?” When I reply in the negative, I sense that she pulls back emotionally. Since we don’t have that common point of connection, I assume, she decides I am not someone with whom she can relate. One woman persevered and questioned, “Do you have a dog?” I do not. I am not a dog person. At that point, she gave up. I felt deemed to have a boring and pitiable existence.

It is difficult for me because this place of greatest scrutiny is also the place of my current greatest pain. I would love to be married and to have children. But that has not been my narrative up to this point.

The tenth commandment is, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” More often than not, I do not covet my neighbor’s house but rather my neighbor’s narrative. I covet the common narrative of adulthood, which is that you grow up, get married, and have kids. Read more

I Could Not Know

This is the testimony of a white woman, written primarily for other white people.

I did not know, I could not see. I had no idea. Now, years later, I’m frustrated that my not knowing, my not seeing, was hurting people. I’m finding ways to live with discovering the harm I’m causing without reducing myself to paralyzing shame. I’m slowly in a process of unlearning defensiveness. To do this, I need to know where I’ve come from and how different parts of my life and the system interact.

The place where I was first taught that white bodies mattered the most was in church. Before I could read, all the pictures of God and Jesus were white. All of the children sitting on the laps of the deity in the painting were white. All of the children in my Children’s Bible illustrations were white. This, despite the fact that Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew, as the children in his company would have been, as well as his disciples.

This is what I mean when I say that I was taught to ignore some bodies and to value others from an early age through pictures. And I had no idea. Now, I wonder how black, brown, and indigenous children walking into our churches understand their place (or lack thereof) in the kingdom of God, when everyone pictured in it is usually white.

My school books were the same way: mostly white characters, mostly male characters. Some people are the main characters in stories (white males), while others are either nonexistent or there to support the main character.

The adults in my life, without intention, taught me to have stereotypes: People who don’t speak English are stupid, “colored people’s time” is about people being late because they are lazy, people who are unemployed just don’t want to get jobs. No one admitted that they were subtly teaching these things through offhand comments while reading the paper or watching the news. People said, “We’re nice to everyone and value them equally.” I could not see that simply saying and believing we can be nice causes harm, because the world does not treat people equally. This is not only about me being nice to people of different races; I also need to understand that the world does not treat them as equal and work toward changing that.

Thanks to Brene Brown, I am aware that my shame over being a racist will only paralyze me. Thinking of myself as a terrible person, or hearing that I’m a terrible person when someone calls me a racist or tells me to behave differently to cause less harm, does not help anyone. It only gets me stuck, and only serves to protect my ability to do harm, instead of helping me learn to do less harm.

So how do we not get wrapped up in the guilt and shame of understanding that to be white is to be participating in a racist system? Read more

Beyond Disney Royalty: A review of Queen of Katwe

The slums of Katwe, Uganda, are an unlikely place to find a Disney Princess. They’re an equally surprising setting for a movie about a chess prodigy. Yet, this is home to Phiona Mutesi. And her story—the remarkable journey of a young girl who struggles to survive on the streets with her family and finds chess as a path to a brighter future—creates the brilliant tension and inspiration that is Disney’s recent movie Queen of Katwe. This film follows Phiona as she overcomes impossible odds; its focus on tapping the unrealized potential in all people is a gift to viewers who experience Phiona’s story through the lens of the camera.

One of the strengths of the film lies in its ironic juxtapositions: the dusty, chaotic streets of Katwe, lined by the ramshackle shelters that are home to the poorest of the poor, are set as a backdrop for the strategy and precision often associated with the game of chess. Nakku Harriet (Phiona’s single mother played by Lupita Nyong’o) desperately tries–in a culture in which women have few rights and even fewer opportunities–to provide for Phiona and her siblings. Phiona, her sister, and brothers cannot afford to go to school. They spend each day selling corn, hoping they will have enough to eat and pay rent at the end of the day. The story begins to shift when one afternoon, Phiona finds herself outside a church mission that offers sports for children in the city. Seeing that Phiona is hungry, Coach Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo) invites her inside for porridge. But porridge is not the only remedy for Phiona’s hunger. Inside the mission, Phiona discovers chess.

Katende quickly notices Phiona’s intelligence and innate skill for the game. Once Phiona has won chess matches with all the girls at the mission, she goes on to challenge (and win against) the boys as well. When Katende enrolls the children of Katwe in a chess tournament, Phiona takes the title. Her quick mastery of the game leads her to more tournaments at the local and international level, including the global tournament held in Russia. Plenty of setbacks and moments of conflict arise throughout the film, particularly regarding the clash of Phiona’s own culture with the privilege her success at chess affords. In light of this conflict, Phiona grapples with making difficult decisions. So, too, the viewer must sit with a story that illustrates the paradox that life is neither a magical fairy tale nor a hopeless case. Read more

Is Your Pastor Sexist? Is the New York Times Sexist? Are You Sexist?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched our Presbyterian colleagues protesting Princeton Theological School’s plan to honor Tim Keller, who in his long ministry has argued women should be subservient to their husbands, a point of view that is also interpreted to state women should not be ministers.

Before I go any further, let me be clear: CBP/Chalice Press strongly disagrees with that stance, or with any stance that espouses inequality in any form whatsoever. There are many, many, many1 women doing incredible ministry that should inspire us all to step up our game. We’re lucky to work with them.

Back to the story. Traci Smith, author of the recently released Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home and a Princeton alumna, blogged about this and caught the attention of both Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News (she declined their interview request) and the New York Times, which didn’t reach out to her but quoted her blog instead.

Is Your Pastor Sexist?, by Times contributor Julia Baird, referred to “Rev. Tim Keller” and “Dr. Keller.” It then referred to Traci as “Traci Smith, a former Princeton seminarian who is now a minister,” and noted Christian author Carol Howard Merritt as “a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” No Rev. before their names.

Surely this was a mistake, right? Copyediting gone awry? 2

Traci and Carol both mused about that on social media, and their connections jumped on the bandwagon. I’m not one to fire off Letters to the Editor, but this was clearly an instance where we could offer our opinion as a publisher regarding one of our writers, as well as share a view on the world of ministry with some folks who might not necessarily understand how things work in the professional field. So this morning, I sent off this missive:

Dear editor,

Julia Baird’s opinion piece, Is Your Pastor Sexist?, contains several unintentional but extremely ironic sexist errors. The male subject of the article is referred to as both Rev. Keller and Dr. Keller, indicating the Times uses honorific titles. Two female pastors, Traci Smith and Carol Howard Merritt, do not have Rev. attached to their references, indicating the Times does not use honorific titles. Which is it? Surely this decision isn’t driven by gender?

It’s likely bad copyediting is the culprit here, but this oversight epitomizes the everyday challenge female pastors face in their vocation — sexism undermines the equally challenging work they do in a workplace that is all too often hostile to them simply because of their chromosomal combinations.

I see one correction already in the online version. If a story about sexism is inherently sexist, that probably merits at least a correction as well, does it not?

Sincerely,
Brad Lyons

A few hours later, an email rolled in from Matt Seaton, Staff Editor in the Op-Ed Department:

Thank you for your letter regarding Julia Baird’s Op-Ed essay “Is Your Pastor Sexist?” I am responding because your letter was forwarded to me as the editor of this article.

Times style usually allows for use of the title “Rev.” (for Reverend) only on first mention, and this was applied to the Rev. Tim Keller in this case. (Thereafter, he appeared as Dr. Keller, given his doctorate of ministry.) But honorifics are applied as context allows, not as a rigid rule.

Our chief copy-editor explained to me that the “Rev.” title was not applied to the other two ministers in the piece, Traci Smith and Carol Howard Merritt, because they were introduced in ways that would have made the addition of “the Rev.” awkward and clumsy, and because, in each case, they were both clearly identified as minister or pastor.

On second use of each of those ministers’ names, “Ms.” was the correct honorific, since neither of them, to the best of our knowledge, has a doctorate of divinity or ministry.

Thank you for your attention to this matter and taking the trouble to communicate your view to us.

Best, Matt

So the honorifics were cut because it would make the writing clunky. That’s weak. Very, very weak. Just rewrite the sentence! You’re not going to wear out your computer or need Tommy John surgery to fix that.

But it’s more than weak — it’s offensive.

I understand we’re talking about a few letters, but those few letters make a world of difference. Though their choice was intentional, their choice also subliminally subjugates female pastors in their vocation and in our culture.

CBP/Chalice Press is a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has for decades ordained women, and our first female General Minister and President, Sharon Watkins, is about to be followed by our second female General Minister and President, Teresa Hord Owens. We’re darn proud of that. Beyond that, we work with women and men, ordained and non-ordained, from many denominations, because we believe everybody has gifts from God regardless of whether they’ve gone through school or the proper training.

What I hear from my female colleagues in ministry is that it’s getting better but that the gender gap we see across society still exists in ministry – in the lack of respect shown to female clergy, in disparate compensation packages, and in the opportunities to lead at vibrant congregations. It’s going to take a lot of work to fix this, but we must fix it, and all the other prejudices in our culture, if we are to live in the Beloved Community.

It falls to all of us in the ways we talk about each other, the ways we hold each other accountable for our biases, the way we work on ourselves to erase those biases. But the New York Times, bless its heart – I sure hope it comes to its senses soon.

Footnotes

1. Many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many… well, you get the gist.
2. Baird reached out to Traci and said she hadn’t used titles, that they were added later.

one set of silverware on a tablecloth

Come to the Table

one set of silverware on a tablecloth

Join the feast!

Many years ago, my friend had a young daughter with serious medical issues who had to be hospitalized for several weeks. Understandably, my friend was under enormous stress and she did not have the time, energy, or desire to cook. Her priority was being with her daughter in the hospital. So, for these weeks, she subsisted on rice cakes (this being the early 1990’s, rice cakes were ubiquitous in the low-fat, high carbohydrate craze). It was a quick way to eat, and it felt the appropriate food considering her circumstances. She was sad and fearful, and food had no taste: might as well eat something that tastes as wretched as she feels. It wasn’t just that the rice cakes were dry and flat; her spirit was dry and flat.

Thanks to God’s mercy, the daughter recovered and was released from the children’s hospital. But my friend continued to eat race cakes. Though her child was now well, she had developed a habit of eating them, and a habit is hard to break.

A couple of years passed, and the season of Lent was coming up, a season in which traditionally people give up something of value to them. My friend was surprised when, in prayer, the Holy Spirit nudged her with an invitation: “maybe you should give up rice cakes for Lent.” When my friend told family members, they teased her. After all, people normally fast from something desirable, like chocolate or coffee. Who gives up rice cakes for Lent? But my friend did, and, within days of giving it up, she lost her craving for them. At the conclusion of Lent, she didn’t resume her rice cake eating ways. It was God’s way of signaling to her that her previously dry and flat season was over.

I resonate with my friend’s experience. Too easily I have slipped into the habitual thought. “This is my lot in life: I just have to make do with eating crumbs and feeling crummy.” When I look around at the state of the world and the state of this county, I grow discouraged and overwhelmed: how long will the wicked prosper? In the face of these challenges, I need to be paying attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Seasons change, and there will come a time when this painful season is over. Sometimes I act as if subsisting on rice cakes is the only way forward. But as Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season…a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” There is a season for fasting, and there is a season for feasting. There is a time for us to give up something of value, and there is a time for us to reexamine what has become too valuable to us and why. There is a time to eat rice crackers beside a hospital bed, but there is also a time to come to the Lord’s banqueting table, and experience afresh the banner of love unfurled over our heads.

My hope is that we pay attention and heed God’s gracious invitations to us. When appropriate, God will invite us to mourn and to wear sackcloth, and, also God will eventually invite us to cast off those sackcloth and grave clothes that cling to us long after a season has ended. When the Lord nudges us, let us trade the dry and the tasteless for God’s extravagant banquet.

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!