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

Post Author: Bromleigh McCleneghan

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. Countless think pieces suggest the distressing, uncanny similarities. Offred, our protagonist, notes how slow the public was to wake up to the changes being implemented (No one was “woke” until it was far too late). There is a resistance, but internal resistance is just as important. Don’t let them break your spirit: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. There are small ways to refuse all subjection, even if you have to remain mostly silent.

The show is powerful – so well executed. I didn’t think it could be an improvement on the book, but it’s often at least as good, and the ability to visualize elements of the story is powerful. I miss Offred’s internal monologue, though Elisabeth Moss’s portrayal is magnificent: the contrast between her mannerisms in the time before and now – serving as a handmaiden, held in reproductive slavery – is stark. The world is different; she is a different person.

I am different from the girl who first read this book almost twenty years ago. Then, I appreciated the small kindnesses sometimes offered by those in power – The Commander and his wife Serena – and could see the complexity of their relationships, could be charmed by his periodic bashfulness, her physical fragility. Now, though there is considerable effort to show them in their full humanity, I cannot set aside the ways in which they have power, the ways they have benefitted from this system that kills and oppresses. He wants to flirt with Offred, to make life bearable for her, but he is unmoved as he offers simplistic justification for the regime and its horrible cruelty: “We only wanted to make things better… Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.”

In Gilead (where there is no balm for so many), great pains are taken to insist to the women that this life is better for them. Remember before when your sexuality was commodified? Remember when you had to work? Remember when you were preyed upon instead of idolized? In the new regime, they are told that they are protected, valued for the great gift of their child-bearing potential. In the Red Center, where the women are indoctrinated before being assigned, disbelief and horror pass over the face of each new handmaid as she realizes what is intended. How she will be raped. With biblical mandate and a great deal of formality, by a leader of the regime, in the presence of his wife. Each and every month, until her fertility ends.

The Handmaid’s Tale reveals in brutal detail how closely related the rhetoric of sexual purity and complementarianism is to the desire of Christian patriarchy to limit women’s freedom, sexual and otherwise. Women are powerful, and thus must be disempowered in order to be controlled. We are told it is for our own good, but many of us know this is a lie.

Perhaps most compelling for Christians, though, is the acknowledgement by Offred, Atwood, and the show runners, that the Gilead regime is a bastardization of the Gospel. Otis Moss III, of Trinity UCC here in Chicago, noted in his sermon last MLK day, that laws used to prohibit slaves from worshiping without supervision, from reading the Bible. The Bible in The Handmaid’s Tale is kept under lock and key, only read by those in power; only read out of context. In the show, Offred has a Christian background, and she knows the scriptures. In one moment, she challenges Aunt Lydia by quoting the Beatitudes.

The show has limitations, as many do, but the story is clarifying for Christians, and Christian women, in this moment: our tradition perpetuates and justifies misogyny, but the work of God is liberation for all people. In the novel, Offred prays: I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me to get through it, please. Though maybe it’s not your doing; I don’t believe for an instant that what’s going on out there is what You meant.

Bromleigh McCleneghan is a United Methodist, but serves under appointment as the Associate Pastor for Ministry with Families at Union Church of Hinsdale (UCC) in suburban Chicago. Her second book, Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn't the Only Option and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex, was published last summer. She has three daughters, and a wonderful spouse, Josh. Usually she only watches comedy, so The Handmaid's Tale is a significant change of pace.

Image by: Hulu
Used with permission
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