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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

Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

Good Christian Sex cover

Good (Progressive) Christian Sex (Resources): A review of Good Christian Sex

Good Christian Sex cover

Good Christian Sex

I have an entire shelf of books about sex in my office at church: historical critical analyses of sexuality in ancient Israel and first century Rome, dense volumes of theology and ethics, some psychology, and a distressing number of books about clerical abuse and safe spaces in church. One of my seminary professors instilled in me the practice of “the ministry of the well-placed book,” (thank you, Dr. Dykstra!) and I keep this shelf front and center in my office, hoping the message will be literally seen and figuratively heard: I am not afraid to talk about all aspects of being human, including (but not limited to) sexuality. It’s a bummer that we in the church have such a garbage history of dealing with sexuality that I have to think of creative ways to make this point well with my parishioners.

I’ve consulted this shelf many times over the years as I offer pastoral care, but I’ve never had a book I feel like I can just pull off the shelf and hand to church members to read on their own. The wisdom I’ve found is spread between them, never in one place. Far too many of these books are tomes of theological jargon written for seminary educated “experts.”

But the minute I’m done writing this review, Bromleigh McCleneghan’s book Good Christian Sex (http://www.bromleighm.com/book/) will be sliding into its well-earned place on my sex book shelf. This short read is theologically thoughtful, ethically coherent, narratively interesting, and accessible to an audience who has never set foot in a Systematic Theology 101 classroom. I can’t wait to hand it to members of my church. Read more

Triumph

Bankstown Hospital Emergency RoomThe first copy of the soundtrack I owned was a cassette tape that contained most of the major songs from the musical. I wore it out. I handed it to the MRI technician every time I had to have a scan because the powerful beat of its music was almost as loud as that of the MRI machine. I played it in my walkman as I lay in my hospital bed on the bad days of my chemotherapy treatments – too tired and nauseous to do anything else. But then I graduated to the fully symphonic recording of Les Miserables. Three compact discs – the whole entire musical. Not a single word or note missing. It was magical. Partly because I loved the musical and partly because that CD set had been a gift from the cast and crew of the Broadway theater. As a part of my “wish” granted by the Make-A-Wish foundation (an organization that grants wishes to children with life threatening illnesses), I got to see Les Miserables, live, on stage in New York. And I got to go backstage, where I met the cast and crew and was given a number of production souvenirs, including the symphonic recording.

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A Review of Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology by Mihee Kim-Kort

kim-kort-coverIt’s not every day you get to read a seminal, formative work in a still-emerging field of theology.  But that is exactly what Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology by Mihee Kim-Kort is.  If you ever find yourself agreeing with the writer of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” pick up Making Paper Cranes and see if you can still say that when you are finished.

 

It’s not that feminist theology is brand new.  And while it is relatively new on the scene, this isn’t the first volume of theology written from an Asian American perspective.  It’s not even the first book to combine the two.

 

Kim-Kort’s work is formative and important to the entire world of theology because the way she pinpoints where her experience and the work of God intersect models the way all of us might undertake embodied theology—theology with meat on its bones. In this way her theology is neither a majority theology or a minority theology—it simply is authentic theology for a Korean American Presbyterian young woman in dialogue with all of the traditions in which she happens to be rooted.  As such, it is a model of how all of us might undertake similar theological pursuits authentic to each one of us as children of God.

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