I recently read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, before binge watching the TV series, in order to fulfill my nerdly obligation to tell everyone else how much better the book was (btw, I'm the worst).
From the Wikipedia page: "this is a 1985 dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian, Christian theonomy that has overthrown the United States government, the novel explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain individualism and independence."
Because the novel explores the kind of protestant zealotry which has been a thread in the warp and woof of the American experiment since the beginning, Atwood mentions in the prologue how she invariably gets asked if her novel is anti-Christianity. I have to assume this question is asked by both eager iconoclasts trying to add her name to their cause and equally charged up fundamentalists, as incapable of self-critique as they are of separating a fictional world from an outright attack. The predictably militant responses of both sides always points to a certain irony: those who would react the strongest to a work of fiction like this would seem the most likely, given their druthers, to create a world comparable to the one described.
In a world where people can get this fired up over a futuristic novel turned Hulu series, I found Atwood’s response to this question to be extremely wise:
No, she responds. It’s not anti-Christianity as such. But it does take place in America. So, naturally, if it's the totalitarian religious nuts who takeover, they're going to employ the Judeo-Christian Bible in exactly the way “any authoritarian regime taking over America doubtless would. They wouldn’t be Communists or Muslims.” With this comment, she implies that an equally totalitarian regime in a novel set in China or Pakistan might employ a few twisted and half-quoted tidbits from Marx or the Quran toward the same end.
The intellectual laziness that produces devotees of both North American fundamentalism and the anti-religion religion of their polar opposition has shown itself incapable of thinking in more complex terms than "religion good" or "religion bad." Only someone like Atwood, who presents her ideas in stories rather than dictums, could see the larger dynamics in how societies tend to use and misuse their majority traditions.
Let's put aside this religion or that religion for a moment. It seems to be that there is a zealous, reactionary wing to every population—a group whose brain circuitry, for whatever reason, cross-wires their nostalgia, with their love of their family and ethnic heritage, with their fear of the future, with their fear of the other; who project that bundle of symbols and feelings back into some idealized image of the past and then get generally uneasy when the real world refuses to line up with the fantasy—and naturally this faction will coopt whatever religious texts happen to be floating around in the cultural ether for their cause.
She sees quite clearly that the United States has always had some ideological contagion getting passed around under the name “Christianity,” but only the fools are fooled. Neither faith in Jesus Christ nor the faith of Jesus Christ can be reconciled with a civil religion that is pro extractive economics and anti poor, pro one culture, race, nationality and anti all the others, anti-feminine, and so on.
When so many Christians and non-Christians alike have decided that the religion which just so happens to be the one we’ve inherited is flatly “good” or “bad” with no further nuance—or without asking the even more basic question, in my mind, what has North American Christianity got to do with Jesus?—it's refreshing to hear a respected public voice who understands the inner workings of a civil religion. Every civilization has one. And if some people press it into the service of some totalitarian regime that is racist, or Darwinian, or homophobic, it’s because some people are racist, or Darwinian, homophobic.
So what’s interesting about Christianity is NOT that some highly selective version of it can be distorted to serve such an ideology. Any belief system with as much breadth and history can be used as such. What’s interesting about Christianity is that it so often proves to be a particularly unruly tradition for would-be totalitarians who might want its support.
Hitler decided early on that Germany’s nearly unanimous religion wasn’t going away, so he needed to make do and coopt the German national church for his purposes. But he and propaganda weasel Joseph Goebbels lamented on several occasions: why couldn’t they have inherited a more "manly" national religion, loaded as Christianity is with references to God’s concern for the poor, the weak, and the marginalized?
The Christian worldview, as stretchy as it can be in the wrong hands, still has a very thin but unbreakable tether that keeps it attached to the rather annoying figure of Jesus the Christ (annoying if you’re a Caesar, a Führer, or anyone else who would demand a worship-like devotion from your people). And this person Jesus’ only ideology is compassion for whoever is being left out or trampled upon by the other ideologies of the day.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community. Checkout this blog weekly for reflections and updates or subscribe to our newsletter so that you never miss a thing.