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In her keenly awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (published 1985), Atwood revisits the dystopian horror of Gilead, a totalitarian, theocratic version of the United States where women are driven into forced childbearing, loveless marriages, or domestic servitude.
Atwood’s chilling dystopias make particularly uncomfortable reading for Christians. Gilead is ruled by those who twist and misapply the Bible to justify their regime: fertile women become ‘handmaids’ who are raped in horrific ceremonies, as the biblical story of Rachel and Bilhah is read aloud. Verses from Deuteronomy are cited while criminals are brutally torn apart. Prayers are regurgitated by machines, ‘the toneless metallic voices repeating the same thing over and over again’.
Yet – curiously – Atwood says of her own characters:
‘I don’t consider these people to be Christians because they do not have [Christianity] at the core of their behaviour […] not only love your neighbours but love your enemies […] it is not a question of religion making people behave badly. It is a question of human beings getting power and then wanting more of it.’
At their centre, Atwood’s novels are really about power: power that corrupts the heart and uses religion as an instrument of oppression. Atwood has even said that she only writes on events with historical precedent; creating a dark, ugly world that looks alarmingly like ours.
Yet, real Christianity is about a God who uses power differently. The gospel demonstrates God’s power to bring freedom, salvation, and fullness of life. And so, Paul writes: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16).
Whilst the misuse of Scripture – and the kind of oppressive regime Atwood describes – should appal us, we cannot be ashamed of the Christian gospel.
For several of my friends and colleagues, The Handmaid’s Tale has formed their primary impression of the Bible. Atwood’s novels have been a crucial starting point for conversations with them.
After all, Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, is made up of witness testimonies, as characters give accounts of their lives in Gilead. Those who know and love the living Jesus have testimonies to share, pointing to a far better story. It’s of a world every bit as wicked and fallen as Gilead, but a redemption too wonderful to imagine.
Katherine works in communications for the Civil Service; she blogs the occasional thought at chatterandscribblings.wordpress.com