Margaret Atwood published her dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to deep controversy in 1985.
The plot of the novel is set in a near-future United States, where a Christian fundamentalist movement has forcibly taken power. This new government reorganizes society by reintroducing Biblical Old Testament-style practices. Most notably, this new government utterly subjugates women, taking away their rights, freezing their finances. Those who are fertile are forced into the role of reproduction, and are called “handmaids.”
Controversy arose when some read Atwood’s work as anti-Christian upon its publication and beyond—in fact, “The Handmaid’s Tale” currently ranks at number 37 on the American Library Association’s 1990-1999 list of the 100 most frequently banned books, and continued to make the list in the following years, as well.
Now, decades after its publication, “The Handmaid’s Tale” lives again as a television series, produced by Hulu and starring Elisabeth Moss as the protagonist, Offred. As expected, the controversy continues—a trailer for the show, posted to YouTube, featured a large number of negative comments from those who believe the show is tearing down traditional Christian values, and conservative writer John Zmirak has accused the series of hate speech toward Christianity.
But when we examine Atwood’s novel closely, we find that this isn’t true at all—the fictional Christian regime of her novel isn’t so very Christian at all, a fact which she commented upon in an interview with Sojourners.
Here, Atwood stated that “I don't consider these people to be Christians because they do not have at the core of their behavior and ideologies what I, in my feeble Canadian way, would consider to be the core of Christianity…and that would be not only love your neighbors but love your enemies.”
In an interview with Faith & Family Media Blog, the executive producer of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Bruce Miller, says that Atwood’s fictional regime is “a society that’s based kind of in a perverse misreading of Old Testament laws and codes.”
Atwood isn’t critiquing Christianity, or even conservative ideology—she’s critiquing a wholly different set of societal problems. But these are problems from which Christians stand to learn some vital lessons.
Let’s look at what those are.
Religion Can be Used by Evil People
The “Christian” regime in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is called The Sons of Jacob, and takes power by killing the President of the United States and most of Congress, launching a revolution beneath the pretext of “restoring order” by eliminating liberal democracy.
But the problem is this: the Sons of Jacob aren’t really Christian. Its members show little sign of personal faith, and act in ways which are directly contrary to correctly-interpreted Biblical mandates.
According to Atwood, the Sons of Jacob are “not interested in religion; they’re interested in power.”
The corrupt government this group establishes—called the Republic of Gilead—makes use of shallow interpretations of scripture to support the taking away of human rights from women, minorities, and anyone else who does not support their cause. The façade of religion gives them power, and the people allow them to have it through a sense of fanaticism.
But contrary to many of the show’s critics, an attack on the dark side of organized religion is not an attack on Christianity. In Atwood’s book, Christian churches that do not support the agenda of the Sons of Jacob are destroyed, and their members—true Christians—are executed. One group of Christians goes underground, in fact, and runs an escape route to Canada for the oppressed.
Atwood shows how religion can be used by the unscrupulous for financial or political gain. Christians would do well to take this lesson to heart, looking deeply and thoughtfully at the faith of political figures when choosing their future leaders.
The Ends Don’t Justify the Means
The actions of many of the characters in “The Handmaid’s Tale” force us to ask ourselves an important question: how far are we willing to go in order to act out our faith? Are we willing to hurt others? Are willing to oppress? Are we willing to kill?
Those in power in Hulu’s show do all of this—and more. For those characters who truly believe that their government is founded in faith, the ends always justify the means.
This should make every stop and think. What lengths are you, personally, willing to go to for your faith? And to go back to our first point, what if those in power—those who influence your faith—are wrong or corrupt? What then?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” should make your question your faith in the best possible way by raising the most important question of all: are my actions hurting others?
After all, in 1 John 3:23, Christ lists “love one another, as I have loved you,” as one of the two most important of God’s commands. If you are hurting your neighbor in order to establish a world that more closely aligns with your faith, you’re going about it wrong.
God does not approve of using the ends to justify the means.
The Importance of Intimately Knowing God’s Character
Every one of the problems caused by the Sons of Jacob stem from few people in the story knowing the true character of God. If they did, the violent, oppressive Republic of Gilead would have come into power.
Love is the foremost attribute of God. It is His very character—one which we should strive to inherit. According to 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." In 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul writes that “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Nothing. That is what Paul would label himself if he did not have love.
This is why it is vital for all Christians to learn the true nature and character of God. He’s not just the wrathful destroyer of the Old Testament. He’s not some distant, unknowable being. He’s a good, just, and loving God who adores His creations.
When we forget that this is the example God lays out for us to follow as Christians, we miss out on the very purpose of our lives—to love and be loved.
And that is a tragedy worthy of a novel.
The Wisdom of Story
Nothing has the power to change people’s minds like story. In novels or television shows or film, we get to live within the life of someone else—we get to see things from another perspective. We cry with these people, feel their triumphs and despair, and learn what they learn.
That’s why stories like “The Handmaid’s Tale” are so important. Far from being anti-Christian propaganda, the show—and the book—are infused with wisdom that will strengthen your faith, helping you to become more Christian than many Christians are today, and to avoid the little missteps that can lead to the worst depths of human suffering.