Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale

I'm kind of hesitant to write about The Handmaid's Tale. It's obviously not in the same vein as the other books I've reviewed or mentioned, but it is arguably about religion, and shows a (very) extreme example of what could happen if American values of separation of church and state aren't protected. Also, I'm a few decades late to review this book, but it's scarily as relevant now as when it was written.

The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a dystopic future America whose society is based essentially on Old Testament law. The protagonist, Offred (literally "Of Fred," Fred being the name of the head of the household) is a handmaid in a wealthy household. This isn't handmaid in the Downton Abbey sense- it's handmaid in the Rachel-and-Leah sense. In Genesis 30:1-3, when Rachel is unable to bear children for Jacob, she offers him her maid Bilhah, such that any children born by Bilhah by Jacob could be raised by Rachel as her own. In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred's role is to bear children for a couple unable to conceive. This society is very restrictive of sex and pleasure, especially for women, and the rituals surrounding how the handmaid is to conceive a child are extremely bizarre and dehumanizing to all parties- especially the two women.

Women are blamed for the downfall of the previously advanced society.  Revealing clothing, magazines, makeup, and anything frivolous has been forbidden. All books have been burned. Women are not allowed to read and write. They aren't allowed to go outside alone. They aren't allowed to hold jobs or have their own money. The list goes on and on. Handmaids wear red dresses, veils, and "wings" around their faces, shielding them from view and limiting their own vision. "Wives" of wealthy men wear red. "Econowives" of poor men wear stripes. Cooks and servants also have prescribed wardrobes. Every restriction and every rule is traced back to the Old Testament and the idea that women are sinful, far more sinful than men. I'm sure feminist critics had a field day with this text in 80s.

The obvious response to a feminist or religious critique of this novel is "Okay, but that's a science fiction novel. No religious person wants that to happen in America!"  Even so, I couldn't help but see parallels to fairly mainstream Christian culture. I see articles shared widely on Facebook, arguing that women should never wear bikinis or revealing clothing, because it might tempt men into lusting after them. Likewise, I've been told that it's a woman's responsibility to prevent men from thinking lustful thoughts. I've also been told that birth control is wrong. Many Christians would stop at nothing to prevent abortion. Many Christians also argue that the Bible should be interpreted literally.

I don't think that the society described in this book is going to happen in America. I do think that many Americans would vote to abolish separation of church and state, and I think we should be mindful of what could happen if that were the case- even if this is an extreme example.

As an aside, from a literary perspective, I loved the book because it takes place during the "transitional generation." The main character still remembers a past where she could date anyone she chose, and wore bikinis to the beach.  Often, dystopic novels take place far, far in the distant future, and none of the characters remember what the past was like. Characters in The Handmaid's Tale question whether the lives they used to lead were really so evil that it's justifiable to live in such a regulated, controlling society.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in issues surrounding the separation of church and state, anyone who declares that they are or are not a feminist, and anyone who is interested in dystopic literature, since this book has value even beyond discussion of religion or feminism.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Checking In

Big life changes have kept me away from blogging, but I'm still actively thinking about religion, theology, and atheism.

I'm currently reading Caught In the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind. It's a fascinating look at clergy who have lost their faith, yet in many cases keep preaching and leading faith communities. So far, I've been struck the most by the accounts of seminary professors. Many students struggle with or lose their faith during their seminary years. For the first time, students are learning about the Bible through a historical lens, and find that the Bible stories of their childhood are not what they seemed. Some try to justify or compartmentalize these new ideas in order to preserve their childhood faiths, some quit, and some become our priests, pastors, and reverends- despite having lost their own beliefs altogether.

Personally, I have been calling myself a "non-practicing Catholic" when a label is called for. I do believe that my Catholicism is cultural. It's not something that I can drop, even if I drop my belief in God altogether.

Overall I've been feeling far less stress about losing my faith than I had been a few months ago. I feel good about it, even relieved. There's no pressure, no shame. If religion really is a crutch... I don't think it's one that I need.