Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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There’s nothing like a TV adaptation to spur you on to read the classics you’ve been delaying in favour of novels that don’t want to make you kill yourself. With Hulu’s recent adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought I’d better get off my laurels and add Atwood’s flagship novel to my feminist credentials. We’ll pretend it didn’t take me a decade to get here.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian near/ever-present future where parts of the US have been taken over by a theocratic far-right. Under their regime, women are steadily and stealthily stripped of their rights and freedoms, leaving the protagonist Offred to navigate life as one of a number of “handmaids”, women attached to rich men for breeding purposes. The handmaids’ behaviour, appearance and movements are all strictly monitored and controlled. They have no personal agency and are simultaneously the desire and scorn of other parts of Gileadan society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic book of course; presumably this is why they gave it a Booker prize! The prose is beautiful and hypnotic, capturing Offred’s dreamlike disassociation from the horror around her even as it suffocates her. I think it’s this contrast that makes the book so unsettling: it makes you question the appearance vs substance of everything, especially dearly-held notions of safety and order.

It’s no accident that Hulu should adapt The Handmaid’s Tale now when under Trump’s GOP the world’s most powerful nation leads a fresh assault on women’s rights. The Handmaid’s Tale is a timely reminder – and has been, since it was first published in the eighties – that civil liberties are hard won and far from guaranteed. While Atwood’s story may seem fantastical, its reality is never far-off.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Vintage Books
My rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.05/5)
The book’s best feature: The writing itself; its prophetic message.
The worst feature: The oppressing patriarchy.
Trigger warnings: Rape and misogyny in general.
You’ll like this if… Liking this isn’t the point, I think.

Reblog: Pastor Note #71: Loving Each Other in Words

Gary Chorpenning's Blog

Loving Each Other in Words

Photo by GAC

The sad truth is that not all churches are places where people treat each other well.  Some churches can become notorious for the way their people are prone to fight and mistreat each other.  Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:35 ESV)  So, when the people of Christ don’t treat each other with love and respect, they are by their actions announcing to the world that they are not really Jesus’ disciples, regardless of what they may say with their lips.  The surest way for a church to ruin its witness is for its people to treat each other unlovingly and disrespectfully. 

I can tell you that few things can be so frustrating and anxiety producing for a pastor as when his flock begins biting, kicking, and butting each…

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#CoffeeTimePrayer: How to be a stumbling block, according to Jesus

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After exegeting the depths of Matthew 18, I can confidently present to you how to be a stumbling block, according to Jesus.

1. Don’t see your own sin (Matt 18:6-9)

Curiously our own sins are never quite as bad as other people’s. Weird how that works, huh? I guess it’s just because we try harder, you know? We go to church, we do Bible stuff, we tithe, we try to be Good Christians. Are we perfect? Of course not! We’ve got some sin going on in our lives. But Jesus died for that, so we’re just taking it one day at a time in his righteousness! Hallelujah amen!

2. Don’t worry about other people (Matt 18:10-14)

God helps those who help themselves. We’re pretty sure the Bible says that. In Proverbs, maybe? Anyway, we can’t always be worrying about other people. They need to work out their own salvation. God forbid we become enablers or something. That would be anti-gospel!

3. Shame other people for their sin (Matt 18:15-17)

Hate the sin, love the sinner – gosh do we ever live by this rule! True Christian love is to help others break free from the sins in their lives, especially if they’re, you know, super obvious. We don’t want them to give the wrong impression about Christianity or, Lord forbid, our churches! We can’t have that! It might scare folks off if a bunch of sinners – we mean real sinners – showed up in church, and then the offerings would just plummet. How can we do the Lord’s work without offerings?

4. Don’t forgive people as you’ve been forgiven (Matt 18:21-35)

We’re all just human…but at some point the sanctification has to kick in, right? We can’t soft-soap people – tough Christian love, that’s the way. If sanctification doesn’t appear to be happening, something must be wrong. Maybe they’re not committed enough. Are they not at church every Sunday? Do they party, live together outside of marriage, cuss, refuse to volunteer for things, give less than their ten percent, make questionable choices? In that case, decisions have to be made…

It’s not that we’re being unreasonable. God loves them! He forgives them! But it’s such a kick in his teeth if they don’t at least try to live up to that forgiveness. We all try our best; why shouldn’t they?


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If you’ve ever been a stumbling block, raise your hand. Maybe your hand is in the air too! Let’s try to remember that the next time it starts to point fingers at people. Jesus would rather we chop it off than keep nursing its accusations.

Prayer: Lord, forgive me for being a schmuck. Help me to remember how merciful and forgiving you’ve been to me – and harangue me into being so to others. Amen.

Jesus is enough

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For a religion that’s centred around grace, Christianity has a curious failing: we’re particularly susceptible to a starvation mindset. Afraid that we’ll never have or be enough, we hoard our things and our selves, living close-fisted lives. We see this in many churches. They either over-invest in showmanship, as if to say, “We sure have enough!”, or they hold on to “tradition” as if to declare, “Because we don’t have enough, we have to look after ourselves.”

I’ve been on more than one diet in my lifetime and let me tell you, nothing ramps up hunger than imagining going without. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has started a diet by eating everything “bad” so that it won’t tempt me later on! Similarly, few things threaten God’s grace more than thinking there isn’t enough of it to go around in the world.

Jesus knew this. In Matthew chapters 14 to 17 he addressed the “starvation mentality” so rampant in his time. He did this in a few ways:

He fed the crowds

Jesus’ ministry rarely divorced the practical from the spiritual. His disciples urged him to send the crowds home after he had taught them (Matthew 14:15), but feeding their physical hunger was as important to Jesus as feeding their spiritual hunger. In doing so he demonstrated a very basic truth: that his “bread”, his body broken on the cross, would be enough for the multitudes under the power of sin.

He fed “the dogs”

The story of the Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman (Matthew 15:21-28) has always puzzled me. Here we see a Gentile appeal to Jesus for help, only to be called a “dog” by Jesus – a racial slur. But Jesus used this encounter to turn people’s assumptions on their head: his disciples’ assumption that the Canaanite woman didn’t deserve help or healing for her daughter because she was a Gentile; and her own assumption that she wouldn’t receive help (or salvation) from a Jewish rabbi. Her faith bridged the prejudice behind both assumptions, and so her daughter was freed.

He “Transfigured” people’s need for Moses and Elijah

There’s a sad echo in Matthew 17:1-13: after Jesus’ transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, Jesus returns to “normal” – a dusty, itinerant teacher, nobody worth erecting a shrine over (v4). Yet I believe it’s this nondescript moment after his transfiguration that carries the most weight: it showed that Jesus incarnate was enough. He far superseded the old laws and the old ways because he had chosen to live as a human and to die for the sins of humanity.

He paid the temple tax

In Matthew 17:24-27 Jesus paid the temple tax on his and Peter’s behalf, saying as he did so that “children owe nothing”. Jesus demonstrated on a small scale what he would achieve on a global scale: he would “pay the debt of the law” for every person who calls on him. Interestingly, the amount Jesus paid was actually more than he owed, another sign. Far from being stingy with his sacrifice, Jesus’ death paid more than what was due.

All of this is to say that Jesus denounced false nourishment. In Matthew 16:5-12 Jesus warned his disciples against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This yeast of theirs – that there wasn’t enough, and that only being holy by the standards of the law would grant you God’s forgiveness – would continue to threaten the gospel message among the disciples, both when Jesus was alive and after he had ascended.

The same yeast continues to threaten the Good News today. Rather than living as if we have more than enough, we try to hoard God’s immense grace, mercy and love in our personal, congregational and communal lives. But Jesus asks us, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread?” (Matthew 16:7 NRSV). Just as he easily fed thousands physically, he feeds us spiritually with the same abundance. In Jesus we not only have enough; he is enough.

Seasons with God

 

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Image source.

 

An interesting lesson I took away from a missions course I did late last year was that the natural realm is a general revelation, a way for God to accentuate unreached peoples to the possibility of his presence – a possibility realised in the specific revelation of Jesus Christ. I’ve been thinking about general revelation a lot lately as autumn has sped past, winter fast on her heels and kicking away the last of her leaves with cold, gusty winds. If God uses the natural world to speak to unreached peoples, then it must have something to teach us reached souls too.

So many of Jesus’ parables were rooted in everyday activities that had to do with the natural world. Harvests are a popular example Jesus uses, as is wine, water, desert, livestock, fig trees, grapevines, mustard seeds, grain, fishing, and fertile ground. Jesus was hardly a city boy. He used the cycles of the natural world to explain the cycles of God, the seen to explain the unseen.

This is echoed in our church calendar. For Northern Hemispherians, the church calendar syncs up with the natural world: Jesus born in mid-winter, a very real light in a dark and cold world, and resurrected come Easter and spring: new beginnings. But perhaps the natural world should speak to us even beyond this: nature’s cycles reinvigorating and energising, pausing and resting our spiritual lives; spring, summer and autumn our work week, winter our sabbath; or spring and summer our exodus, and autumn and winter our Canaan. We cannot always remain in the desert, spiritually speaking; at some point, we must enter our rest.

Winter isn’t an easy season for me. Some years ago I was treated for cancer, and my treatment coincided with autumn and winter. More than a decade later, the start of winter still makes me sad. For me, it’s associated with loss in a very real way, as I lost the innocence of my own mortality. Every winter makes me face that afresh. While it also means that I look joyfully to the summer because each one is one more than I had before, winter is a generally a stunted time for me, and I often spend it struggling to seek God.

But God’s general revelation reminds me of the mercy of his specific revelation. I look at the world around me: the dry and withered grass, often burned black; the cold, cutting wind herding people indoors; the bright, clear sky peeking curiously through the spread fingers of bare tree branches; choked plants in dry, infertile-looking soil. And I remember summer: how green and lush everything is, trees twice their size clothed in foliage, earth wet with rain and sweet with petrichor, white clouds rolling across a hazy sky, flower heads drooping and stirring in hot breezes. And then I remember a cross and an empty tomb…

Rather than feel guilty about my perceived lapse of faith during this time, I might more productively spend my time being enriched by Jesus in order that I may grow better and stronger come the spring and summer months. This isn’t death, sweet soul, it’s the moment before resurrection…

It’s a good moment.