A wonderful turn of phrase I discovered in this morning’s NY Times. It appeared in James Poniewozik’s review of the new Hulu series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Reviews of the series have been exceptional across the board, citing the quality of the acting, production, directing, etc, etc – evidently, it is top notch all the way through. But what all the reviews make special note of is how ‘chillingly’ relevant the story line is to today’s world. In Atwood’s dystopian near future women are treated like objects, fundamentalist religion reigns supreme, and the government has been overrun in a military coup. It all reads (or views) a little too close for comfort.
Which is precisely what Poniewozik’s phrase so perfectly captures. Gilead is the name of Atwood’s twisted future ‘republic.’ And as I suspect you remember, ‘make America great again’ was the current president’s campaign slogan. How ironic that the end of Trump’s first 100 days comes in the very same week when The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation airs its initial episodes. As ever, great art enables us to raise a mirror to our current reality, a mirror in which we see things as they are, but with a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, and context. As the old saying goes, when you read the newspaper you find out what happened yesterday. When you read great literature you find out what always happens.
Atwood begins her novel with a quote from Genesis 30, describing Rachel’s infertility and her decision to use Bilhah, a ‘handmaid,’ to conceive in her stead. The reference fits with the narrative’s understanding of religion as a dangerous and destructive force, one that by nature subjugates women. And it is true, if you pick and choose the right verses you can read the Bible that way. And perhaps that is the way some fundamentalists would read the text, and certain politicians as well.
But the Bible is a long book, and there are many ways to read it, and many ideals and values expressed in it. Some of them are radically progressive, even for our day and age. The great Hebrew prophets of old, Isaiah the greatest of them all, stood on the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed the word of God. Their message was one of tolerance and dignity, of hope and faith, of God’s ultimate goodness and the responsibility of the people to create a just society. They cried out at injustice directed against the poor and the marginalized. They spoke in God’s voice for those who had no voice of their own.
Word on the street is that the new Handmaid’s Tale TV series will take the story beyond the end of Atwood’s novel. Perhaps in a future episode there will be an Isaiah like character, dressed in robes, eyes flashing, speaking with unmatched eloquence about a world gone wrong. No question the Republic of Gilead needs that prophetic message. What we are coming to understand is that we need it too, in our world, in our republic, in our own time.
“No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the core of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah 58: 6-7)