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20.04.2017

Lessons from Dystopia | Connecting with Culture

The Handmaid’s Tale is a tale for our time.

Margaret Atwood’s popular dystopian novel begins when a fundamentalist Christian movement overthrows the American government and creates Gilead, a military dictatorship. Published in 1985, the book deals with autocratic regimes, propaganda, religious extremism and gender discrimination. A recent surge in sales suggests that readers are finding these themes especially pertinent in 2017. In the midst of such events, what can we as Christians do?

1. Love

In Gilead, one of the regime’s most effective tactics is to isolate its citizens from one another and control their interactions. In rebelling and forming unlikely alliances, some of the characters manage to bring disruptive hope into a dark situation.

We know that love – for our friends and our enemies – is an imperative for Christians. Nothing else we do or say will be effective without it (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). In our own fractured world, we must keep on choosing to extend love to people, however hard it may feel.

2. Speak

The Handmaid’s Tale is testament to the power of words. Whatever else the regime manages to damage and destroy, the brave story of Atwood’s narrator Offred remains.

In a ‘post-truth’ era of ‘fake news’, it is important that Christians seek the truth, speak with integrity, and call out falsehood. We are to proclaim the gospel, to ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves’ (Proverbs 31:8), and to ‘demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God’ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

3. Act

Offred describes the indifference of the population at the rise of Gilead: ‘There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television.’ Atwood’s plea to her readers is ‘don’t get complacent’.

As Christians, we are called to overcome our apathy. We are to recognise that the world is a battlefield, and to fight ‘against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 6:12).

Our society finds itself in a dark place, where people identify with terrifying dystopian narratives like The Handmaid’s Tale. We have a chance to be people who bring hope and healing, taking seriously our call to love, speak and act.

A new television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale will be released on the streaming service Hulu on Wednesday.

Rachel Smith

Rachel works in marketing at Newcastle University and attends King’s Church Durham. She’s written more about Margaret Atwood here.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the distilled simplicity of this short blog. The article on Atwood at bethinking.org is also very helpful. We cannot avoid our search for meaning even though we wish to be ignorant!

    By Howard Peskett - 21st April 2017
  2. Hi Rachel – thanks for these words. The surge of sales, I fear, is less to do with interest and more to do with being part of reading for A Level English Lit this year.. So 17/18 year olds are seeing this material and studying it deeply. It would be interesting to understand how that affects them.. Blessings, Geoff

    By Geoff Knott - 21st April 2017
  3. Thank you for this, I look forward to reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I am minded to say that it is a sad reflection on the fact that the church has lost it’s way. We need leaders to call followers of Christ to look at what the bible has to say about the heart of God, which is expressed clearly in such passages as Isaiah 58. It is clear that Jesus, by his teaching and his actions, calls his true followers to live out the true fast.

    By Tonyy Neeves - 21st April 2017
  4. I first read this book as part of an English GCSE course; I was a mature student of 65.
    The horror stories coming out of North Korea have many of the worrying hallmarks.

    By A Lucas - 21st April 2017
  5. disruptive hope – great phrase!

    By Bruce Gulland - 21st April 2017
  6. Amen sister. Thank you.

    By Gary Stacey - 22nd April 2017
  7. Thanks for these important observations. Love, speak and act. Is there a place where Christians are getting together to do these things? It needs to happen. I’m encouraged to read Rachel’s thinking. Count me in.

    By John Forrest - 22nd April 2017
  8. Another dystopia for our time is the French version ‘Submisssion’.

    By V Baxter - 23rd April 2017
  9. I liked this piece – and indeed the Handmaid’s Tail
    I think as Christians we need to be aware of the danger of being like Gilead; I fear that we can easily come across as arrogant people who believe we have The Truth and have to tell everyone else what to do.
    While I agree the 3 points above I’d suggest inserting “listen” before “Speak”

    By Mick - 23rd April 2017
  10. Thanks everyone. Glad you’re on board with disruptive hope!

    The book has been on various school syllabuses across the world for years, but interesting to hear it’s now on the UK A-Level list.

    I love Mick’s point about listening. It’s a subversive act in the book – Offred listens through doors and Ofglen even poses the treasonous question of whether God is listening. I hope for us that listening forms part of love.

    Happy watching this evening.

    By Rachel Smith - 25th April 2017

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