As my boyfriend and I rode the elevated train through the Chicago neighborhoods, he held a thrift store copy of The Handmaid’s Tale which he could not bear to set aside until he consumed every page. I looked at the worn cover, compelled by the woman in her white pointed bonnet and red flowing robe.
Brian and I were both students at a fundamentalist Bible college. I had gone there to become a missionary pilot, but was told upon arrival that women couldn’t fly planes. They explained to me that when I got pregnant, I wouldn’t be able to pilot, and so it would be a waste of their resources to train me. I stayed at the school, changing my major into something more acceptable for women. Yet, the further I got into my studies, I realized a whole realm of things that women were not allowed to do, and they were the things I wanted to do—pastor, preach, and teach.
When I would complain, students often responded with jokes, reminding me that I was at a “Bridal” Institute (as opposed to a Bible Institute) and, as a woman, I was there to get an “M.R.S.” The jokes never sat well with me. At first it was because I had vocational dreams that didn’t include being some mythical husband’s “helpmate.” Then the banter incited another fear. If I wasn’t at the school in order to gain the necessary tools to teach and preach, why was I there?
I asked to borrow Brian’s book, then I went to a coffeehouse and settled down for a marathon read. The world within those pages felt eerily similar to the school I attended. They certainly weren’t poking any eyes out at the Bible Institute, but the focus on women as wombs felt the same. We were encouraged to marry as soon as possible and had intricate rituals that celebrated each time a woman got engaged. We were encouraged to be wives, mothers, and perhaps piano players in our husband’s churches—and little else.
When it got close to curfew, I gathered my books, still dazed in Offred’s hazy world. I walked to campus and looked at the students surrounding me. It was a beautiful place, filled with rows of tulips and smiling faces. It was a comfortable bubble, made up of home-schooled students and missionary’s kids. My life had been different than many of my classmates. I had gone to public school and grown up on the beaches of Florida, where people don’t wear a lot of clothes. I was demure, so I felt overexposed and oversexualized—like an object to be graded based on the quality of my body parts. In response, the Bible school felt like a welcome relief. It was a place where my body was hidden, purity was prized, and men were not rewarded for their sexual conquests.
Yet, in the fog of Margaret Atwood’s story, I realized that I was being sexualized, just in a different way. I walked to my dorm, Houghton Hall. As a resident, I was called a “Houghton Heifer.” I always thought that the name was put on us because of the extra 20 pounds we gained in our first year at the school. But it had a new meaning as I held the worn tale. I was a young female cow, who had not yet borne a calf. I was a breeder. I shuddered.
Decades later, at the 30th anniversary of The Handmaid’s Tale, I traveled to a nearby university to hear Atwood talk about the book. With a wry smile, Atwood said that she had been accused of being anti-religion. The idea for the novel did come from studying the Puritans in New England, but Atwood seemed appalled at the notion that she was anti-religion. She answered the criticism by turning it back on the accuser: “What sort of religion do you have?” I took the answer to mean that if The Handmaid’s Tale feels like an indictment of your religion, perhaps you need to reassess your faith.
Certainly, Atwood loves to explore the different ways that religion emerges in society, and she plays with doctrinal themes in many of her books. The apocalyptic MaddAddam Trilogy has a Trinitarian theme, which is reflected through the structure as well as its three main characters. In the pages, she pits the Petrobaptists against God’s Gardeners, showing us how religion can be toxic or restorative. Atwood might be a strict agnostic, she might show us how religion harms, but she has also given us an idea of how it can be a healing force in our society as well.
Now that The Handmaid’s Tale has been made into a television series, many people have described how scary it feels. In the United States, the Religious Right has moved from the fringe of our society to the heart of the White House. In this stunning partnership, moral purity has partnered with a wealthy businessman who has so little regard for women’s rights that he brags about sexual assault and walking in on naked teens. We can feel the echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale reverberating through our own reality of mock piety, white supremacy, and economic disparity. In the heart of it, religion seems to be set on dismantling many rights for women.
Atwood first forced me to look at my religion at that Bible school, a process that I describe in my book Healing Spiritual Wounds. If I could not teach or preach, and if I was being groomed to be a “helpmate” and a mother, I needed to reassess my religion. And so I did.
I became a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination that has been fighting for women’s rights for decades. Now Atwood’s work is allowing us all to take another look at our religion and reassess our faith. Is it toxic or is it healing? Does our faith give us a vision for liberation for women and health for our environment?
Yes, religion in our country has been used to set back the rights of women. There has been a portion of our religious landscape that has been laser-focused on taking away our healthcare. The Handmaid’s Tale is a haunting trajectory of where that could lead.
Many of us have turned our heads as the church fights to take the rights of women away. But perhaps Atwood’s brilliant work, now illuminated on our television screens, will invite all of us to finally ask, “What sort of religion do we have?”
Rev. Carol Howard Merritt is a minister in the Presbyterian (USA). She is the award-winning author of Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church (HarperOne), Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation (Alban), and Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation (Alban). Carol blogs for the Christian Century.