Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems. History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists. Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016. One was George Orwell’s 1984, and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter. While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies. The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them. Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror. That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate. To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it. Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real. We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years. A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing. In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it. Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie. I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives. Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?
Aggression is not a social value. This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes. The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others. That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel. Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well. A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core. When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force. Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale. Not only the Bible ends up being abused.