Terror Text

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.

Garden of Nede

Dystopias fit the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century a little too well. The level of disillusionment has soared since the administration of Bush the Less when an unprecedented degree of ridiculousness tempered every political decision filtering out of a Washington that has become a little too religious. So it is that the genre of the dystopia is strangely therapeutic. I first became aware of Margaret Atwood because of an introduction to the Bible that pointed out the misuse of Holy Writ in her classic The Handmaid’s Tale. An allegory that demonstrates the power of religion to reduce women to mere reproductive objects is frightening enough in itself, let alone the post-optimistic view of a future of endless possibilities gone bad. Now that I’ve finished her more recent Oryx and Crake, I see that her outlook has grown more bleak, if more believable.

Like most dystopias, Oryx and Crake is filled with religious and biblical allusions. A society that does not know its Bible is easily manipulated by it. The book has been out long enough that I won’t worry about spoilers – does any dystopia end well? The basic idea is that the eponymous Crake of the title has tried to replicate Eden with genetically improved human beings. To prevent them from entering a world filled with human-inflicted suffering, he devises a way to wipe out the world’s population, leaving these innocents to carry on a genetically modified human gene pool. One survivor of the old days, Snowman (Jimmy), has to explain to these innocents what their world is about. He concocts a myth where Crake becomes a new god. Although Crake tried to modify the brains so that the “bundle of neurons” that make up God are gone, the new generation stubbornly develops a rudimentary religion.

Is it possible for humans to build a better future? I have never been swayed by the perverted notion of total depravity; people are quite capable of doing good. Our great ape cousins demonstrate that it is within our genes to produce a harmonious society. Although religions have motivated some extremely noble behavior in the past, they have also introduced heinous distortions of anything of which it might be said “behold, it was very good.” Atwood has offered us a world to ponder seriously. It is a world where humans play God and end up rotting under an unforgiving sun. Perhaps if politicians were more literate and less religious we might be able to counteract our partial, self-inflicted depravity.