For the last month or so, I’ve been trying very hard not to say something that would offend anyone politically. I got back my student evaluations, and some of my students didn’t like a few of the jokes I made about politics and politicians. So though I didn’t think I was that bad, I’ve been more quiet lately. I've kept quiet about what I've been observing. I don't want friends to get the wrong idea. Because of this, I’ve hesitated to talk about a program that had a profound affect on me recently. I don’t want to give the impression that I am “one of them,” whoever “them” is.
So I will get to the show, eventually, in another paragraph, but first, I need to say something about the main concern of this blog.
I’ve been thinking about grace. It's simple, and it often preoccupies me. What happens to the word in our midst says something about our culture. Given the prevailing doxa, it too quickly breaks apart into paradox. Some people get a hold of one part of it—the unearned, freely given part of grace—what is said of God. Others can’t quite grasp this and move toward the other doxa, the work idea. Hence the very notion gets pulled apart into the usual fare, which is not much of either. So grace becomes little more than a wet rag, or it becomes a two-by-four we have to saw into thirds.
This is the usual fare, where we live.
The other night, I watched the last episode of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale. I will just say this up front, in this paragraph. I remember when Margaret Atwood’s novel appeared in the 1980s, and I thought then what I still think now, that the story is a work of literature and as such it is really about something more deeply felt than any passing presidential administration, right or left. The new show has been pretty compelling as a thoroughly American story (though Atwood herself is a Canadian writer). Its harsh, stripped narrative reminds me a great deal of the near allegorical writing of Hawthorne and Scarlett letters, though as I've said, I know that many people want to point to a more contemporary referent for its current relevance.
But this production runs deeper than that. It doesn't lead me to think about current events, though the show captures two concerns of immediate and compelling worry: female identity and sexuality in a repressive patriarchy; and the deadness of repressive, religious practice. Both of these concerns came together in the final episode the other night in such a powerful, New Testament way, that it has helped my understanding a little.
First, the repressive patriarchy. Most compelling and chilling is that the patriarchy in Atwood's tale uses women to enslave and entrap other women, who are not individuals and are only valued and only treated with the slightest kindness when they are apparently with child.
So the moment comes in this setting when the handmaids are lined up by the women lording over them and ordered to stone one of their own.
What happens instead is an act of emotional empathy right out of the New Testament. Stones are dropped. The handmaid who first refuses to throw a stone leads the moment in which grace breaks out into this religiously barren winter world and changes it--for herself and perhaps for others, permanently.
Just let me say that this is one of the reasons I continue to read literature, of all kinds, not just the sanctioned kinds, not just the party lines. I love to read a story written honestly by someone who has no interest in writing about religion, and then be around when that story is broken open by God's grace. It tells me something about the world we are living in and how everyone is trying to see.
What I think the word grace should mean now, what I think it does mean now, outside of our frail cultural doxa, is this. Grace is that power that can break into a situation, not always through speech, but through some action that has the power to change everyone and everything. It changes people, it changes situations, it changes our relationship to power.
This is what grace is.
Nothing is ever the same afterword. Some people are freed. Christ got sent to the cross. Offred, the handmaid who dropped the stone, was last seen being led away in a wagon with armed guards. But even here, when grace came, everything stopped being what it was.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about. Grace is something very different from anything else, alcohol, drugs, where we stay the same.
And we don’t manufacture it. It comes from beyond us.
I hope you will not write on my evaluation that I've been too political. Stay in touch.