Hulu’s recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t have hit our screens at a better time. Just as American politicians are “debating” all kinds of controversial healthcare policies (especially women’s reproductive health), we’re treated to a retelling of Atwood’s feminist dystopian classic. Atwood paints a world in which America is overtaken by a radical right-wing fundamentalist Christian sect, forcing women into subservient roles determined by their fertility. It’s the autobiographical story of June, aka Offred, one woman trying to survive life under the new regime. One of the best things about the Hulu adaptation is its determination to bring complexity to a variety of themes in the story. It’d be easy to write off The Handmaid’s Tale as a religious horror story, but it’s so much more than that.
Spoilers for the first three episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Atwood’s novel, plus trigger warnings for mentions of sexual slavery and forced pregnancy below.
Earlier this week, I talkedabout the political implications of Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, particularly with respect to the conspiracy-minded thinking that it dissects. But there’s also a significant spiritual dimension to the novel, as its focus on esoterica and the occult represent a real history of discontent with mainstream religion that stretches back nearly a thousand years.
The book generally side-eyes occultists, both past and present, and doubts their claims to supernatural powers. But it is very clear that such figures and groups really existed, and many of them authentically aspired to the powers they claim to have obtained, and their claims were very widely believed. New Age philosophies and other countercultures linked to the esotericism generally have a reputation for being peaceful and loving, but it’s one which has not been earned.
Eco by no means condemns the occult in general terms, but he does call attention to the potential for such beliefs to generate abuse and hatred. The large-scale rejection of Christianity by the alt-right in the United States, and the ongoing links between various neo-pagan subcultures and neo-Nazism, show the need for continued study.
Once upon a time, years before we came to the city that’s Not Officially Toronto But Come On, It’s Toronto, a woman had two children. As a fugitive from a dangerous secret organization, she had to give them up. One, she decided, to the church, and one to the state. This is the origin story for the two primary protagonists of Orphan Black. Sarah Manning went into foster care, while her sestra Helena went to an orphanage run by nuns in Ukraine.
It’s not a buddy comedy, despite this picture.
Helena gets indoctrinated into the Proletheans, an ambiguously Christian sect that serves as one of the major antagonists in the series. The religious motifs around the Proletheans make them terrifying, both with Helena as their assassin and as their prisoner. However, the show misses an opportunity to really dig into the theology of the Proletheans and doesn’t truly engage with any number of religious objections to the biotechnology the show presents as being in our immediate future.
Sacred trust is one of the most fundamental elements of religion, and yet it’s rarely talked about explicitly. Religious belief of any kind is built on relationships—relationships between the divine and the human, between the community and the human, between powerful humans and humans without power, and between humans of equal footing. All of these relationships are based on trust. Most religious people have some kind of trust that their God(s) won’t abandon them in this life or the next. We trust our communities to give us support when we’re in need (spiritually or materially) and we honor our obligation as a member of the community to help others. It doesn’t matter if that community is found in a one-room chapel, a megachurch stadium, or an internet forum. Religious people trust their leaders, who have been given the authority and ability to act (essentially, power), to lead their communities in responsible ways consonant with their belief system’s moral codes. We trust they won’t just make things up as they go along or abuse their power for their own gain, we trust they’ll use their education and experience and wisdom to guide others rightly. And we trust our equals to help us in the day to day lived practice of our faiths.
But what happens when that trust is broken? It’s a vehicle for compelling storytelling.
Spoilers for Game of Thrones, Firefly, and Serenity after the jump.
One of my favorite Halloween movies is The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’m a sucker for Tim Burton and the music of Danny Elfman, and when you combine it with Christmas cheer and Halloween gothic macabre, you basically get the best Christmas/Halloween crossover extravaganza ever. But because over-analyzing things is my third-favorite hobby (next to soul-harvesting and baking), I got to thinking: could there be something more behind our stop-motion miniatures? I think there might be. The Nightmare Before Christmas is rich with lore and depth, andcan serve as a cautionary tale against religious syncretism.
Religious syncretism is different from cultural appropriation. Usually cultural appropriation involves a “dominant” culture borrowing important or sacred elements from an oppressed culture for frivolous reasons. A non-Native American wearing a war bonnet as a costume or fashion accessory is a kind of cultural appropriation, because war bonnets are important spiritual and political objects worn by Native American men in tribes from the Plains region. The non-Native wearer doesn’t understand or care to understand the significance of the object. Religious syncretism involves the successful or unsuccessful melding of two belief systems, and is intimately connected with meaning. It’s precisely Jack’s search for meaning that moves him from cultural appropriation to attempting religious syncretism.
Spoilers for The Nightmare Before Christmas below, of course.
If you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet, you’re really missing out. It’s more or less a complete feminist masterpiece, set in a strangely intriguing post-apocalyptic sci-fi world, with lots of awesome explosions. There are so many things I could say about the film, but today I’m going to stick with the way it plays with religion. Fury Road isn’t a movie that hits you over the head with a moral or a message (unless you count the wives shouting “We are not things!”), but like all good science fiction, it has a lot to say. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised at the complexity of the film’s use of religion. It shows us how the power of faith can be used both to inspire the best in humanity and to utterly destroy it.
I work at a church, and right now I’m spending a lot of time trying to teach kids about sin, specifically about repentance and forgiveness. These kids are old enough to have a pretty good handle on telling the difference between right and wrong, but getting them to say “I forgive you” and mean it is a different story. Getting yourself right with God (or the Gods) and your fellow human beings are big parts of many religions, and huge plot points of many of our most popular stories.
Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most popular films of the Disney Renaissance. It’s famously dark, and Judge Claude Frollo might be the most evil Disney Villain of all time. And that makes sense: Victor Hugo’s original gothic novel makes the Disney film look like a heartwarming bedtime story. One of the things I love most about the movie is its complex portrayal of religion. My fellow authors point out how it contains both positive and negative portrayals of religious beliefs and people. But The Hunchback of Notre Dame contains more just a few Catholic characters; we also see some relatively faithful portrayals of Romani beliefs, too.
In just a few short weeks, Avatar: The Legend of Korra will air its final episodes online, and the animated Avatar franchise will come to an end. The fourth season of the show was pulled from television a couple of months ago, but still airs every Friday online. Was it the nasty Friday night time slot, a lack of advertising, or just plain uninterested viewers that caused its failing ratings? I don’t know. But fans of Avatar need not fear, because Dark Horse and Nickelodeon have been steadily churning out some excellent graphic novels following the original Gaang from Avatar: The Last Airbender. The first comic trilogy, The Promise, shows the Gaang struggling to figure out what to do with Fire Nation Colonies in the Earth Kingdom in the new post-war world. The second, The Search, finally answers the question of what really happened to Zuko’s mom. The final installment of The Rift trilogy came out this past November, and deals with whether or not humans and spirits can really coexist, and Smoke and Shadow is due for release beginning in late 2015.
The Rift raises some interesting questions about how religion can and should adapt and evolve to new times and places, questions that are especially relevant to religious people’s lives today. What’s the value in maintaining ancient religious traditions and practices? How can religious traditions be meaningful in a modern world? Can any changes ever be good?
This weekend marks lots of spooky celebration in the Western world. Pagans and Wiccans celebrate the Gaelic festival Samhain, marking the harvest and start of the darker half of the year. Hispanic cultures celebrate Día de los Muertos, a three day festival with roots in ancient Aztec religious beliefs. Christians celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, honoring saints and remembering loved ones. Even secular Americans love to celebrate Halloween. It’s the time of year when lots of people are remembering the dead and pondering mortality. This got me thinking about the way the afterlife appears in our geeky media. Saika and I have already written posts about Heaven and Hell, respectively. Both of us note that each realm is usually twisted in some way (either corrupted or comically), or kind of boring. So do we really need to give our characters an afterlife?