(If you prefer to hear this essay rather than read it, click here to find the spoken tract version of this reflection.)
I won’t read The Handmaid’s Tale. And it isn’t because I am a Christian who is afraid of being confronted by ideas that are unsettling.
I graduated from Hillsdale College in the very late 1990s with a BA in Philosophy and Religion. I spent two semesters at the University of Oxford studying theology. I own more than one set of the Great Books of the Western World, I am working my way through Roman Roads Media’s Old Western Culture, and I have dozens of courses from the Great Courses Company. I am not bragging, I am giving context. I am attempting to explain that I value reading widely and deeply through the Western Canon. Inherently this means that I have read and continue to read a lot of thinkers and writers whom I do not like, but whom I respect as being contributors to “The Great Conversation.”
I won’t read The Handmaid’s Tale because I am not convinced that I must “eat trash in order to know that it is trash.” One of my most engaging professors at Hillsdale used that phrase constantly to help us put our thoughts into proper order. We do not have to consume every idea in order to form “good enough” judgements about them. Simply put: not everything is worthy of our attention no matter how much social pressure there is to consider it so.
The most common argument I hear in defense of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is a cautionary tale. Okay. Fair enough. But… there are dozens of cautionary tales which are worthy reads. Must we read all of them? Who decides which ones are must-reads? Why is this one so special? I have read plenty of other cautionary tales. More importantly, any regular study of Scripture and church history would provide ample caution about the abuses that men are capable of inflicting on one another.
The next most common argument I hear in defense of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is beautifully written. Well, I have hundreds of “beautifully written” books which are more pressing, more interesting, and far less violent and sexual.
Many have said that the ending is interesting, unexpected, and inspiring. Again, I easily have a dozen classics within arms reach which would offer a similar experience.
Tragically, I hear that we have to read this story so that we can feel the brokenness and darkness that others go through. While I will not agree that this is in fact necessary, I will counter it with far more redeeming options. The Hiding Place, for example, is full of pain, torture, and abuse. But it is also full of true hope and authentic faith. Again, the lives of the great holy men and women of our faith can provide me with countless comparable examples.
Finally, I hear a moral admonition to read this book because otherwise I won’t be culturally literate. I guess that might matter if I cared about being culturally literate. Since our culture is relatively illiterate compared to many other generations, I am not sure why it matters whether or not I am up to speed on the bestsellers of this age.
We hear constantly that we need to have an open mind. In his autobiography, G.K. Chesterton wrote about his conversion and said, this:
“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
I am with Chesterton. And, I think that he was with Saint Paul.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8