The Handmaid’s Tale is Back

Dr. Bill James
Professor Emeritus
School of Religion


The Handmaid’s Tale is all over the place these days in a remarkable resurgence that Atwood herself declares as “weird.” It feels a bit that way to me too, as I recall the novel’s appearance in the mid-80s. I taught the book for several years in RELS 161, Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Its immediate referents were, as I recall, the AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, and feminism. Then and now, the strong underlying themes of religion and the state and of totalitarianism loomed.

This retrospection got me to dig up an article I had written and published in Japan in the early 90’s, “Narrative as Prayer and Politics in The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was reissued in 1994 for students in RELS 161. A scanned version is available here. I was relieved to reread it and find that it isn’t entirely an embarrassment. In fact, its focus on the narrator’s inner monologue as a form of prayer strikes me as perennially relevant. Augustine, in The Confessions, first helped us understand that one’s relation to the deepest aspect of the self is akin to the relation to the divine.

atwood1This inner monologue—which novels represent so well and which movies often fail at or ignore—disappeared as a feature of the 1990 film by Volker Schlöndorff. Though the film starred an illustrious quintet of principals, and though the screenplay was written by renowned playwright Harold Pinter, it was lamentable in many respects. Due to changes in midstream, Pinter felt the film became a “hotch-potch.” Natasha Richardson, the female lead, thought the Offred’s interior monologue would be handled by voice-over narrations, but then these were cut out, reportedly because Pinter was against them.


thehandmaidstale1The American television series of The Handmaid’s Tale by Bruce Miller just began airing in April 2017, in Canada on the Bravo network. The tv series is acclaimed as a visually impressive and an emotionally suspenseful drama representing the best of what television can offer. Elisabeth Moss, in the role of Offred, expresses her innermost thoughts in voice-over in assertion of rebellion against the totalitarian control and distortions of the regime. From the beginning as a viewer I felt that the novel had been restored to life.

The discussions about The Handmaid’s Tale continue in various media, usually revolving its relevance in the Age of Trump. But some of the tangential issues are fascinating too. For me it’s the revival of challenges to Atwood’s feminism as she continues a decades-long resistance against being called a feminist. An article in Jezebel recently challenged Atwood’s view that women’s rights are human rights. The Jezebel piece went on to query how Elisabeth Moss could belong to Scientology while portraying a woman living under oppression. Moss has refused to talk about the negative aspects of her religion, with the allegations of forced abortions, confinements, and various accounts of physical and sexual abuse.

Again, memories of old controversies return. It was in 1988 that I reviewed Russell Miller’s critical, though popular and unauthorized, biography of Scientology’s founder, Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard. At the time I wondered whether the religion would survive the founder’s death but here it is, still with us, and still the subject of movies and articles and investigations. Atwood’s feminism and Moss’s religion are versions of the old question of whether a bad person can produce good art. Or of literature and belief: What’s the fit between the worldview of the text and its author’s beliefs? In the Church it was the Donatist controversy: Is the Sacrament still efficacious when received from the hands of an unworthy priest? In some ways contemporary celebrity culture, which reveals all about about any public figure, augments the problem. The answer, too, may be an old one. As D. H. Lawrence said: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Fascinating, recurring, and age-old questions.



May News

The QSR blog just doesn’t want to take its vacation…

Two more posts are up: Aaron Ricker considers Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson as moral authorities and QSR MA Student Alissa Droog reflects on running religious studies tutorials.

We’ll be back in September!

Running A Religious Studies Tutorial

Alissa Droog
MA Student
School of Religion


Teaching is a creative enterprise, and if there’s one thing I learned about it this year, it’s that you have to be willing to try a variety of methods that may or may not work. This year I had the opportunity to run a tutorial for RELS 161 Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Students were introduced to topics like defining religion, religion and modernity, fundamentalism, new atheism, ritual studies and new religious movements and I, having a more traditional education in Christian thought and culture, learned along with them.

The most valuable learning experience from teaching this tutorial was about how to nurture an environment for discussion in which students felt comfortable participating. When I started the tutorial in September with a couple of discussion questions, I was met with nervous glances and the “don’t pick me” look. As a result, I had to scale back on the amount of discussion I planned in my tutorials and slowly added it back in when my students were ready.

obi-canuelIn my final tutorial, I am happy to report that we had a semi-structured discussion which my students largely led for 45 minutes. The topic that week was new religious movements and we debated whether members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be allowed to wear a colander on their head for official photographs. The discussion ended up going for 20 minutes and I had to cut it off so we could move on. It was amazing to see how far my students had come. They took turns, they didn’t talk to me but to each other and came up with some strong arguments for and against the colander. While that discussion may have been a lucky moment, I’d like to believe that it was the result of a variety of strategies that I tried to create an inviting classroom for discussion.

With that said, here are some of the teaching strategies I used to invite discussion:

  1. Making participation count: I made discussion participation worth almost half of my students’ tutorial participation grade. As students left tutorial each week, they reminded me if they had participated in discussion and I marked it down on an attendance sheet. This created accountability for the students to speak.
  2. Talk to your neighbour first: Before starting a whole class discussion, I asked students to discuss the question with their neighbours. This allowed students to share their ideas in a low-risk setting. It also developed and validated their thoughts, making it easier to share them with the class when I opened the question to the whole group.
  3. Brainstorms: I used brainstorms to get my students to think of the key terms and arguments for different course readings. I would only explain a key term once it had been added to the brainstorm so the onus was on the students for doing their readings and adding to the discussion. Adding a key term to a list is also an easy way to participate.
  4. Group Activities: These can take some time to organize, but the photo below shows the setup for a group activity that I ran one day. I created 5 charts with key terms and discussion questions on topics we covered that week. Each group got about 5 minutes to fill in as much as they could on the chart before passing it to the next table. I spent each 5-minute increment with a different group which allowed me to answer questions and gauge how well the students knew the material.




Better to Sell a Candle than Curse the Darkness?

Aaron Ricker
Lecturer,  McGill University

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was broadcast in 1980, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson (NDT) starred in the Cosmos reboot of 2014. Both shows were wildly successful (by the standards of educational TV), and in tandem they build a good-cop/good-cop image of science as a source of moral authority. Here’s how: Cosmos 1980 and Cosmos 2014 a) cultivate an ideal of science being in the wonder business. They then b) claim a moral authority rooted in its cosmic revelation. They c) stress the idea of a pressing global choice between life and death, and d) assert that the perspective offered by sciences like astronomy can help us make the right choice. In this way, they e) position “spiritual but not religious” and “scientific but not scientistic” science promoters like Carl Sagan and NDT as moral authorities.


a) One way Cosmos (1980) promotes a wonder business mood is its use of literally astronomical numbers. In Episode 1 alone, I counted 50 millions/billions/trillions/quadrillions (about an illion per minute). This insistent invocation of inconceivably grand numbers positions Cosmos as a source of infotainment wonder, rightly administering the marvels of science to the people. Sagan is no cold scientistic egghead, you see? His science is passionate and “deep.”

b) There’s a moral authority that flows from this wonder, since Cosmos offers – in the words of co-writer Ann Druyan – a message of cosmic belonging through the “spiritual high” of its “revelation” (Introduction to Episode 1). As Sagan explains, such healthy wonder works best when it’s channeled by good teachers (Episode 13).

c) Cosmos stresses that science necessitates and informs global life-and-death choices regarding nuclear war, climate change, etc (Episode 1). The series’ grand finale opens on this note, in a literally biblical tone: “Behold, I have set before thee life and death,” with Sagan expressing his hope that we’ll accept from sciences like astronomy the cosmic “perspective” we’ll need to survive (Episode 13).

d) Slash-and-burn forestry is, for example, done by people who are “heedless of the beauty of our cousins the trees, and ignorant of the possible climactic catastrophes” (Episode 4). Science education is therefore a moral force, and literally a life-saver. “Science is not perfect,” Sagan says, “but it’s the best tool we have” (Episode 13).

e) Science replaces older (“religious”) ways of engaging wonder, and does it better (Episode 7), identifying and answering life-and-death decisions with humbling, soaring perspectives. The people who teach science properly are therefore moral actors in positions of great power and responsibility.


a) In Cosmos 2(014) it’s clear that science is still in the wonder business. The world revealed by science is marvelous and staggering. “Imagination alone not enough – The reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine” (Episode 1). Science is the legitimate heir of territories previously claimed by older (“religious”) systems of meaning (Episode 13), including the functions of providing “humility” and “soaring spiritual experience” (Episode 2). NDT is, like, Sagan, scientific but not coldly or narrowly scientistic, you see. The bogeyman of scientism is banished, and the terrain of humane wonder is claimed for science.

b) The moral authority that flows from this includes in Cosmos 2 a claim to apostolic succession, and NDT’s frankly maudlin personal story about how “I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become” (Episode 1) drives the flag of Cosmos science deeper into the terrain of humane magnanimity.

c) Cosmos 2 also repeatedly stresses the planetary dangers of nuclear weapons and climate change (Episode 12, 13), and repeats the claim that the perspective gained from science can help us see and make the right choice, because it delivers on wonder and humility, as opposed to older anthropocentric (“religious”) systems of meaning (Episode 2, 6, 13).

d) NDT explicitly repeats (twice) Sagan’s admission that science is not perfect, along with Sagan’s insistence that it’s still humanity’s best bet (Episode 9, 13).

e) If the “cosmic perspective” offered by science is the only thing that can save the world (Episode 1, 13), NDT is accepting a moral mission when he inherits Sagan’s mantle, and repeats Sagan’s Christlike invitation “Come with me” (Episode 1).

In Cosmos 1 and 2, then, authorities like Sagan and NDT are moral authorities. They rightly divide the dauntingly astronomical numbers of the word of truth. They correctly administer the TV episode sacrament of wonder. To be clear: I’m not slamming them! They did great work and made great points. Engaged Religious Studies scholars are bound, though, to reflect critically about the ways in which pop culture giants construct authority with reference to issues flagged as “religious,” in a world where (as Jeremy Carrette and Richard King point out in their book Selling Spirituality), “spiritual but not religious” is a major demographic and its muscle is most demonstrably flexed in pop culture marketplaces.