Dystopia Times Two

I am currently in the midst of two dystopian TV series: The Walking Dead (TWD) and The Handmaid’s Tale (THT). Both are located in a future setting, where life as we know it is but a distant memory, and the future exists as a thin hope oscillating between obliteration and being at the threshold of the shades. I am rather far into TWD, and have just started the screen rendition of Atwood’s tale. Both are utterly fascinating, not only for their differences, but their similarities.

Both deal with a contagion: in the TWD it is a death that will not die; and in THT it is the inability in to give birth. Other comparisons are apt. TWD is punctuated with violence. There is violence in THT, but it is measured, and horrific in its calculation. While watching TWD, you can anticipate a zombie around every corner, every crook, every shadow – surprising, but not. In THT, violence is really more insidious, terrifying in its being cloaked in the guise of religion, and the supposed good. In THT, women are at the very centre of the plot, inviting the viewer to think about how women have been, and are marginalized and given a tightly scripted role in the narrative of life. I shut off the television, and breathe a sigh of relief knowing that my daughters do not have to live in that world, but then I remember that the real world that they live in is rife with patriarchy and parochialism, and I know that the gains that have been made for women are ever at risk of being eroded. The women in the TWD are profoundly strong – but differently. They slaughter zombies and enemies with the same ferocity as the men and are found to be leaders of some communities. Women in THT are ever needing to make their way by speaking two languages, as it were: that of patriarchy and that of the circles in which they move at a level invisible to men.

Religion plays a big role in each: in the TWD there are believers who struggle with their faith, and admittedly agnostic characters who have a kind of tenacity that seems super-human. Religion in THT is the antagonist it seems (at this point), with images of ruined mainline churches setting the backdrop against which a state-sponsored dystopian religion reigns, supporting the patriarchy, which quotes scripture in support of the rape of handmaids, and the torture of deviants.

I am finding it so very informative to watch these two shows together. Both of them serve as a kind of lens for looking at the present. In TWD a kind of oscillation of utter chaos and brief but tenuous calm advances the plotline. I am too early into THT to weigh in on this, but I can say that its use of flashbacks is haunting, since they take me to my present time – and my own geography since much of THT is shot in Cambridge and Toronto, both close to where I live. Both series are externally supported by the regular and disorienting clips concerning climate change in my various news feeds. Of course, these dystopian tales have their provenance in apocalyptic literature – found in the bible and elsewhere. In the bible, this genre serves to tell those in utter chaos that God will bring about a just end. The hand of God is not so clear in these dystopian tales.

Both, in their own way, raise important theological queries: from the THT, I am constantly invited to ponder how religion can be a tool for hegemonic purposes. In TWD, religion takes on such a chameleon character – now seen in a tenuous hold on faith, now seen in people who betray their religion for survival, and now seen in hard existential questions about the purpose of life – played against an apocalyptic back drop that here and there peppers the viewer with biblical phrases. If I was a pastor who preached regularly, I would be watching both shows with a note pad at hand. As it is, I am ever watching, wondering how these fundamental questions of life, caught on screen might inform my classrooms, my church, my world.

Dear Mom,

Dear Mom,

It’s been nearly six years since you left us, although you didn’t depart altogether. Every now and then, I find you in my shadow, banging pots about in the kitchen, flavouring this, tasting that. You carried me in your womb, your prayers, your heart and now I find myself bearing you, in divers ways. The other day, for instance, I found myself peeling a potato, and felt you hand guiding mine, sliding along the contours of this root of the earth, sensing that a potato was capable of bearing love, and that cooking for those I love is as holy as was my pious prayers at the altar today, where I sensed you yet again.

You have given me many things, Mom. But one of the best is a respect for women. I am surrounded by strong women: my wonderful wife who has imbibed deeply from her own Mother’s well of wisdom and has also found some wisdom of her own; my courageous daughters who continually redefine success for me; sisters and in-laws whose faith buoys me; friends and colleagues who leave me in awe with their talent, their dedication, their ability to know exactly what to say to me when it needs to be said.

You have given me the gift of eyes, Mom. What a precious gift that is! As yours faded so many years ago, in some small way I think they migrated to mine, and every now and then I think I see through you… well, only in part, dimly, through a glass darkly, as the good apostle says. I will never know what it means to be a woman, but from what I can see from where I sit, it is a marvel and a challenge, a contentment and a frustration; a holy calling.

Men sometimes stereotype women as emotional, but those leaky eyes I encounter here, and there; this turn of the head when cheeks become beds for rivered emotions; this weeping is pleading for justice and a burden for peace and healing. These tears often prophetically announce that things are not as they should be, and are begging for a world more just. I stand in awe of such tears and wish them for myself: to be able to cry peace and righteousness; to be fit to sob for the healing of creation. This I covet when I find myself paralyzed. But the women in my life, Mom, show me the way, just like you did for so many years: be not afraid; look for the opportunities to brighten someone’s world; invite people into relationship; knock at the door until someone opens; be of good courage; pray always and in many ways.

I miss you so, Mom, but I know that you are in a good place. I also know that you are never so very far away. That veil separating us is thinner than we imagine. And I thank God for your example: you were not perfect and you taught me that I don’t need to be either. You taught me that love takes many forms, and it needs to be embraced for its diversity. You taught me things that you did not know you taught me.

Today is Mother’s Day but I think on you every day and know that what made you a marvel was not so much that you are my mother, but that you were you, that you are you. Your being you, unapologetically, reminds me every day that the sacred slips into our lives askew: now in a potato peel, now in a tear, now in song, now silence, now.

Lovingly yours,

Allen