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Holding Tradition Loosely: The Power (and Risk) of Tradition

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By K. Lauriston Smith

What can happen when we hold too strongly to tradition?

In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, created by Bruce Miller and Elizabeth Moss and based on the novels by Margaret Atwood, the nation of Gilead offers a convincing example of the possible excesses that can arise from adhering to a tradition. Gilead is a society strictly divided according to religious class and gender. The ‘holy’ and privileged are powerful and corrupt, while the weak are systematically abused. For female society in Gilead, this means the wives of the rulers dominate female servants and concubines. However, even the wives of the rulers face systematic abuse and degradation.

In this context, episode three of season four of The Handmaid’s Tale offers a surprising revelation: children rescued from Gilead miss their former homes.

Seeking Simple Explanations

At first glance, the children’s nostalgia for their abusive homes doesn’t make sense. After further reflection, though, we shouldn’t be surprised:

Humans love simple explanations. Simple explanations make sense of the complex realities of the world and offer an apparent security against the unwavering onslaught of chance. Simple explanations also tie up loose ends in a satisfying way. However, they often do so by ignoring, rather than explaining, evidence that challenges the explanation.

Simple explanations allow us to craft quick and easy responses. Humans, and especially children, thrive on the familiar and struggle with the unfamiliar. Simple explanations offer clarity on some small part of reality. They might answer questions like ‘why do people spend money unwisely’ or ‘why don’t the twenty-somethings on the street corner have jobs?’ However, humans also look for simple explanations to extremely complex questions.These kinds of  answers simplify broader and more complex questions such as ‘why is the world the way it is?’ or ‘what is the purpose of life?’

Tradition is powerful because it offers a consistent set of simple answers. A strong tradition offers convincing answers to big questions that then allow us to also give convincing answers to smaller questions. This allows the members of that tradition to make sense of a world that is much larger than humans can easily comprehend.

The children seem to miss this twisted sense of stability that Gilead’s traditions offered them. But while these traditions pacify the residents, they also blind them to the truth.

At its best, tradition gives us a way to understand the reality of God; at its worst, tradition creates a new idol to worship instead of God.

Blinded by Tradition

The Handmaid’s Tale offers a particularly striking example of the power of tradition. The excesses of Gilead are based on an interpretation of the Christian scriptures. The rule of men is seen to be justified by scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 11:8–10, while the rulers taking of concubines is seen to be justified by scriptures such as Genesis 30:1–4. Never mind, of course, other passages of scripture that would challenge these interpretations. Those passages are either tacitly ignored, intentionally hidden, or explained away.

The nation of Gilead is, in a significant sense, founded on the word of God — or, at least, one powerful group’s interpretation of that word. However, even this is more complicated than it at first appears—at least in Atwood’s novels. Even though Gilead is a nation that seems to be founded on the Christian scriptures and deeply devoted to God, the challenges facing Gilead are modeled on the biblical judgments that God visited on unfaithful Israel. The people of Gilead face famine and barrenness, and the nation is beset by enemies on all sides.  

The people of Gilead are blinded by their tradition. Even though they suffer biblical condemnations, the people of Gilead cannot see this because their beliefs have been conditioned by their traditions and the interpretation of the scriptures embedded in those traditions. From the perspective of the people of Gilead, the famine and barrenness that plague them, and the enemies that gather at their borders, cannot be signs of God’s condemnation of Gilead. Instead, they can only be understood as examples of the wickedness of the enemies of Gilead who are, obviously, the enemies of God.

Holding Tradition Loosely

The traditions of Gilead are very powerful and have lasting impact. This is exemplified in the television show by the continued piety of three characters: Rita, June, and Janine. These three women had shown little interest in religion prior to the rise of Gilead. However, after escaping the harsh regime they continue to engage in regular rituals of prayer and devotion. However, the influence of Gilead’s tradition is not unbreakable. In The Testaments both of the main characters recognize that the interpretation of scripture that they have been taught doesn’t match well with the biblical texts that they have actually read.

This highlights a danger in the call to a renewed emphasis on traditional doctrine and practice in Evangelical and Reformed communities. The danger in this emphasis on the renewal of tradition in Christian communities is that the tradition can easily become a replacement for the reality. The strength of a tradition is that it enables humans to conceptualize and interact with complex realities in meaningful ways. The risk is that we then take the traditions not to be points of access to more complex realities, but to capture reality entirely.

God is bigger than any tradition. For the historical Christian tradition, the relationship between God and his creation are the reality. The tradition, with its set of doctrines and practices, gives humans a way to meaningfully engage with that reality. However, the tradition cannot fully comprehend or determine who God is or what he has done. At its best, tradition gives us a way to understand the reality of God; at its worst, tradition creates a new idol to worship instead of God. C. S. Lewis described the latter as a god in the corner of the room.

We should thus hold our traditions loosely. The Handmaid’s Tale gives us an extreme illustration of what can happen when a tradition replaces God. History provides many more examples. One way to avoid this kind of extreme is to hold our traditions loosely. While God cannot be false and scripture is inerrant in its original manuscripts, human interpretations of God’s word can and will err, as will the traditions that develop from them. Because of this, a degree of openness about the Christian tradition is important as we seek to recapture it.

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K. Lauriston Smith

K. Lauriston Smith serves as an Adjunct Instructor at Grand Canyon University and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Theology at Southeastern Seminary. His work can be found in The International Journal of Philosophy, Philosophia Christi, The Journal of Moral Philosophy, and The Southeastern Review. He has also published several short stories in The Gallery of Worlds under the pseudonym Tobias Mastgrave. He and his wife Anna have been married for six years. They live in Youngsville, NC with their three children.

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