Margaret Atwood’s Green Christians

Peter Wenzel, “Garden of Eden”

Spiritual Sunday

In her dystopian novel Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood imagines an underground cult of environmental Christians who are preparing for the apocalypse and, in fact, manage to survive when practically everyone else dies. Atwood is at her inventive best as she imagines how the Bible would be interpreted by nature-oriented fundamentalists.

Headed by one who calls himself Adam, the Gardeners exist on the margins of society, living in abandoned buildings and “gleaning” (like Ruth) amongst the refuse that wasteful capitalist society has thrown away. Society has become a libertarian capitalist fantasy, which is to say a nightmare, in which all the wealthy live in gated communities while everyone else lives in urban desolation. Climate change has rendered much of the earth uninhabitable, many species have gone extinct, and genetic engineering has created strange new creatures, such as florescent green rabbits, pigs that can be harvested for human organs, and strange hybrids. Thanks to another Christian cult, there is even a liobam:

They don’t look dangerous, although they are.The lion-sheep splice was commissioned by the Lion Isaiahists in order to force the advent of the Peaceable Kingdom. They’d reasoned that the only way to fulfill the lion/lamb friendship prophecy without the first eating the second would be to meld the two of them together. But the result hadn’t been strictly vegetarian.

Nor are the Lion Isaiahists all that peaceful as they fight regularly with the Wolf Isaiahists in a exegetical dispute over which predator is to lie down with the lamb.

The Gardeners, on the other hand, are non-violent. Dressing simply and refusing to eat meat, they aspire to restore the earth to the beautiful garden that it once was. As they are living an urban hellscape, at the moment they must settle for rooftop gardens.

Eventually they are targeted by the authorities as the early Christians were targeted by the Romans, but their life style allows them to prevail when the rest of society is eradicated by “the waterless flood” that they have predicted. This flood is a plague introduced by a mad scientist disgusted at how humans have despoiled the earth, but because the Gardeners avoid contact with the rest of humankind and have stored up supplies in “ararats,” they are able to survive.

The book periodically gives us Adam’s sermons, followed by simple hymns. Unlike our own rightwing evangelicals, Adam has found ways to reconcile the Bible with modern science. Note how he references evolution as he explains original sin:

God could have made Man out of pure Word, but He did not use this method. He could also have formed him from the dust of the Earth, which in a sense He did, for what else can be signified by “dust” but atoms and molecules, the building blocks of all material entities? In addition to this, He created us through the long and complex process of Natural and Sexual Selection, which is none other than His ingenious device for instilling humility in Man. He made us “a little lower than the Angels,” but in other ways—and Science bears this out—we are closely related to our fellow Primates, a fact that the haughty ones of this world do not find pleasant to their self-esteem. Our appetites, our desires, our more uncontrollable emotions—all are Primate! Our fall from the original Garden was a Fall from the innocent acting-out of such patterns and impulses to a conscious and shamed awareness of them; and from thence comes our sadness, our anxiety, our doubt, our rage against God….

What commandment did we disobey? The commandment to live the Animal life in all simplicity—without clothing, so to speak. But we craved the knowledge of good and evil, and we obtained that knowledge, and now we are reaping the whirlwind. In our efforts to rise above ourselves we have indeed fallen far, and are falling farther still; for, like the Creation, the Fall, too, is ongoing. Ours is a fall into greed: why do we think that everything on Earth belongs to us, while in reality we belong to Everything? We have betrayed the trust of the Animals, and defiled our sacred task of stewardship. God’s commandment to “replenish the Earth” did not mean we should fill it to overflowing with ourselves, thus wiping out everything else. How many other Species have we already annihilated? Insofar as you do it unto the least of God’s Creatures, you do it unto Him. Please consider that, my Friends, the next time you crush a Worm underfoot or disparage a Beetle!

We pray that we may not fall into the error of pride by considering ourselves as exceptional, alone in all Creation in having Souls; and that we will not vainly imagine that we are set above all other life, and may destroy it at our pleasure, and with impunity.

We thank Thee, oh God, for having made us in such a way as to remind us, not only of our less than Angelic being, but also of the knots of DNA and RNA that tie us to our many fellow Creatures.

Adam’s sermons are followed by singing. The hymns, which have an Isaac Watt feel to them, seem versions of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” with a modern twist. For instance:

Oh let me not be proud, dear Lord,
Nor rank myself above
The other Primates, through whose genes
We grew into your Love.

A million million years, Your Days,
Your methods past discerning,
Yet through Your blend of DNAs
Came passion, mind, and learning.

We cannot always trace Your path
Through Monkey and Gorilla,
Yet all are sheltered underneath
Your Heavenly Umbrella.

And if we vaunt and puff ourselves
With vanity and pride,
Recall Australopithecus,
Our Animal inside.

So keep us far from worser traits,
Aggression, anger, greed;
Let us not scorn our lowly birth,
Nor yet our Primate seed.

Although Atwood at first seems to be mocking this simple faith, it gradually grows upon the reader, especially when set against the excesses of modern capitalism. By the end, we are more than ready to say, “Amen.”

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