A few hundred of us are sitting in what used to be a chapel. The Catholic symbolism is still there, covered by a layer of monochrome paint. There is a table and a lectern just in front of what would have been the apse. A young woman, she must be part of the event-planning crew, goes forward awkwardly at the last minute to turn one of the potted plants. Everyone wants to show their good side for a literary celebrity. Then three women appear from a side door. There is applause. The speakers are Margaret Atwood and Leah Kostamo. Atwood’s record was well known. She’s written more than fifty books and received about as many awards and honorary degrees. Her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is currently appearing as a series through the streaming service Hulu. Kostamo is the founder of a Christian environmental center in British Columbia, Canada. The center’s name is hard to pronounce: from the mouth of the event’s moderator it sounds like a bug infestation, from others, like a purveyor of expensive chocolate. An advertisement for the event said that Kostamo’s presence would “broaden the conversation” beyond literary speculations by “providing a unique example of how life can imitate art.” The moderator is a professor at the university where we are gathered.
The clapping dies away and the speakers take their seats. The professor explains how the event was timed to “mark” Canada’s 150th birthday, not to “celebrate” it. It is not something everyone celebrates. What the planners were looking for were “engines of Canadian culture.” So here are Atwood and Kostamo. For those who know Atwood’s more recent novels, particularly her MaddAddam dystopian trilogy, the pairing is easy enough to understand. The second book features a group of Christian-ish environmentalists struggling to survive in a world devastated by unchecked capitalism and climate change. The group is known as God’s Gardeners. Atwood regularly says that she doesn’t create anything in her fiction that hasn’t already happened. The theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale is based on an amalgamation of Puritan New England and the Religious Right of the 1980s. In Kostamo and Atwood then there is the curious case of art and life imitating each other. Nevertheless, as Atwood later narrates things, it doesn’t sound like she was aware of the Christian environmentalists before she wrote her famous novels. She seems pleasantly surprised—a little smug even—to have discovered evidence of her prophetic gift.
Kostamo has been described as a “real-life Christian environmentalist.” I smiled when I first read that line. I had not known that such creatures were so hard to find. It’s this comparison of Atwood’s imagined environmentalists and the real-life version that drives the evening’s discussion. After the professor’s introductory remarks, Kostamo is first to speak. She talks about hope. She is adamant that her Christian hope is not in the idea that God will magically show up and get us out of the mess we’re in. Having hope she believes is seeing things as they are, seeing things as they should be, and then taking action to turn the former into the latter. I’m not sure if that is hope so much as strategy, but Atwood seems content with the definition.
I hear someone behind me apologize to a seatmate, saying that she is a reporter and needed to take notes. That explains the typing I’ve been hearing. I wonder if the reporter can see a difference between Atwood’s characters and Kostamo’s faith-based organization. The environmental center does wonderful work. They’re engaged in conservation projects, environmental education, and sustainable agriculture. Kostamo tells a story about a child who came to the center with a school group. The kid was afraid to walk by the “cliff”—which in reality was a slight grassy decline on the center’s property. Kostamo and crew initially assumed it was simply one child’s misperception. Then they heard the fear repeated by other children. They realized that the kids were simply unfamiliar with walking in an outside area not defined by a sidewalk or street. That lack of handrails unnerved them. Kostamo goes on to tell us how kids come alive in nature. She says they’ve witnessed the implications of what Richard Louv has called “nature deficit disorder.” I think of my three boys. They love nothing better than to be let loose in a woodlot. I want to cheer for Kostamo. Hers is a positive Christian activism I can appreciate.
It’s then time for Atwood to speak. She talks about her exposure to Christianity as a child in the Canadian school system. That was a time when schools were either Protestant or Catholic and scripture was a part of the curriculum. Atwood says this exposure to the Christian tradition has proven valuable for her study of literature. She says that the MaddAddam trilogy and The Handmaid’s Tale as the prime examples of the possibilities of religion. “Religion” is not my preferred term, but it’s the term the event’s organizers are using. In the MaddAddam trilogy, especially in the God’s Gardeners group, religion is benevolent and kind. Spirituality is a positive motivator for these characters and it symbolizes their connection with the natural world. Things are quite different in The Handmaid’s Tale, there religion is totalitarian. It’s used to subjugate women. The people who set up the conversation between Atwood and Kostamo described religion as a “powerful, yet ambiguous force” in the national consciousness. This is oddly presumptive. It presumes an authoritative set of boxes a religion might or might not check. It presumes that there is some higher, super-judge that can evaluate the contributions of Islam or Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism.
A few people already have their phones held aloft recording Atwood’s talk. As she prepares to read, they sprout like dandelions. Atwood reads from a sermon given by one of the leaders of the God’s Gardeners:
The Human Words of God speak of the Creation in terms that could be understood by the men of old. There is no talk of galaxies or genes, for such terms would have confused them greatly! But must we therefore take as scientific fact the story that the world was created in six days, thus making a nonsense of observable data? . . . Unlike some other religions, we have never felt it served a higher purpose to lie to children about geology (The Year of the Flood, Creation Day).
The sermon goes on like this for some nine paragraphs. The preacher is pedantic and all too knowing. His tacit goal is to show that one can find Genesis useful without taking it literally. Atwood goes on to describe her characters. I liked the books. I listen closely. Then, with a dramatic pause, Atwood begins to describe the hymns that she wrote to accompany the sermons in the book. Apparently Kostamo has requested that she sing one of them. The dandelions sprout with the fervor of spring. Atwood sings the “Mole Song.”
I see Kostamo smiling pleasantly. This is not surprising, for she sits at the front of the room as Margaret Atwood’s hero. The environmental center has fulfilled the wishes of a Canadian icon in bringing Christian spirituality into the environmentalist fold. I consider myself something of an environmentalist, not one of the professional types, just someone who tries to be a good steward of the natural world in everyday ways. I worked my way through college as a wilderness guide. My family and I have tried to make intentional steps to reduce the energy we use and we eat as locally as is practical. We regularly spend time out of doors. I am wholly supportive of the environmental center’s work, and yet something here feels off. I can’t pin it down until the open-mic time. An array of people make epic pitches for the solution to the environmental crises. If we would just do this or that, they think everything would be fine. Some seem to even think that this Christian environmentalist lever is the one we all need to lean on—whether we believe or not.
What I can’t get past, however, is the fact that to Atwood the God’s Gardeners group is a happy joke. They are a joke in the sense that their sermons, hymns and other theological bits come straight from the head of one author. There is a “look-what-I-can-do sense” about their existence on the page. The Christian tradition that I find life-giving has been shaped by millions of people over thousands of years. Atwood has a remarkably keen view of our culture. She sees our miscues and presents them to us in a gloomy cartoon fashion. Her depictions of money-grubbing pastors is painfully poignant. Yet the God’s Gardeners are too manufactured. They are written from too lofty a perch.
The problem is that the beliefs of this group never really seem to get outside the world of material things. Atwood’s whole trilogy remains stuck in what the philosopher Charles Taylor would refer to as the “imminent frame.” There is nothing really transcendent. There is no sense of goodness or value beyond this world, lovely as it is. For Christians, the goodness and the beauty of the world does not overshadow the goodness and beauty of God. The first points to the second.
The beliefs of Atwood’s environmentalists are theobabble. They are wool pulled over the eyes of the susceptible. This is, I think, the way she wants it. It is the way she sees it. And it is one way to look at religion (or faith). However, this is not what it feels like to look at the world through faith. The problem with the Kostamo-Atwood conversation is the same problem any of us get into when we wait around for a cultural gatekeeper to affirm our contribution to society. It’s the same problem that grips derivative art. It’s the same problem that afflicts the power-hungry church leader.
What I wanted, I realized later, was for Kostamo to find one place to disagree with Atwood, one place to say “you don’t have us figured out,” one place to say the purpose of spirituality isn’t just to serve ends we can see and touch. I remember looking above the crowd in the old chapel. There, slathered in grey paint, but still visible in relief, was a dove. I hope that one day it will shake itself free from the plaster. It would remind us, I’m fairly certain, that how we make our way in the world matters, not just for the sake of immediate effects, but for the sake of the one who pronounced it good.