A few hundred of us were sitting in a space that was once a chapel. The Catholic symbolism was still there, covered by a layer of monochrome paint. A table and a lectern stood on a stage just in front of what was once the apse. At the last minute a young person, probably part of the event-planning crew, went up to turn one of the potted plants. It’s best to show a good side to a literary celebrity.
Then three women appeared from a side door. The crowd applauded. One was the moderator of the event, a professor. The other two were the main speakers, Margaret Atwood and Leah Kostamo.
Atwood is well known. She has written more than fifty books and received about as many awards and honorary degrees. At the time, her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale was making a television splash. Kostamo founded a Christian environmental center in Canada’s most-westward province, British Columbia. The center’s name, A Rocha, is hard to pronounce: from the mouth of the moderator it sounded like a bug infestation, from others, like a purveyor of expensive chocolate. The center’s website shows smiling people ensconced in green landscapes. They are cling-wrapped in rain jackets. In a video multiple generations sit along a common outdoor table. Under the shelter of a white tent they pass salads in slow motion.
Kostamo’s presence at the event, occasioned to mark Canada’s 150th birthday, was meant to “broaden the conversation” beyond the speculations of literary types. She was described in the program as a “real-life Christian environmentalist,” as though her species was thought to have been extinct.
The clapping died away and the speakers took their seats. The professor explained how Atwood and Kostamo represented “engines of Canadian culture.” For those who know Atwood’s more recent novels, particularly her MaddAddam dystopian trilogy, the pairing was easy enough to understand. These books feature 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. She seemed pleasantly surprised then—a little smug even—to have discovered Kostamo. The Christian environmentalist was evidence of her prophetic gift.
Kostamo was invited to speak first. She talked about hope. She told us how some of the children who visited their center seemed to be unnerved by the lack of handrails. They gave the impression that they had never walked on anything that wasn’t paved. As Kostamo spoke, I heard someone behind me apologize to a seatmate, saying that as a reporter she needed to type notes. I wondered if the reporter could see any daylight between Atwood’s characters and Kostamo.
Then it was time for Margaret Atwood to speak. She said her work represented the possibilities of religion. Through God’s Gardeners, religion expressed itself in benevolence. It expressed the group’s connection with their natural environment. In The Handmaid’s Tale, by contrast, religion was used to enforce the subjugation of women.
A few people already had their phones held aloft recording Atwood’s talk. As she prepared to read from one of her books, they multiplied like dandelions. Atwood read from a sermon given by one of the leaders of the God’s Gardeners in her novel The Year of the Flood:
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 sermon goes on like this for some nine paragraphs. It is “preachy” in a bad sense, pedantic and too-knowing. After saying a bit more about her characters, Atwood paused dramatically. Then she began to describe the hymns that she wrote to accompany the sermons. At Kostamo’s request, she sang one of them known as “the mole song.” Kostamo sat at the table in the front of the room smiling pleasantly. The setup suggested she and her colleagues were the stuff of literary imagination. They were archetypes of good.
I wholly support the environmental center’s work, yet something felt off. It was during the open-mic time that I was finally able to pin it down. An array of people made epic pitches for the solution to our environmental crises. Some thought this Christian environmentalist lever was the one we all needed to lean on—whether we believed the Christian story or not.
The commenters reminded me that the God’s Gardeners group is a happy joke. 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. Atwood is insightful. She sees Christians’ miscues and presents them in a gloomy, cartoon fashion. Yet the Christian environmentalists in her books are written from too lofty a perch. They are too earnest. The Christian tradition I find life-giving is a messy affair. Atwood’s environmentalists espouse a mythology that feels like an advertising scheme. Their sermons, their worship, their spiritual practice never escapes the boundary of the world of matter and motion. The trilogy is firmly bounded by what the philosopher Charles Taylor would refer to as the “immanent frame.”
I would think that a more genuinely Christian view of the environment would remember that the goodness and the beauty of the world are backlit by the goodness and beauty of God. What’s more, it would include the assumption that the world matters more because it matters to God. Maybe it’s my turn to sound preachy, but I think it’s this belief, and the practices that go with it, that has the potential to shape the character of a people capable of saying “no” to the destructive forces of consumerism.
The beliefs of Atwood’s environmentalists, on the other hand, 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. However, this is not what it feels like to look at the world through the eyes of faith.
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.” I wanted her to say that the purpose of spirituality isn’t just to serve ends driven by the market, ends we can see and touch. I wanted her to say that liturgy is different than advertising. I remember looking above the crowd in the old chapel. There above us, slathered in grey paint, but still visible in relief, was a dove. I felt myself hoping that one day it will shake itself free from the plaster.
I could have wandered to the mic and asked the speakers what they thought about the dove, whether they thought it had ever flown or ever would fly. It would have been a way of asking if there is anything in the future that pulls history forward. The event’s organizers had written that religion is a “powerful, yet ambiguous force” in the national consciousness. That is true but meaningless. It also misses the point of “religion” as I know it. It misses the disruptive point, the creative point, the point at which a new way of being presents itself. It misses the point that a way of life fitted to the goodness that is creation can’t be manufactured but must be received.