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  • Is Atlas about to Shrug??

Apr
20
Is Atlas about to Shrug??

Yesterday I finished reading “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. Actually, I didn’t read it, I listened to it (Audible.com FTW!)…all 63 hours of it.

Back in high school I read “The Fountainhead” and while I couldn’t put into words what it is that I resonated with and what it is that troubled me about it, having reading Atlas Shrugged, I am finally able to do so.

For those unfamiliar with it, Atlas Shrugged tells the story of a few brilliant industrialists who excel above the competition due to their ability, practical business sense and total refusal to compromise skill/ability for charity/equality. They are relentlessly undermined and manipulated by the government and eventually the best minds of society end up “going on strike”, leaving the economy and society in general to collapse as a result of widespread apathy and ineptitude (think “Idiocracy” meets “The Grapes of Wrath“!).

This year, Rand’s 1957 literary magnum opus has finally come to the big screen despite–unsurprisingly!–an almost total lack of media fanfare; and the timing is quite intentional. Take a look at this trailer to see what I mean:

As the trailer makes clear, the worldview behind Atlas Shrugged coincides greatly with the grassroots “Tea Party Movement” in American politics. It is given quasi-canonical status among many Libertarians and those who oppose government regulation and over-spending…for good reason: those are two topics Rand most vehemently attacks through the novel!

As a big Ron Paul fan myself, I couldn’t help but see the wisdom in the books economic points. [Disclosure: I avoid endorsing political parties or candidates in general; but Ron Paul is an exception that I gladly make. The man is the epitome of what integrity in politics should look like; so I give him major props!]

So what is it that one should be wary of when it comes to Ayn Rand in general and Atlas Shrugged in particular?

One hyphenated word: over-reaction.

You see, the entire worldview that Rand advocates is based on the ultimate exultation of the self and the highest virtues being those of self-sufficiency and production. She openly and unashamedly declares this.

This isn’t surprising given the fact that she fled Cold-War-era Europe in order to come to America and pursue a career of writing about the evils of Communist ideals. Thus, her writings were an extreme over-reaction against all things Socialist.

To be sure, when it comes to macro-economic policy and social engineering, Atlas Shrugged beautifully illustrates the flaws and self-defeating nature of many government-imposed programs aimed at “fairness”…thus the book’s political/economical message is very much relevant in our current over-spending, under-producing society.

But Rand most definitely threw out the baby with the bathwater in elevating productivity and self-sufficiency as virtues above all others. In fact, her view of morality itself is an unjustified elevation of the self as the highest and most valuable cause there is. With no objective justification for doing so, Rand hurls moral judgments against her ideological enemies. There are vague references to Aristotelian concepts in the book, and Rand herself even says that Aristotle is really the only philosopher to whom she feels indebted.

This should give Christians pause before enthusiastically jumping on the Taggart bandwagon (inside joke).

Why?

Because the Gospel is 100% foreign to the worldview of Ayn Rand.

The Gospel rests upon the recognition that when it comes to virtue, even the best of us are not nearly good enough (something every honest person intrinsically recognizes when they examine their moral choices in light of absolute morality). Since we have been shown mercy, we are to likewise show mercy. Since we have not earned love from God, we are likewise not to expect others to earn our love.

This runs counter to much American folk-religion (sometimes called “Moral Therapeutic Deism“), but the Gospel has ALWAYS been counter cultural.

There’s a reason the Sermon on the Mount is never mentioned in Rand’s work…though religion in general is regularly caricatured and denounced!

The challenge we as Christians have when reading Atlas Shrugged (or any of Ayn Rand’s other work) is to take the true and right from her work–of which there is much in the area of macro-economic ideas–while rejecting the naive (and pridefully-unaware!) egoist worldview upon which it rests.

As always…the truth is somewhere in the middle.

JM

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Comments

  1. You are right about Ayn Rand’s lack of a Biblical world view, J-M.

    I watched the first episode of Atlas Shrugged. It is dead-on as to the type of activity that the US Government is engaged in that stifles job creation and competition.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Bob Diamond on April 20, 2011 at 6:44 pm

  2. Zack

    I know Al Mohler is outside of your normal pool of influence, but your use of the term “moral therapeutic deism” reminded me of an excellent podcast discussion between Al Mohler and Christian Smith (the co-author Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers who coined the term).
    If you appreciate Christian Smith’s writings and insights, it’s definitely worth a listen.

    http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/09/07/the-spiritual-state-of-the-emerging-generation-a-conversation-with-christian-smith/

    [Reply]

    jm Reply:

    Thanks Zack.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Zack on April 20, 2011 at 7:13 pm

  3. Great blog. My wife and I saw “Atlas Shrugged” Saturday night, and agreed that while Rand’s points about coercion and government force are quite correct, her disdain and contempt for voluntary altruism is NOT, and is one of the primary thin…gs that divide Objectivists from true libertarians.

    My wife has also read “The Foundtainhead” and “We The Living”, an earlier Rand work pre-dating “The Fountainhead.” This increasing self-centered aspect of Rand’s worldview seems to have developed over time, becoming more pronounced as she grew older and more successful as a writer.

    It’s interesting to note that for as much as she advocated freedom of action and thought in her philosophy and writings, she practiced extremely tight control over her colleagues and friends; for more on that, check out “The Passion of Ayn Rand” by Barbera Branden (this was also made into a film). You can find it at Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Passion-Ayn-Rand-Barbara-Branden/dp/038524388X

    I read recently that Murray Rothbard (a more consistent libertarian, in my view) was an early admirer of Rand’s, but they parted ways when Rand insisted that Rothbard divorce his wife because she was a Christian, and Rand could not tolerate anything in her close associates other than devout athiesm (pun intended).

    [Reply]

    Comment by Adam Love on April 20, 2011 at 7:24 pm

  4. Michael

    JM– I have followed the press about Ayn Rand, and I’m familiar with her views…yet never read her books. I believe your final thoughts are extremely well written and thoughtful. Too many people (some we both know) try to manipulate their political arguments and back them with scriptural references that are taken out of context. If Rand was indeed an Atheist, conformed to the world, we cannot expect her theological stances or elevation of self as the highest ideal to have commonality with the Christian faith. However, as Christians, we should still be able to see the wisdom of wise economic policies and the evils of allowing government (run by men) to take over and dictate its people.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Michael on April 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm

  5. Andrew

    JM, how would you respond to someone like the following that feels their faith should inform their politics, and that Rand is therefore evil incarnate? http://blog.faithinpubliclife.org/2011/04/paul_ryan_and_ayn_rand_a_love.html

    [Reply]

    Andrew Reply:

    Anyway, JM, I read Atlas Shrugged my freshman year of college and have had some time to think about it. Here are some things that come to mind purely from a political/economic POV when thinking of fallacies in Ayn Rand’s world view. Hope you appreciate the non-bobble head perspective…I guess I am trying to evangelize you economically: It is not possible for everyone to pursue their own vision of life on a finite planet (for instance, if everyone consumed oil the way Americans did, we would be SOL); market fundamentalists like Ayn Rand do not account for market failures, negative externalities, or irrational human principles like a basic level of equity that to some degree all modern nations enshrine into law; you generally need wealth to make wealth; finally, hers is an outmoded way of thinking of “industry” in today’s era of global markets and multi-national corporations – the destiny of many third world nations’ resources are not controlled by their people but titans of industry in other countries.

    [Reply]

    jm Reply:

    Well, given the short nature of the above post, all I can say is that he sounds a lot like Jim Taggart! haha

    [Reply]

    Comment by Andrew on April 20, 2011 at 11:14 pm

  6. Josh

    Ayn Rand was not only atheist but much of her writing was criticizing and even making fun of Christianity. Her view of Christianity’s altruism is very much like today’s Democratic party’s stance. I think its funny how Republicans think their political views are more “Christian” if that is even possible, the only reason is gay marriage and abortion. Last I checked Jesus never mentioned either but altruism was his main message so I guess Rand’s non-partisan call makes sense.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Josh on April 20, 2011 at 11:20 pm

  7. Well, JM…

    You know me. I am a Sojourner / Anabaptist type. So, I disagree with low regulation, etc….

    But, I do like Ron Paul (if he wasn’t against programs for welfare and healthcare, I’d endorse him myself). I also appreciate your moderate tone in this post. Personally, I am finding myself more convinced that ‘big government’ and ‘small government’ are both gonna leave us bankrupt in some way or form. Time for the kingdom of God to emerge with counter-communities of grace, justice, peace, and hospitality. I keep dreaming…

    [Reply]

    Comment by Kurt on April 21, 2011 at 12:02 am

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  9. CHris McCauley

    You are totally spot on in this one JMS. Rynd’s position is ultimately selfishness and disdain for altruism. It is an avocation for the rights of the wealthly few elite.

    [Reply]

    Comment by CHris McCauley on April 22, 2011 at 10:14 pm

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