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).
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.