Friday, April 01, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: A Christian Perspective

For some reason I've been gravitating toward books on world disaster lately - maybe the state of the world is weighing on my mind or something. I have read Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm, and Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower, and, most recently, Ayn Rand's classic, Atlas Shrugged, which describes the destruction of the United States purely through internal stupidity.

I came away from Rand's book with mixed thoughts. Since I'm a Christian, let me outline my thoughts below, grouped under "Things that are compatible with Christianity," and "Things that are incompatible with Christianity."

Things that are compatible with Christianity

~ Rand condemns the notion that "nothing is truly knowable." Amen to that! This is one of the scourges of modern society. That Jesus really lived, and really died for our sins, and really rose again are critical truths of Christianity, not mush. Though I'm sure she was an atheist, I applaud Rand for sticking up for truth.

~ She defends business-people making profits. One memorable passage is of a party in which academics of the "nothing is knowable" variety are at an industrialist's house stuffing their faces with hors d'ouvres that his work provided while all the time snearing at him and his "dirty" profits. Good for her!

- She applauds "greed," which I would strongly disagree with if I thought she really meant it, but I don't. Her heroine, Dagny, for instance, turns in horror from the offer of a free factory. If she was greedy, she would have grabbed it. What Rand means is that people who build things should be free to own them and enjoy them and make as much money from them as they want without the government sticking its nose in. I don't think the government should have nothing to do with the economy, but I mostly agree with her on that.

- When one character, Francisco d'Anconia, began railing against the Bible verse about the love of money being the root of all evil, I thought I disagreed. But as I read I realized that d'Anconia meant that he loved money as a tool of exchange, which is fine with me and not at all what the Bible objects to.

Things that are incompatible with Christianity

- Adultery. Rand seems to think that an adulterous relationship she describes is okay because the relationship was between equals, not a relationship between a noble man and a streetwalker. Christianity does not see this as a relevant difference.

- It seems every interaction in the book is based on trade. This works great in business interactions, but stumbles in personal relationships. In one case a man tells his lover that he bought her an expensive gem for purely selfish reasons - he wanted to see her with it on solely to please himself. Riiiight. I don't think turning daily courtesies and personal interactions into business exchanges is in the spirit of Christianity.

- In John Galt's long speech, Rand has him condemn the Christian idea of the nobility of "sacrifice." Galt seems to mean that if I need "A" (or think I need A), that doesn't give me a moral claim to require someone else to sacrifice by giving it to me. And A, by the way, may mean that person's possessions, time or effort.

Okay, I see a few interesting things here.

First, Rand is taking an overly narrow view of the Christian belief in sacrifice.

Yes, we are commanded to give - Christ is our ultimate example of self-sacrifice - but the Christian idea behind giving is to HELP, not to encourage dependency.

For instance, when I was in the Army, a guy in the barracks - "Rambo," I'll call him - was talking about another guy, "Bill," who had gone to the hospital from a drug overdose and was threatening to overdose again. Bill wanted out of the Army.

Rambo was furious that Bill might kill himself and as he headed out the door, going to Bill's room, he said, "I'm going to smack him upside the head!"

"Hit him one for me, too," I said.

The guys were surprised because that didn't sound like a very Christian thing to say, but it seemed to me then (and now) that a smack upside the head was the most loving and helpful thing to do for Bill.

Second, as I was reading Galt's speech I began to think of Paul's admonition that if a man won't work, he won't eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

I think the key here is the word "won't." In Atlas Shrugged, Rand portrays those who are perfectly capable of working, but won't - and these are exactly the people Paul is saying can just go hungry.

Even so, I think Christians need to give even to those people who won't work, but I think the very best thing we can give them is this message: Get up off your lazy butts and get to work!

For those who can't work, the "widows and orphans," as the Bible would describe them, those are the ones we Christians need to help with gifts of money or food or training, or whatever.

Having said that, I think Rand is right that giving is probably best left out of the government's hands. There is nothing noble about giving when the government forces you to give, and the opportunities for governmental corruption are innumerable, and even with the best of motives the way the government spends the money you "gave" often makes matters worse, as she describes so well. Simply put, I don't think people are so incompetent that they need the government's assistance to help the poor.

- Through Galt, Rand also objects to the Christian doctrine of original sin. She doesn't like it. Well, I don't either, but it's there. Reality has sharp edges. If you are interested, I have written more about it here.

- She condemns anything "spiritual," or "mystical," but spiritual and mystical mean something beyond the mere material, something you can't really touch or see or taste or sense on measuring tools. But this made her praise of logic and reason (with which I agree) rather confusing because logic and reason are just as intangible as the spiritual and mystical that she condemns.

- Rand seems to think Christianity (and every other religion) has been a hinderance to industrial development. I call "hooey" on this one, at least in regard to Christianity. Modern banking arose in the monasteries of the Middle Ages (The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark); the term, "The Protestant Work Ethic," certainly gives no credance to the idea that Christianity breeds moochers; and there have even been whiney books written, such as one I tried to read, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, lamenting Christianity's role in founding capitalism. Even in Atlas Shrugged, when Rand has a character insult a hero, she slips and has the woman call him a "Puritan."

In conclusion, setting aside the gratuitous atheism and contempt for altruism, Atlas Shrugged is a very interesting but lengthy book with timely and valuable things to say about economics, governmental corruption, and freedom.

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