There have been a number of articles recently discussing Ayn Rand and her Christian supporters and (supposed) followers. One of these is by Sheila Kennedy, who doesn’t do all that bad, though I still see things differently.
Key Questions which I Might not Answer
The key issues I encounter are:
- How can a Christian enjoy or appreciate Ayn Rand, who is very vigorously atheist?
- Can Ayn Rand’s philosophy be reconciled with a Christian worldview and way of life?
- Why do so many young Christians and other conservatives get so excited by Rand’s writing?
- Is Rand a good writer, enjoyable apart from her philosophy?
- Rand was not tolerant of any form of disagreement. It was all or nothing. Can one appreciate her writing while rejecting some or even most of her philosophical conclusions?
First, for full disclosure, I went through almost all of the views of Rand that I’ve ever heard over the course of some years. I first rejected the very notion of reading her when an undergraduate professor suggested I read The Virtue of Selfishness. After some time, I read her novels, starting with Atlas Shrugged, and as I was searching for a place to be at the time, attempted being a follower. This didn’t work either, though I spent some time at it, so I set her aside. Then I found a different form of appreciation that was not entirely approval, that comes from me as an editor and publisher.
Thus my question becomes why people do like her, and how to understand and discuss the related issues.
I’m not going to structure this according to my list of questions, but I’m going to try to answer these questions in the course of my response.
Is Ayn Rand a Good Writer?
My first issue is with those who say that Ayn Rand is a bad writer. The label “bad writer” is always problematic. As a publisher, I can use it occasionally, such as for the individual who wanted me to publish his novel which he had hand written on lined paper in a scribble I could not read. I think I can safely refer to that as bad writing.
Beyond that, the issue becomes a bit more difficult. I don’t like reading Dostoevsky, but he is very well-liked and read, and in fact produces quite a number of quotable items. My dislike for reading that particular style does not make it bad literature. It just makes it literature I don’t like. I use someone that literati tend to believe must be appreciated in order to emphasize my point.
Then there are elements of popular literature that many of the literary elite, taking elite here in a positive sense, do not appreciate. I’ve encountered this attitude toward science fiction. It’s not really literature. You need to read something serious, like Dostoevsky! So here we have literature which is read by many, but is not as much appreciated in academia. I think graphic novels and superhero literature would qualify as well. The academic says it’s not good, but the public consumes it with delight.
One of my top five favorite authors in science fiction is David Weber. He can illustrate both sides. There are actually things I don’t like about Weber’s writing, such as his tendency to rehash history, rather than allow his readers to either fill in the blanks or go back and read previous books in the series. He can hammer a theme to death, and then beat on it for some time afterward. Each element is, however, good writing in itself, and Weber is popular in science fiction. Does the critic/editor in me win out, or the relaxed reader? Definitely the latter.
I take a non-prescriptivist approach to literature as I do in linguistics. A word’s (or expression’s) meaning is derived from its usage. A book’s value is determined by readers. Not a particular set of readers! Those readers who are influencers of the specific reader. You may argue, even correctly, that one book is of more value than another, but those arguments become part of your effort to influence.
Note that I refer here to fiction. A non-fiction book can be judged on more objective, agreed standards, such as the accuracy and referencing of information, the clarity of the presentation, and so forth. Even here, however, the audience’s appreciation is a key. I’ve seen reviewers criticize a short book for not covering more ground. For example, books in my company’s Topical Line Drives series, in which the authors are limited to 44 pages, or a bit less than 13,000 words. Various reviewers have commented that the author should have covered some aspect of the topic. Well, blame the publisher — me!
So I don’t see the question of whether Ayn Rand is a good writer or not as terribly relevant. The complaint amounts to “I don’t like her style.” There are a number of elements of it that I don’t like. That didn’t prevent me from reading her books, and I doubt it will dent her popularity.
Rand and Her Christian Followers
Let’s look at her Christian followers. Is there a way to reconcile Rand’s philosophy with Christianity? I would say there is not. What one can do is take certain aspects of her philosophy, and her political and economic views, and reconcile them with certain versions of Christianity.
Therein lies the problem. There is no single Christianity to which one can compare Rand’s philosophy. My own view of Christianity and of what it means to follow Jesus is not compatible. But I am not the only person wearing the label “Christian.” It’s worthwhile to note that Rand is not the only person wearing the label “atheist” either. I’d hope that was obvious. I know a few atheists who despise Rand in a way few others can.
It might be better to ask whether one can extract ideas of value from her writing without also accepting her strident atheism; indeed, her strident everything. Yes, one can. I did.
My problem with what I did was simply that I found that the things I extracted were available from other sources. During this same period I read Ludwig von Mises, especially his book Human Action. Pretty much everything I found of value in terms of economic and political ideas in Rand was derived from von Mises, and is much better explained in his works. (Note here the value judgment, in my opinion, von Mises does the better job of presentation.)
A Note on Economics
I can’t leave this subject without noting an issue regarding current economic controversies. Conservatives of my acquaintance are opposed to government efforts at caring for the poor, or of income redistribution (as they see it). Liberals of my acquaintance consider this opposition heartless. As I talk to these two groups, and the wide spectrum of views around them, I rarely hear someone who truly does not care. Doubtless there are some such. The issue for most is how do you accomplish the goal of making life better for people?
What I see is that we have people primarily concerned with production and others primarily concerned with distribution. To truly help the most people and make lives better, we need to bring these two elements together. How can we be more productive, and how can more people benefit? Wealth is not actually static. It can be produced. Distribution doesn’t always occur in an effective manner, despite capitalist claims to the contrary. (This is partially because nobody is immune from seeking control, so capitalists try to arrange the government not according to capitalist principles of supply and demand, success and failure, but rather to make the playing field better for them.)
So what’s left for me of Rand is the story of the constructive cultural rebel who is not impressed by the standards of those around him, but who makes his or her own choices according to what seems best by his or her own standards. Note here that I like The Fountainhead better than Atlas Shrugged.
But what makes people like these novels, works that deride the values of the faith they claim? If nothing else, one must accept that Ayn Rand’s atheism is contrary to any form of Christianity, and this atheism is pervasive, vigorous, and unyielding.
I believe the core of this liking is the same as the reason people like Star Wars in the modern era and liked apocalyptic literature in ancient times. In the story, you get to be one of the beleaguered good guys clearly differentiated from the bad guys, with extremely clear moral standards. Gray is eliminated. It must choose one side or the other. It’s very easy to identify with the good guys.
In the way this sort of literature progresses, one is constantly pressured to see that there is no good on the other side, and thus any tendency to compromise is suppressed. There will be a battle. Either good or evil will win. In the biblical book of Revelation, either God or Satan will win. One goes in the lake of fire; the other rules forever. There is no thought that there might be a compromise solution.
Many of us are attracted to this. We’re tired of working in gray areas, and we’d like to always know precisely what is right and what is wrong. The more that has gone into a project, the less likely we are to accept that it might not be pristine.
The more people who die in a war, the harder it is to get people to admit that the war might have been ambiguous at the start. People will divide into supporters of one side or the other, or at least into vigorous supporters vs. vigorous opponents of a side. “We presided over the death of thousands for an ambiguous goal,” doesn’t sit that well.
God and Satan
Rand, like Revelation, presents us with a god and satan scenario. She’s an atheist, yet she has “God the producer” as the ultimate good guy, the one to whom undivided loyalty is due. Idolatry is giving anything to the non-producers. On the other hand there is Satan the Moocher, who must die in the death the producer creates by withdrawing his producing power. It’s a powerful metaphor that tends to draw the reader onto the good side, produce hate for the bad side, draw a sharp distinction, and eliminate the grays.
Is this type of literature good or bad? In this question we come full circle. I’m not going to decide whether literature is good or bad. I’m not certain things would be much different of Rand didn’t exist. I think the tendency is there in the human heart, and it’s going to find it’s justification. Certainty attracts, even when wrong. The morally clear and certain is always going to find a following, no matter how flawed the line of division is.
For I too believe that good will win and evil will fail. But for me good encompasses a very broad spectrum, that the good involves the ability to respect and appreciate differences and ambiguity, and to use them to learn and to grow. And that happens, in my view, only with God.
(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)