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Of Christians and Ayn Rand

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

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?

My Experience

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.)

What’s Left?

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.)

Eschatology: Mark 13

Eschatology: Mark 13

While I titled the event Eschatology: Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21, I will be focusing on the first. I will be mentioning the parallels and likely working directly from gospel parallels. I’m embedding the YouTube viewer first, then I’ll make a few comments.

I had hoped to post more earlier, but the work load this week prevented it. I also hope to post something more this afternoon, giving some background for what I’ll be saying. It is obviously impossible to do a detailed exegesis of Mark 13 in an hour, so I’ll be looking at some key points.

First, yes, I won’t be able to resist. I’ll mention some elements in the parallels that could play into arguments over Markan vs. Matthean priority.

Second, I want to talk about my overall view of biblical eschatology, and how I read that in Mark 13. Note that this is, to a certain extent, eisegesis. My overall view is the result of my study of many eschatological and apocalyptic passages, and not a derivative from Mark 13. Yet I will use it. I had planned to wait to present this overview, but I think it’s better for me to give my “mini-eschatology” first and then develop how I connect it with much broader and deeper eschatological views as I move forward.

Third, I want to focus on just what the disciples would have expected when they heard or encountered this material. Thus I’ll discuss the debates on whether this is original to the gospel (as a whole), whether certain elements were added later, and also just when this was written.

All of that leads to the point where I—finally—talk about “this generation shall not pass,” which has provided fodder for biblical and theological debate for the last two millenia. How was it understood in the past and how shall we read it now?

In studying eschatology from a biblical perspective, it is important to realize that one needs to resolve a broad range of questions nearly every time one wants to resolve one question. For example, the way in which one understands Daniel 9:27 impacts how one will understand “the abomination of desolation” and how one understands the vision of Daniel 7 will impact how one understands the son of man coming in the clouds. Not to mention whether one is certain those particular references are in view. Deciding how to understand those chapters involves a range of decisions regarding the text of Daniel as well as its historical and cultural context. Those decisions involve a number of issues regarding how one dates literature.

I say this because I expect to circle back to many of these passages after we’ve studied others. I think it would be useful to read Mark 13 again after we have done further study of Daniel. Jesus did not live in a cultural or theological vacuum either. Certainly his disciples did not. How might they have drawn these passages into their understanding of the words in the gospels? It is possible that what you or I decide in studying Daniel might be the correct historical understanding, i.e., we might be right about when it was written and how it would have been understood by its original audiences, but that the understanding we get there might not be the one the disciples would naturally draw in as they studied the words of Mark.

Complicated? Indeed. Fun? I think so!

Getting Literal, Eschatological, Apocalyptic, Even!

Getting Literal, Eschatological, Apocalyptic, Even!

Well, last night my discussion of According to John covered a lot of other ground. In particular, I was looking at the eschatological use of “hour” and “now,” and I suggested that John has a fairly simple eschatology to go with his fairly simple soteriology. I’m not going to rehash all of this. The foundation is found in Chapter 19 of Herold Weiss’s book Mediations on According to John: Exercises in Biblical Theology. For those who might wish to review the video, here it is.

In the middle of this discussion I got into talking about the ‘L’ word. No, not liberal. Literal. I tell people that we should avoid simply saying that we’re not taking something literal, and get specific about just how we are taking whatever it is. “We don’t take that literally,” has become commonplace in discussions of the Bible in mainline and progressive circles, but often we don’t tell people just what we do with the thing we aren’t taking literally.

Last night I was talking about something that is fairly simple to pinpoint, symbolic language in a vision report. (Note that you don’t necessarily have to believe that a person has received a divine vision in order to accept a literary category of “vision report.” I do believe people have visions, but the form remains no matter the source.) If we take a vision such as Daniel 7, for example, we have beasts (which represent something), coming up out of the sea (which represents something), onto the land (which represents something), and so forth. “Not taking Daniel 7 literally” means that I don’t believe that Daniel’s vision was about actual creatures coming from an actual sea onto the land. Rather, these beasts represent something else. Rather than taking them literally, one should take them as symbols of something else.

One of the problems with the way visions are often interpreted is that people drop from the symbolic to the literal. The beasts, the sea, and the land are symbols, sure enough, but when the Son of Man appears in the clouds, that’s literal. But there isn’t any justification in the text for taking one part of the vision literally. One interpreter of Revelation has maintained (actually more than one, but I won’t list) that we should take everything literally that we can in the book, and only treat it as symbolic where that is essential. It’s a vision! It is filled with symbols! The default has to be that anything in the vision is symbolic unless you have good reason to believe that the writer is seeing actual events. And quite bluntly, in Revelation (or the latter chapters of Daniel), you don’t.

I think a couple of extensions of how symbols might function would be in order, and Revelation provides examples. First, something literal can be used as a symbol. There is no doubt that the seven churches were real places. Under the rule of taking what can be taken literally, we would see the messages as tailored messages to those particular seven churches. But I would argue here that the actual churches are being used symbolically, with the number seven indicating that the messages to the seven churches constitute as a whole a message to the whole church. Various schemes, such as applying the churches to periods of history and their messages as specifically applicable to such times, while interesting, have the potential to lose us part of the message to the whole church. Second, I would use Revelation 12 as an example of where a visionary symbol points not to something physical, but to something spiritual. We might call it a symbol of a symbol.

It’s a bit more complex to specify how this works in other passages. For example, I would call Genesis 1 liturgy. That is, by most people’s understanding, non-literal. In addition, there are symbols within the liturgical text. This is why I think it’s important to talk about how we understand a passage and why we understand it that way and avoid simply saying that we don’t take it literally. There are many non-literal ways of taking things.

I will go into these issues in greater detail when I begin my YouTube study on eschatology starting August 17. On August 10 I plan an interview with Dr. Herold Weiss, winding up my study of According to John. I will begin the eschatology study by looking at the landscape of eschatology using Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide by Edward W. H. Vick, and then proceed to eschatological and apocalyptic passages. I talked about this in more detail yesterday.