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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.

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Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

J. K. Gayle links to me in a post regarding the notion of “canon.” There’s a good discussion going in the comments as well. Let me note in passing that the label “personal canon” grates on me a bit. Let me be clear that I’m not saying it’s bad; I’m referring to my reaction to it. I observe that it is often quite descriptive.

In the same post, he refers also to a canon of essays, and to the biblical canon(s), besides my sort of personal canon of Bible translations. I have dabbled in both of those areas myself, though I’m much less qualified (by virtue of reading) to comment on a canon of essays for educational reading than I am on the canon of scripture.

In fact, I have made a bit of a personal journey regarding the biblical (and extra-biblical) canon. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, and the SDA church affirms 66 books of the Old and New Testaments as do most protestant organizations. But SDAs, in addition, grant authority to the writings of Ellen G. White.

Many SDAs will likely object to this characterization and make the claim that they base all their beliefs on the Bible, but in my own experience, I encountered many people who placed Ellen White’s writings above the Bible. If there was a dispute about the interpretation of a Bible passage, Ellen White’s interpretation settled it for them. In cases where Ellen White was clearly wrong, they would insist that what Ellen White said was, in fact, what the Bible meant.

In addition, in areas on which the Bible is silent, they would accept Ellen White’s word as final in many areas, just as much as if they had read it in the Bible. So in practice, Ellen White’s writings became part of the canon of scripture.

So why don’t Seventh-day Adventists want to admit just how they use the writings of Ellen White? It’s this matter of canon. People in other organizations who make lists don’t include Ellen White, and if you want to be included by those people, you can’t violate the list. Other groups depart from Christian orthodoxy more than do SDAs, but they also claim to adhere to the lists.

When I returned to a Christian denomination some years after I left Adventism, it was  United Methodist congregation. Now Methodists affirm the same 66 books that SDAs affirm, but in general their theology is much more friendly to the extra-canonical books, and I personally tend to use a canon that includes the apocrypha. For what it’s worth, this is much easier to do if you are not too much of a literalist.

So whether I like the sound of “personal canon” all that much, it applies to me in some ways.

Similarly, while not dealing with essays, I have previously argued (here and here) that lists of great literature may not be as great as their advocates suggest. So I’m on this subjectivity bandwagon in all three of those areas. All of which leads people to trot out phrases like “post-modern morass of subjectivity.” So do I see any standards at all?

Let me go back to Bible translations. I maintain that different translation approaches convey different information from the source to the receptor language, or my help to communicate different things between the author of the source and the reader of the receptor. So there are aspects of the source texts of the Bible I can get from a formal translation such as the NRSV, but at the same time there are things that this misses. There are other things I can get from the CEV or even from The Message.

Enter the term “paraphrase.” Now to translation theorists, “paraphrase” has a rather precise meaning, but in common discussions it has become a pejorative for translations that are considered too loose to even be considered real translations. Thus someone might say: “The Message is not a translation, it’s a paraphrase.” I’ve heard this sentence or its equivalent regarding any of the dynamic or functional equivalence translations, in which case the speaker defines “translation” as something like a formal equivalence translation.

In practice, again, what takes a translation across the line, or puts it beyond the pale, may be quite variable. For example, is converting measures to modern units translation, paraphrase, or commentary? If you think that’s an easy issue, consider the measurements for Ezekiel’s temple (start in Ezekiel 40) and consider how that passage would read with precisely converted measurements. In that case one would substitute conveying an accurate idea of the distances involved for potentially conveying the symbolic meaning of the numbers (if any), or the fact that the numbers are round numbers.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that there is a range of different translation options, and while we might what to define what is and what is not translation, there is a range of activities that may be called translation, and what we’re doing is setting boundaries. There are things we can definitely say are not translation. For example, I am not now translating any text. I’ve seen efforts by Greek students that could not be regarded as translations.

It’s not that just anything is a translation. Rather, there are many different methods that fall into the loose category “translation” and many different needs that might be fulfilled by those various approaches.

I think we have way to great a tendency to make the claim, inadequately supported, that a certain translation is wrong and should be something else. I hear it from the pulpit quite often, and generally my opinion is that the claim is incorrect. Sometimes the translation is disputed, and there is good evidence, and good names, on both sides. In many cases, the preacher is just plain wrong. (If I might say what I have said many times before: If you don’t actually know Greek or Hebrew don’t base your sermon on making claims about how verses should be translated.)

But having used the phrase “just plain wrong” regarding a translation, you now know that I think a translation can be wrong. Frequently, however, the just plain wrong translation is actually an alternative with substantial support.

Being subjective about that which is subjective, such as people’s preferences or how people understand something, is just realistic. Trying to pretend objectivity when the topic is subjective just results in silliness. Or it could result in domination of others, as in the claim that everyone “ought” to use a particular Bible version, be that the KJV, ESV, or any other personal choice.

Literature is even more subjective. I loathe lists of books that I really must read in order to be truly literate or truly educated. In general, I’ve read quite a lot of the names on them, but that doesn’t make me like them any better. The most interesting thing about those lists is the good books that aren’t on them. That’s sort of like the things that aren’t conveyed by the favorite translation of the folks who like to advocate just one style.

Want my subjective advice? Read stuff from different lists. Use different lists. Read Bible books that aren’t in your personal or your church’s canon. Use the literature lists to find more stuff that interests you. And if you’re like me, and can’t stand certain pieces of “great” literature read something else.

It’s fun.


Who Do You Need to Be/Read to Understand the Bible

Who Do You Need to Be/Read to Understand the Bible

J. K. Gayle takes on John Hobbins’ question.  Not precisely answers it.  He takes it on.

I have this post on my list of posts I want to respond to, but I haven’t yet had time.  Let me simply state that there are few forms of writing to which I react more negatively than universally required reading lists–and I have even written a few myself.  There are lists of things you have to read to be a good American, to be literate, and so forth.  Considering the amount of good reading available, I find such lists pretty arrogant (yes, including any ones I’ve ever written).

I think I will write more on this, but I wanted to call attention to the two approaches here.  In this case, I think I’ll come out sounding more like J. K. Gayle when I do write.