Comparing 'Atlas Shrugged' to Scripture

Sunday, January 6, 2013

For the better part of the now-completed Advent season, I've been reading the late Ayn Rand's 1,158-page novel, "Atlas Shrugged." Rand paints a vivid picture of what she terms as two kinds of people in the world: creators and second-handers. Her praise for the former and her contempt for the latter are fully on display in her 1957 tome. I will confess nodding my head in agreement at a number of assertions made about how those who create are frequently frustrated by others whose sole talent seems to be in manipulating the politics of a situation.

"Atlas Shrugged" is an interesting literary choice for holiday reading -- inasmuch as Rand's core belief seems a direct repudiation of the church's teaching about the saving work of Jesus. To wit: "No one helped me nor did I think it was anyone's duty to help me." Jesus' admonition to his disciples to assist "the least of these," would have disgusted Rand, an émigré to America from St. Petersburg, Russia -- where she was born in 1905.

Rand's objectivist theory, brought to full flower by John Galt's endless speech in "Atlas Shrugged," boils down to this -- only those who are productive are deserving of any of the world's spoils. Altruism is to be avoided and a mistake. A helping hand, Rand believed, actually cripples a person.

How different an attitude may be found in the words and actions of King David, Israel's greatest monarch, in the 10th century B.C. I Samuel 30 details David's successful campaign to take back what the Amalekites had stolen from him -- including many of the wives and children of Israel. In this effort, 200 of David's men, too exhausted to follow their leader, stayed behind. After the victory, David's warriors vowed that nothing of the rewards gained be shared with the 200.

In the eyes of the warriors, the noncombatants did nothing to help Israel win, so they deserved no share of anything recovered. (A classic Rand notion.) Foreshadowing the Messiah who would one day rise from his lineage, David ordered the opposite be done: "The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to battle. All will share alike." (v. 24) So much did David believe in this concept that the succeeding verse made permanent the policy of sharing plunder with all of his men, regardless of personal contribution.

Rand's actions seem deeply influenced by her life story. Her dad, a successful turn-of-the-century pharmacist, lost everything when the Bolsheviks took over Russia in 1917. Because her father was a capitalist and a Jew, the Communist regime saw to it that he never worked in his field again. (Personal animus can help drive many, if not most, of the attitudes we hold.)

How much closer to the philosophy of Jesus and the actions of King David is the celebrated 17th century writer John Milton. Milton wrote a famous line in "On His Blindness," a poem: "They also serve, who only stand and wait."

Ayn Rand might well shake her head at Milton's verse, which she would no doubt regard as utter foolishness. How about you?

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is administrator of the Foundation and assistant director of marketing at Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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