Why Christians Should Repudiate Chambers’ “Review” of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

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Ayn Rand has been one of the most enduringly influential figures for capitalism and limited government in America for the past half centuryin spite of the fact that those on the right (who claim to hold the same political goals) have done everything in their power to damn her, and her writing.

But no matter how sharply the standard-bearers of ‘conservatism’ rebuke her followers, peopleparticularly young peoplecontinue to be heavily influenced by her ideas and her novels. One begins to wonder why advocates of capitalism and limited government would react with such vitriol toward a woman who labored to present a consistent and compelling case for those very idealsso compelling, that 500,000 copies of her magnum opus would be sold in one year, more than 50 years after it was published.

That magnum opus was Atlas Shruggedand the source, the fountainhead, of those vitriolic attacks from conservatives can be found in the first major conservative review of that book by Whittaker Chambers in National Review. Since then, conservative figureheads seem to simply parrot what Chambers had to say about Atlas Shruggedand by proxy, about Ayn Rand. If you scan the current polemics against Rand’s philosophy and novels, you won’t find carefully thought out critical evaluations. Instead, you’ll find hasty generalizations backed up by a sense of “obvious” moral superiority. And if you happen to have the audacity to inquire about the reason for their certainty, you’ll be met with the dismissive notion that her philosophy was dealt with long ago, so there is no need to rehash it now. When, and where, was it “dealt with”? In Whittaker Chambers’ review, of course. So, to truly get at the bottom of conservatism’s hatred for Rand, you have to go back to that review. That’s where it all began. That’s what I did, and what I found in that review was shocking. Below is this conservative Christian’s review of that “review.”

Having read all of Rand’s published work, and having rigorously studied theology at one of the most notable Bible Colleges in the country, I have concluded this much about what Chambers had to say back in 1957: Any Christian who can take Whittaker Chambers' “review” of Atlas Shrugged seriously is a Christian who cannot be trusted to properly handle Scripture. That’s because, as any good Christian knows, Scripture is a text, and as such, requires certain textual standards for how it is to be handled. The study of how to properly handle a text is called hermeneutics, and unfortunately for Mr. Chambers, it applies equally to all textsnot just to Scripture. I say “unfortunately” because Mr. Chambers’ piece in National Review, which is supposed to be his review of a textspecifically, the text of Atlas Shruggedis replete with so many hermeneutical flaws, that a first year Bible College student would be lucky not to be expelled after submitting a similar treatment of any given Biblical passage.

In fact, it’s worse than that. Mr. Chambers does not supply a single substantial quote from the novel to ground any of his hysterical assertions. Forget about Bible school. Any Jr. High student knows that he would receive an automatic F after trying to pull such a stunt in a supposed book review. This fact alone should be enough to discredit his article as nothing but a smear-piece. But conservatives, and particularly Christians, are eager to grant a special pass in order to have their ears tickled, so we’ll have to venture into the content of the article to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that Whittaker Chambers’ “review” of Atlas Shrugged is worthy of nothing but the dustbin (aside from repentance, that is).

The two cardinal rules of hermeneutics are: remember that context is king, and don’t commit eisegesis (i.e. don’t read your own ideas into the text). Of course, you don’t need to have ever studied hermeneutics to know this. It’s basic common sensenot to mention common courtesyto focus on trying to understand what an author means, rather than assigning your own meaning to her words. But Chambers seems to have lacked both common sense and common courtesy in this respect.

For instance, he says that one part of the book is meant to signal that “mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats, and their accessories, in a New Order, enlightened and instructed by Miss Rand’s ideas.” If he had bothered to pay any attention at all to “Miss Rand’s ideas” though, he’d know that those ideas were diametrically opposed to any sort of abject submission on the part of any man, let alone mankind. Don’t take my word for it, though. Read for yourself:

“Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it—that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life—that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth, his edicts as middle-man between your consciousness and your existence.”

That was one of Rand’s “elite technocrats” speaking in the novel, only instead of demanding abject submission, he condemns it. In other words, Chambers’ accusation is a flat-out lie. But it’s not the only such lie. He also claims that Rand’s heroes constitute a “ruling caste,” and yet in response to one of the villains who is boasting of her “conquests in the human realm,” the heroine responds: “I don’t think that there is such a word as ‘conquest’in the human realm.” In fact, toward the end of the book, the villains beg one of the heroes to take control of the government and become an economic dictator. The hero's response? He “burst out laughing”because the suggestion was so ridiculously and obviously antithetical to what he wanted. How does Chambers, reading this, get the idea that the heroes constitute a “ruling caste” of “elite technocrats”? He doesn’t. He makes it up. He lies. 

But his biggest lie is in his charge that Rand’s philosophy is essentially materialistic. The careful reader can tell that this is a lie because the quotes which Chambers submits to substantiate it are not from Ayn Rand, but from Karl Marx. Yes, you read that right. In describing Ms. Rand’s position, Chambers chooses to quote, not Ms. Rand, but one of her chief enemies: Karl Marxand then proceeds to tell his readers that Rand’s philosophy consists of man finding his happiness “in strict materialist terms;” that under Rand’s view, man “becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity.” Here, Chambers is simply pushing the standard Christian smear against Rand, that her ideal man is driven by nothing but physical, material, pleasure. I say it’s a “smear” because it couldn’t be further from the truth. While Rand certainly rejects the common gnostic dichotomy between the spiritual and  the material, which most Christians operate off of, she is a far cry from holding material values as ultimate.

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Granted, you’d have to actually read the book to see this (it would appear Mr. Chambers might have skimmed it, at best), but if you did, you’d discover that one of the key elements of the plot of Atlas Shrugged is the ultimacy of spiritual values over material ones. [Slight spoilers to follow] And this is embodied by the book's leading heroes who give up, and even actively destroy, their own material wealth“for the spirit of which it was the shape,” explains one of the heroes. Another says, “for the sake of what that [material wealth] meant to me, I had to be willing to let it crumble and vanish forever.” This Chambers condemns as materialism. Why? Because Chambers needs to lump Rand in with Marx in order to dismiss her as just another atheist. This much is evident in his claim that “Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.” In truth, Randian man couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to Marxian man, as Randian man is man, the individual, while Marxian man is man, the collective.

This means, in contrast to Marx’s view of man as a physical cog in the machine of society, Rand’s view of man holds the individual as fundamental because he is more than his physical bodyhe is an individual consciousness, with mind, and values, and will. “But it’s still godless,” the Chambers sympathizer might replyas if the only thing needed to transform man from physical beast into spiritual imago dei is slapping the word “God” into one’s vocabulary. If man being created in the image of God means anything, it is that man is as Rand has portrayed him: a spiritual being with a mind, values, and will. This exposes the superficiality of Chambers’ “Christian worldview”not to mention that of most modern evangelicalswhich consists of the idea that throwing God into one’s worldview automatically transforms everything, without doing any of the necessary intellectual work to actually see the transformation through. The truth is that Rand’s view of man is actually closer to the classical Christian view of man, while the modern “Christian” view of man is more like Marx’s view of man, only with God slapped on top. But Chambers was so blinded by the irrational need to write off Rand for her atheism that he couldn’t be bothered to consider whether there was anything of value in her philosophylet alone, her novel.

And that is the essence, not only of Chambers “review,” but also of its widespread and undeserved popularity among Christians and conservatives: the feeble attempt to assert a false intellectual and moral superiority by mere virtue of the fact that “we believe in God, and they don’t”a desperate struggle to cover our intellectual nakedness with the fig leaf of “theism.” That’s always the motive behind pushing, and swallowing, such blatant lies about one’s ideological opponents: to evade the fact that they might have a point. Such evasion is understandable in the world. It’s detestable among Christians.

That is why Christians should repudiate Mr. Chambers “review” of Ms. Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. If you want a better review, an honest one, let me suggest Dr. John Piper’s. Granted, it’s not a review of the novel, per se, but it is a review of her moral philosophywhich is on its fullest display in the novel. Contrary to Mr. Chambers, Dr. Piper labors to actually understand Rand’s philosophy, and to point out the many valuable things the Christian can glean from it. In fact, at the end of his review, he had this to say:

Therefore, Ayn Rand’s philosophy did not need to be entirely scrapped. Rather, it needed to take all of reality into account, including the infinite God... this alteration would have meant a rebuilding of the whole structure. No detail of her philosophy would have been left untouched. But enough has been said here. That reconstruction is the job of a lifetime.”

Well said, Dr. Piper. Job accepted.

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Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.