Monday, April 25, 2011

Noted Review: What If Atlas Shrugged?

Atlas Shrugged, Part One. Calabasas, CA: Strike Productions, Inc., 2011. Pre-Release "Screener" DVD, NTSC DUB 04/11/11. 1:32:30. (Not for sale.) (N)

What if Atlas shrugged? What if productive members of society went on strike and subsequently disappeared because of excessive taxes, regulations, and an overwhelming numbers of freeloaders? 

Who is John Galt?

Atlas Shrugged, Part One earns its PG-13 rating for language and implied sexuality. Keep that in mind as you consider the trailer for the movie adaption of the first third of Ayn Rand's epic novel:

Atlas Shrugged Movie: Part I Film Synopsis

 Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) runs Taggart Transcontinental, the largest remaining railroad company in America, with intelligence, courage and integrity, despite the systematic disappearance of her best and most competent workers.

She is drawn to industrialist Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler), one of the few men whose genius and commitment to his own ideas match her own. Rearden's super-strength metal alloy, Rearden Metal, holds the promise that innovation can overcome the slide into anarchy.

Using the untested Rearden Metal, they rebuild the critical Taggart rail line in Colorado and pave the way for oil titan Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel) to feed the flame of a new American Renaissance.

Hope rises again, when Dagny and Rearden discover the design of a revolutionary motor based on static electricity - in an abandoned engine factory - more proof to the sinister theory that the "men of the mind" (thinkers, industrialists, scientists, artists, and other innovators) are "on strike" and vanishing from society.

Atlas Shrugged is one of the most-read novels of all time. Long popular in Capitalist and Libertarian circles, and it has many fans in the Tea Party Movement. The book resonates long after its 1957 publication date because of its continuing warning against government that is too powerful in its size and scope. The American Founders would not recognize the People's Republic in formation that Rand describes.

Author Ayn Rand comes at life from her own philosophy of Objectivism, which has Atheistic assumptions. Christians should take notice. Rand survived Communism. She rejected the economics, but retained the religious perspective, at least in part.

There are aspects of the story that conservative Bible-believing Christians should cheer.

We are led to want to cheer for people who want to work hard, help others, and remain honest. American Christians are famous for the so-called "Protestant Work Ethic," a heritage from reformers like Martin Luther who taught us about vocation. Personal responsibility is a good thing. Redistribution is fraught with peril.
What happens when such a work ethic, formed and fueled by the Gospel, loses its fuel and form?  
  • Greed and selfishness as virtues.
  • One's own happiness as a measure of morality (especially sexual immorality).
  • A godless existence with imperfect men and women as objects of respect and worship.
The book and film are decidedly anti-vocation. The Christian doctrine (and practice) of vocation is that we are blessed in order to be a blessing to those around us. A Christian's First and Foremost relationship is with the Triune God. That relationship is all about what God in Christ has done for us as Savior and Deliverer of His Gifts. Second, we are born into (or adopted into) a human family. We honor father and mother and other authorities as long as we are not in conflict with Scripture. "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). The marital bond is nourished for its own sake, as well as children in the family. Third comes our "vocations" as in the typical secular sense, our jobs, careers, etc.  Fourth, we find our hobbies, avocations, sports, and even our service to our Lord. Theologically and practically, this should help avoid any semblance of "works righteousness. I have often met "burned out" Church volunteers and even Church Workers. At times, we all have forgotten that Christianity is more about what God does for us than what we do for Him. Works may not be necessary for salvation, but they are necessary, as the hymn sings: "For faith alone can justify; Works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living" (Lutheran Service Book 555:9, "Salvation unto Us Has Come," by Paul Speratus).

The major difference between property and "helping the less fortunate"  in Communism/Socialism/Marxism and Christianity is that the "isms" of a State compel compliance. Christianity is Gospel-motivated, not expecting repayment. Christians share because they want to. A Marx-dominated government forces its populace to do so.

The film version is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel, as movie adaptations go. Having recently finished the novel in the last year, both versions of the story were fresh in my mind. 

Challenges abound. 

How does one make a film adaptation of a novel nearly 1100 pages in paperback? The opening sequence of plausible events paved the way to set the viewers expectations of America in decline in 2016. A date had to be picked, I suppose. This encourages me that Strike Productions hopes to have Part Two and Part Three in theatres before 2016.  

Compression and condensation were necessary. This is less evident in Part One than it will have to be in Part Three when John Galt begins speaking.

Dialogue reflects the text of the novel. Even though the Wyoming premiere was in my own living room with a DVD screener, I chose not to have the book with me during the showing. Those who also saw the film in Sheridan were hoping for more character development in Part One. We agreed that Mr. Taggart was "the weak link as personalities go."

The film is well-paced. It knows its audience. They are people who pay attention. They notice details like the difference between "the legislature" and "the Congress." Classical educators will note "Patrick Henry University," due to the existence of the real-life Patrick Henry College of Purcellville, VA, founded in 2000. Governmental institutions have changed and mushroomed. Socialism brought with it "The State Science Institute" and countless power-hungry bureaucrats spewing regulations and restrictions as political favors. "Who is John Galt?" is a depressing new addition to the American language.

The filmmakers were wise to cast as they did. I recognized Michael Lerner in the trailer. In the film, I noticed Armin Shimerman who played Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Otherwise, I am unfamiliar with the the film work of the majority of the rest of the cast, especially Dagny and Hank. This will aid the viewing audience in seeing Schilling and Bowler AS these characters, lending realism to the film.

Morton Blackwell taught me:
This book has been described as a very long essay in the guise of a very long novel. It is one of the most devastating critiques ever written of big government and the liberal media. Rand's moral indignation is contagious; after reading her, most readers are forever immune to the enticements of socialism.

It must also be said, however, that the militantly atheistic Rand had an unrealistic view of human nature and little appreciation for cultural values. Most people, however mesmerized by her they may be in their youth, outgrow Rand's philosophy, which Burke might have described as a theoretical construct rather than an application of the accumulated wisdom of mankind.

After reading Atlas Shrugged, read also The Fatal Conceit, by F.A. Hayek. Hayek once told me, 'I am not religious, but I have a great respect for religion.' Hayek, along with Burke, who was a Christian, possessed an understanding of human nature much deeper and more realistic than Ayn Rand's. (

In Greek mythology, Atlas was the Titan who held up the world, part of the flawed race of pagan deities who mirrored the human race and toyed with it. The creative (and disappearing) titans of Atlas Shrugged have their own interests in mind, (and perhaps the long-term interests of society,) but they fail the vocation test (See also Luke 15).

Does art reflect life or does art influence life?

Who is John Galt?

Both assertions about art are probably true.  America and Atlas have examples to emulate and counterexamples to avoid.  Perhaps the 2016 of this film can yet be avoided. I always hope for repentance, renewal, reform, and a return to the best of what America has to offer to herself and the world. And I look forward to Atlas Shrugged, Part Two on the big screen.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.