By David Gill, reprinted from The 313.
Carolyn Chen is a sociologist (PhD, UC Berkeley) and Associate Professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Getting Saved in America (2008) and co-editor of Sustaining Faith Traditions (2012). Work, Pray, Code is the product of five years of research in California’s Silicon Valley. Chen visited and studied fifteen tech companies from smaller start-ups to the famous giants with ten thousand or more employees. She conducted over one hundred one-on-one in-depth interviews with Silicon Valley employees. Her research led her into a huge literature of classic and contemporary analysis – although I was disappointed not to see reference to Jacques Ellul’s The New Demons which showed how technology was the “new sacred” already in 1975. Chen’s work also overlooks a robust and growing literature on “faith and work” and “faith and technology” – which is often a thoughtful potential counterforce to the problem she so well describes in Silicon Valley.
Chen’s focus is on the specific area and culture of Silicon Valley and I suspect her observations apply to other hi-tech hubs in Seattle, Boston and elsewhere. I don’t think for the masses of workers, outside of this high-flying “techtopia,” work is as much heaven as it is a hell of low pay, uncertain employment and disrespect. Chen shows example after example of Silicon Valley workers who spend massive hours on their work to the detriment of an “outside” life as participants in communities. There seems to be a simultaneous decline, for example, in church attendance and an increase in job time. “Corporate maternalism” means that companies provide high quality meals and other services so employees don’t need (or want) to leave the job site. Fifty, sixty, seventy-hour work weeks become common. More and more it is at the company where employees find identity, friendship, meaning and purpose. Corporate gatherings, festivals, and “rituals of bonding,” replace what people used to find in church and community groups. Technological products dazzle and awe people as God might have in the past.
Chen describes how companies often welcome religious affinity groups to meet on their campuses, offering a kind of spiritual shot in the arm that assists adjustment and performance. Yoga, meditation and “mindfulness” are especially popular, even among top management. A version of what Chen calls “Whitened” or “Scientized” Buddhism, stripped of its message about overcoming desire, is promoted by management and their coaches, consultants and spirituality/mindfulness teachers. Its purpose is to enhance efficiency, productivity, employee contentment and company profits. So it is not just that businesses are welcoming a bit of religious “seasoning” – they are providing “pastoral care” and work itself has been turned into a de facto religion. And many, if not most, of their employees are willing and even enthusiastic converts. Chen’s interviews of individuals provide example after example of this phenomenon.
Drawing on Max Weber, Chen argues that historically the world’s religions have offered a critical perspective from which the actual world is judged by comparison to the ideals of the religion. But when work becomes religion, that critical perspective is lost. Today’s minority of deeply religious workers, anchored in (outside) churches or other religious communities, have the best chance to resist the idolatry and religion of work. She describes how this theocracy and religion of business diminishes individuals and has bad consequences for the surrounding society. The only answer is to try to increase the magnetic, attractive power of religious and other community centers outside of the workplace.
Which brings me to the importance of authentic “faith at work,” “theology of work,” and “workplace discipleship” initiatives. Business, technology, and work are gifts of God for which we should thank God. Christians are called to the workplace—not to make it their religion but as the arena to serve God and neighbor. To work in this way requires a robust theology and ethics of work grounded in an understanding of the work (and rest) of God. Local congregations who have nothing to say about this part of their congregants’ lives are the problem. In their silence, Silicon Valley pseudo-religion willingly steps into the gap.
Chen’s book is an extraordinary wake-up call that I recommend to all thoughtful people.