Review & Giveaway: Work Pray Code - Word&Way

Review & Giveaway: Work Pray Code

At this point, we all know that organized religion in the U.S. is in trouble. Researchers explain the alarming demographics: the “nones” are increasing in number, church attendance is on the decline, and the lack of interest is especially pronounced among younger generations. Our philosophers and theologians theorize about what it means to live in “a secular age” where we’ve lost our sense of the transcendent.

As a local church pastor, I pay a LOT of attention to these trends. I read everything I can about what’s going on and how to faithfully and effectively respond. But one of the most relevant books I’ve recently read came from a surprising place: an ethnography of Silicon Valley, which is typically portrayed as one of the least conventionally religious places in the United States.

Carolyn Chen’s Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley hints at something I had long felt but couldn’t prove or explain: that work had displaced religion in so many people’s lives. If we can’t serve both God and mammon, it felt like a lot of people had chosen the latter.

Historically, many viewed work as oppressive. It was a necessary evil required to pay the bills, put food on the table, etc. We didn’t imbue it with much meaning. We worked in order to live. We collected a paycheck but built our identities and found fulfillment in family, church, civic activities, and other pursuits that happened outside of work.

Yet, as education levels rose and our society became more professionalized, many have found a deeper sense of purpose — perhaps even a calling — in their work. Initially, one might think this is worth celebrating. Going back to Luther, the value of secular vocations has been defended within the Christian tradition.

But what happens if work crowds everything else out?

Chen used interviews and observations in Silicon Valley to describe a culture where work is all-consuming. There is little time left for other activities. Many devote all their energies and so much of themselves to what they do for a living. Their efforts start to become a kind of religious cause in their own right, requiring both the commitment of resources and a leap of faith.

“People in Silicon Valley may not always use the word ‘faith,’ but they know they need it,” Chen wrote.

She highlighted how many tech workers are motivated by narratives about how their respective companies are making society better. And she noted how “fragile” this faith can be. As she explained, “The tech faithful are susceptible to doubts, fears that their companies will fail or that their products will not change the world — that, ultimately, their work has no meaning.”

A sense of community. The provision of meaning. A narrative about changing the world. This is the stuff of religious faith and it’s the stuff of Silicon Valley.

The companies themselves lean into the workplace-as-religion dynamic. From talking about “wholeness” to providing classes on meditation, Chen documented how companies attend to the holistic well-being of their employees. Most of us have heard the stories about the high-end cafeterias, ping-pong tables, and napping pods provided to tech employees as work perks. Is this really all done for the sake of an employee’s physical, mental, and spiritual health?

Of course not.

Like everything else in the business world, there’s a return on investment to such extravagance. Happier employees are more productive. Workers who don’t have to leave the building to eat, get their clothes dry-cleaned, or socialize can spend more time at their desks. The spirituality of Silicon Valley dedicates itself to the cause of company profits.

“Corporate maternalism cannot question capitalism’s ‘creed of growth’ because it is in service to it,” explained Chen. “Human capital ‘expands’ when workers are pampered, massaged, fed, and ministered to. Work can maintain its relentless pace. Employees can keep overworking. And companies can continue profiting, so long as they invest in the health, spirituality, and happiness of their workers.”

A Box employee works inside the company’s headquarters office in Los Altos, California, on Nov. 22, 2013. (Josh Edelson/Zuma Press/Alamy)

In her analysis, Chen leads the reader to recognize what is hiding right in front of our faces: this form of religion is a means-to-an-end. And it is a spirituality mostly devoid of transcendence. Whether focused on the development of the self or the success of the company, it lacks reference to anything beyond the material world. There’s no reference point for the development of the self or even the betterment of society beyond growing the bottom line of the place where one works.

All this causes one to think that we’re headed towards a serious crisis of faith. There’s a future ethnography to be written about the existential angst of retirees who devoted all of themselves to their work and after walking out of the office on their final day lost all sense of their identity. Will that lead to a religious revival or a further redefinition of what makes life meaningful in a secular world?

Whatever the future holds, Work, Pray, Code offers invaluable insights into contemporary American spirituality. The degree to which Chen’s findings can be applied to settings outside of Silicon Valley will be debated, but it’s clear that the phenomena she describes are not isolated to that particular locale.

If you can break away from your professional responsibilities long enough, this is a book well worth reading. We’ll be giving away an autographed copy to one paid subscriber of A Public Witness. So upgrade now to a paid subscription to ensure you’re eligible. Then, get back to your coding (or perhaps take a walk outside, spend some time in prayer, or find some other way to enjoy life without being “productive”).

As a public witness,

Beau Underwood

A Public Witness is a reader-supported publication of Word&Way. To receive new posts and support our journalism ministry, subscribe today.