Review: Work Pray Code

Work Pray Code, Carolyn Chen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Summary: A sociologist studies how Silicon Valley tech firms bring religion into the workplace, replacing traditional religious institutions, blurring the line of work and religion.

I’ll just say it up front. Anyone who cares about the future of work needs to read this book. Carolyn Chen, a sociologist at UC Berkeley, spent 2013 to 2017 immersing herself in the tech world of Silicon Valley as a participant observer of the trend of incorporating religious practices into the work life of Silicon Valley companies. She did over 100 in-depth interviews and attended retreats, mindfulness sessions, and various “wellness” programs offered by companies.

What she observed was the expansion of work in these companies to fill the whole of workers lives. Many ate two to three meals a day at work, often catered by the companies, along with healthy snacks. They worked out in company gyms and walked on pathways, placed children in company daycare facilities, and learned meditation practices at company-sponsored retreats and used company-provided meditation spaces. For many of these workers, their place of work has become the source of personal, social, and spiritual fulfillment. At the same time, the involvement of many of these workers in traditional religious institutions and other community and civic institutions has waned.

What Chen chronicles at one level is corporate concern for the whole person. Yet underneath this, Chen discerns that so much of this concern for the “whole person” is driven by productivity concerns, to get the “whole person’s” devotion to the corporate mission. Workers spoke of “drinking the kool aid” in terms eerily reminiscent of cult-like groups, leading Chen to conclude that in many of these workers’ lives, their work is their religion.

The “religious” element draws from the meditative practices of Buddhism, shorn of the metaphysical and ethical content. A number of scientific and pseudo-scientific rationalizations are offered by the coaches and teachers who make up a “mindfulness” industry that offers services to these companies. Many are Zen teachers in temples who find this a way to support themselves, particularly as interest in the traditional religious institution wanes. The focus is on focus, helping people become fully attentive, self-aware, and present to their work. But Chen chillingly observes that an amoral “focus” can be turned both to life-enhancing work and to murder. For the teachers, it is a Faustian bargain, profitable contracts that vitiate the real religious content of their Buddhism–“replacing it with a universalized, Whitened, scientized, profitable, and efficient Buddhism.” Furthermore it is a thin religion that fails to challenge the unjust caste system in tech firms that offers these benefits to the elite tech workers, but not to the support staff.

Her concluding chapter addresses the dangers of what she calls “techtopia.” She describes the monopolization of human energy pulling people away from the communities where they live, from civic and religious involvements. She expresses her concern for what happen to communities when religious and civic institutions suffer. She also expresses concern for workers, who give themselves to this religion until they are used up, and really can’t leave this world, reinventing themselves as coaches when they can no longer bear the totalizing pull of the corporations. Individual “resistance” to this pull is not enough, in her view. She believes the answer is to invest in non-work communities–faith communities, neighborhoods, families, and civic associations.

Reading this work makes me think about whether what she describes in Silicon Valley is a picture of the future of work on a wider basis or whether this is a local phenomenon. I cannot help but think this is going to grow, although I also wonder how the trend to remote work resulting from the pandemic will affect this. Chen briefly touches on this, observing that remote work can actually contribute to work demanding even more of one’s life, as commute times are eliminated and one never “clocks out.” I also wonder if other industries that demand heavy investments of their workers might pursue similar strategies–for example, the health care industry.

The fusion of religion and work Chen describes occurs at a time when trust in religious institutions is at a low point and there is a “great resignation” going on among pastors and other religious leaders. Chen describes a spiritual hunger that suggests a great opportunity for religious institutions able to pivot. They can’t simply promote “butts in seats.” They have to address the big questions of meaningful life, humble and authentic communal life extending welcome and inclusion, and spiritual practices connecting the transcendent and every day life.

This work also implies an important discussion to be had about the renewal of our communities in an age of anomie, of the weakening of critical local institutions. The answer isn’t to be found in workplace or political cults. Many of our local communities are becoming combat zones that neither workplace or political cults can truly address. Only strong local institutions can do so–and this only if work is limited to its appropriate place in our lives, allowing the time to invest in the places where we live.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Smart Suits, Tattered Boots

Smart Suits, Tattered Boots, Korie Little Edwards and Michelle Oyakawa. New York: New York University Press, 2022.

Summary: A study, using interviews of Black Ohio religious leaders and research studies of mobilization efforts to explore whether Black religious leaders are still able to mobilize civil rights efforts, and if so, how, when, and why they do.

The story of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s to 1970’s is a story of a religious movement–marchers mobilized, trained, and inspired in churches, from which many of the marches began, voting rights efforts encouraged by churches, and almost invariably led by Black men in suits, white dress shirts, and dark ties (with many women contributing mightily to the effort).

Fifty years later, it is a new time, where systemic injustices against Blacks remain in different forms–mass incarceration of Black men, police-involved shootings or killings of Blacks, new voting restrictions and redistricting that on analysis seem directed to prevent or dilute the Black vote. The authors of this study ask the question of whether and where Black religious leadership figures into addressing these injustices. The study centers in on Ohio, where the two researchers live, using a case study of the 2012 presidential election and Black voter mobilization efforts as well as interviews with 54 black clergy and eleven faith-based community organization (FBCO) and race-based civic organization heads. All names of interviewees are pseudonyms as are most of the organizations mentioned.

The study discovered that the 2012 election was an example where religious leaders served to effectively mobilize efforts to register and get out the vote. Principal leaders in the religious communities were key–people who were widely respected by other clergy in their networks. When these leaders said to others that they should give their efforts to mobilizing the vote, they did. Furthermore, the researchers learned that a key motivation was actually not re-electing a Black president but rather countering efforts being made to block Black access to the vote, rolling back a key achievement of the civil rights movement.

The researchers also found that Black clergy tended to mobilize in their religious networks around historic civil rights issues but tended to address other effects of systemic racism that disadvantaged Blacks by placing blame on Blacks for failures and urging stronger Black work ethics, rather than addressing the systemic issues. The term this “the Black Protestant ethic.”

They found that the historic influence of Black civic organizations like the NAACP, the Urban League, and others has waned in their organizing capacities, and that many Black religious leaders have turned to FBCOs instead. The difficulty is that these efforts are multi-racial, often directed by whites without sufficient grasp of the community issues, and are funded by foundations, who often are focused on quick, short-term results rather than longer term substantive change.

Consequently, many Black clergy may engage for a time and discover that the amount of work and the real impact do not warrant their continued engagement. This is exemplified in chapter six of the book, which profiles three highly influential leaders (under pseudonyms)–one a civil rights era principal leader, the general, one described as the warrior, who took on racial injustices in his city until he was both excluded and burned out and needed to take care of himself. The third, called the protege’ was a younger leader in the early years of engaging justice issues, and who was both passionate, but also somewhat abstracted in his language.

What I found most striking was the contrast between the general, “Wyoming Brashear,” and the others. The researchers also noted it:

“Brashear stands out from others in this study because he consistently and intentionally aimed to reconcile his worldview, one that was historically and globally situated, with his Christian faith, drawing on biblical references to provide theological bases for his positions. This suggests that Brashear pondered matters, that his positions were not taken for granted. It was uncommon for the pastors in this study to reference specific Bible scriptures when explaining their social or theological views” (p.114).

I thought this significant. “Brashear” was one of those who had been part of the Civil Rights movement, one of the criteria for being a principal leader. In addition to the shared experience, which gave credibility, I wondered if there was a shared ethos of biblically and theologically informed activism tracing back to King, son and father, and beyond them to the likes of Howard Thurman, W.E.B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass.

One of the questions discussed in the conclusion is whether this religious leader influence will continue when those of the Civil Rights era pass. The researchers propose that one direction is expanding the remit from civil rights to freedom. I think that could be an interesting and important direction. I also find myself wondering if a recovery and renewal of the biblically, theologically, and spiritually informed impetus that fired religious leaders in past mobilization efforts might also be important. I think the researchers raise important questions about the Black Protestant Ethic. This may need to be both deconstructed and re-imagined. I wonder though, if there is to be power to mobilize within the Black Church, whether it must be done within a biblical and theological framework rather than bifurcating spirituality and social activism.

Smart Suits, Tattered Boots raises important questions in the face of movements like #BlackLivesMatter that have arisen outside the church. Has the day of clergy-led, church-based mobilizing efforts passed? What role should faith-based community organizations play? Are movements like #BlackLivesMatter a new wineskin for mobilizing? What if any part should Black religious leaders play? This book has me wondering about all these things.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Why Science and Faith Need Each Other

why science and faith

Why Science and Faith Need Each OtherElaine Howard Ecklund. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: A sociologist who has researched the relationship between science and faith proposes that there are eight shared values that make it possible to move beyond a relationship of fear or conflict between religious and scientific communities.

Most of the books I have read about science and faith have come from either theological perspectives or those of physical science. What marks out this book as different is that it is written by a sociologist as a distillation of her research about attitudes of scientists toward faith, and those of believing people toward scientists. Her thesis is that there are shared values in both communities that make it possible to move from fear and conflict into constructive and appreciative dialogue with each other.

The first part of this book deals with preliminary considerations. She observes how fear often dominates the conversation within churches, that science is out to disprove God. Either we don’t talk about science, or we create binary choices–either faith in God or godless science. She observes that this doesn’t consider the reality of many Christians working in science and many scientists in the church, and that we might do well to listen to them. She also tackles the big elephant on the table in this discussion–evolution. She describes how in her research that she allows people to choose among six options in describing their beliefs about creation and evolution, rather than a binary choice. When this is the case, many Christians acknowledge the possibility of some form of evolution, along with the important conviction of God’s creative involvement, and the importance of the image of God, belying the science-faith binary.

She then explores eight shared virtues of people of faith and scientists. She divides these in two parts. The first are those of process, crucial in scientific research processes but also in vibrant Christian communities. These are curiosity, doubt, humility, and creativity. The second concern how science and faith might come together in redemptive practices, including healing, awe, shalom, and gratitude.

Her chapter on doubt is an example of the surprising concurrence of these values. Scientific research is rooted in doubt–either questioning an existing theory about a phenomena as an inadequate explanation of the data, or some question that hasn’t been explored that the scientist does not understand. In the church, doubt is often discouraged, yet everyone wrestles with questions while believing. Perhaps Christians may even learn from scientists, who believe in their process, even while “doubting.” Acknowledging together that we have honest questions builds bridges of understanding and can allow for real growth. Scientists can show how faith doesn’t require certainty.

Another example was the chapter on awe, something bringing atheist scientists and Christians together as they explore the wonders of the world at every level from the smallest components of life to the vastness of the cosmos. Of course for the Christian, this awe points us to a more profound awe, that of God.

Ecklund concludes the book talking about the virtue of gratitude. She speaks of gratitude in the practice of science, gratitude for science and the scientists in our midst, and gratitude for our faith. She concludes by illustrating this with a personal statement–what she would now say to her grandfather who asked her why she pursued a graduate degree in sociology when it might not result in greater pay. She writes:

I am devoting my life to sociology, and to the sociological study of religion, because of gratitude. I am grateful for my Christian faith and the role it plays in my life. I am grateful for my church community. I am also grateful for the advances that science and social science have made in helping us better understand and navigate our world. I am grateful for the scientific tools and concepts that allow us to better get along and work together. Indeed my gratitude for both faith and science has compelled me to study faith communities and scientific communities and to endeavor to give back to both of those communities. And because of this gratitude I can say that my work is part of my worship.

I’m grateful for this approach! I didn’t discuss humility, but my experience is that humility often seems in short supply in science-faith discussions. Yet both Christians and scientists have ample grounds for humility. We each are profoundly blessed in our lives beyond what we deserve–whether enjoying generous grants to build expensive apparatuses for our investigations, or exploring the infinite wonders of a generous God.

There is one other virtue Ecklund doesn’t mention that also seems a part of process. It is that of rigor or discipline. Scientists ruthlessly critique each other’s research in the pursuit of truth and often expend years on a research problem, running numerous experiments or simulations, crunching massive amounts of data. Sometimes this is also true in the church, whether in the care of framing our theology of the atonement, or the rigor shown in developing a program that serves one’s community. But we might also have much to learn from scientists in the rigor of our thinking and the testing of our ideas.

This is not so much criticism as evidence of how much fun it can be to consider what we share in common, and how we might learn from each other about living more virtuously. This provides a far better ground for good conversations that offer the hope of making us both better Christians and better scientists.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: American Grace


American GraceRobert D. Putnam, David E. Campbell. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Summary: A sociological study of the landscape of American religion, the connections between religious and political attitudes, and changes between 2006 and 2011, when the newest edition of this work was published.

If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, we do not heed, at least on social media, the old social dictum of refraining from discussions of religion and politics in social situations. What I think this reveals is the vibrant and diverse religious and political landscape in the United States, a landscape explored at great nuance in the sociological study represented in this book.

The book combines vignettes of congregations and detailed results (with tables and bar graphs) from the Faith Matters survey results. The authors begin with a survey of religious history, particularly twentieth century religious history, particularly the post-World War 2 boom in religiosity, the first decline in the Sixties, a later boomlet in the Eighties, and more recent declines. Then, mixing vignettes with survey results, they explore the shifting religious scene: old fashion and newer congregations, traditionalism and change around gender and ethnicity, and the role of politics in religious congregations.

Broadly speaking, the authors see an increase in what they call a tolerance, a friendliness with those who are different that includes everything from greater acceptance that people of other religions will also go to heaven to acceptance of same sex relationships. They attribute this at least in part that many have an “Aunt Susan” or “pal Al” who are one of these “differents.” It is this that the authors consider “American grace”–an increasing acceptance of the differences of religious expression and moral behavior in our communities. At the same time, the authors find that there is still a deep divide politically and that this maps along lines of religiosity, even though most churches do not make politics an overt aspect of worship and congregational life with any frequency, and even less so between 2006 and 2011.

One of the more sobering passages for religious teachers is one where the authors were presenting results around theological belief of denominational participants to a group of conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran leaders. It was very clear that on many matters, congregants were for more liberal, and indeed had departed from orthodox belief. This is a broader finding for many of the respondents from Christian backgrounds, whether Catholic, mainline, or evangelical. What it appears is that there is a cultural religion that is gaining ascendancy that reflects a religious consensus on faith and morals quite different from the theological stance of our church bodies.

This brings me to a terminology difference with the authors. They speak of seeing an increasing “tolerance” toward the religiously different, and toward moral stances once deemed unacceptable. I do not disagree with the fact that such tolerance is a good thing but with how they are using the word tolerance. They are using the word tolerance for what is really a growing cultural consensus, or common cultural religion, where people are saying that formal differences between faiths or around certain questions of morality don’t really matter in our practiced belief and behavior.

Tolerance historically had to do with where we have disagreements and how we act toward those with whom we substantively differ on matters of belief and/or behavior. That can be how someone who is liberal in political or religious beliefs acts toward someone who is conservative, or vice versa. Tolerance has nothing to do with what one believes or, within certain boundaries, how one behaves (I hope we would agree that there are some behaviors that must not be tolerated such as murder or rape or theft, for example), but rather whether we respond graciously or censoriously toward those who differ. I am troubled with the way these authors use the term tolerance, because it assumes that sincere believers who do not believe that others may share one’s heaven while holding different beliefs, or that fail to approve some culturally accepted behaviors are intolerant, no matter how they act toward those who differ. Likewise, a person may be thought tolerant even while acting censorious toward a person whose beliefs they deem “intolerant.” This seems to me a decided and concerning shift of language.

The epilogue of this book summarizes a follow-up study in 2011 that included part of the 2006 cohort as well as younger respondents who were not of age for the first cohort. This survey showed that on the whole, religious beliefs were marked stable, while detailing a growing trend toward those who would not identify with any belief, introducing the idea of “nones” into a conversation about religion in America, as a decidedly growing category. They document a decided movement on the part of the youngest generation away from religious faith, as well as continued growth in the trends around respondents views on questions of belief and behavior toward the new cultural consensus noted above. It also revealed that both political parties as well as the “Tea Party” are disliked more than any religious group.

Coming off the 2016 election, there are some important implications I draw from this book. One is that it explains the almost universal revulsion I’ve found among young people, religious or not, for white evangelicalism’s overwhelming (81 percent) support of the Republican candidate, and why young people are leaving this movement in droves. It also presents a challenge to those of us who seek to teach and pass along the faith. Peter Drucker was known for saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I would contend that culture is also eating belief for breakfast and that this has come through the redefinition of the language of tolerance (and intolerance) discussed above where tolerance must define not only our behavior, but in fact our beliefs. My sense is that religious communities must figure out ways to compellingly embody what they believe, or they will come to the place where they throw up their hands and say, “we got nothing.”

What troubles me most is that the “American grace” being described in this book is nothing like the “Amazing Grace” of which John Newton writes. Amazing grace is the marvel that what was “wretched” and “lost” and “blind” can be saved. “American grace” I fear, would just say these are intolerant labels, that you are fine the way you are, and offer no hope that life should be any different. Sure, avoiding intolerance is better than the alternative, but it doesn’t offer much if you are looking for a reason for hope. As a sociological study, there is much that deserves our attention. But as a prescription, and not only a description, of American cultural religion, American Grace is wanting.

Review: Daring Greatly

Daring GreatlyI can’t seem to get away from Teddy Roosevelt! Brene’ Brown begins this book with a quote from a speech of his at the Sorbonne in 1910 in which he talks about the man in the arena being the one who counts and not his critics, the man who strives for great things at great cost. Her title is drawn from these words:

“…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….”

Brown describes her research into vulnerability as one that led her to a personal breakdown, which her therapist described as a spiritual renewal. She traces her research course, which began by exploring human connection and discovered in her interviews that the fear and shame of disconnection is what came up over and over again. She says she was hijacked by her data into researching shame, and the flip side of this, a shame resilience that enables people to overcome shame and live “wholeheartedly.” Wholeheartedness comes from a sense of one’s basic worthiness, cultivated through a variety of practices such as letting go of perfectionism, of numbing and powerlessness, of scarcity fears, of the need for certainty and more.

A key to wholehearted living that “dares greatly” that is at the core of this book is the embrace of vulnerability. Vulnerability requires courage and a willingness to press against all the “vulnerability myths” shared by both women and men. But it leads to compassion and connection, nowhere illustrated more than in Brown’s concluding chapter having to do with vulnerability and parenting. I found myself saying “Amen” and “Amen” and wishing that my peers in parenting could have heard this sooner and not inflicted so much pain on each other around being the perfect parent. Her stories of being imperfectly vulnerable with her children and allowing them to dare greatly, even if this just meant showing up, were worth the price of admission.

I found her insightful in the ways we shield ourselves from vulnerability through foreboding joy, where we do not allow ourselves joy because we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, through perfectionism, where we think that by doing things right we will never know shame, and through numbing, by which we deaden ourselves from the painful things in life. Instead, she advocates practicing gratitude in the moments of joy, appreciating the “cracks” in our life that shed light on our humanness, and learning how to feel and lean into our hard feelings while setting proper boundaries.

She also challenges organizations to “mind the gap” and practice “disruptive engagement”–developing awareness of the gaps between strategy and culture and the ways we discourage engagement through corporate shaming practices. Bringing the best that we have often involves vulnerability and risk in disruptively engaging broken corporate culture.

I found this a helpful book that was immediately applicable for me in several situations in which I was mentoring young leaders facing the choices of “safe” disengagement or vulnerably stepping into their work as leaders. Vulnerability is scary for all of us and yet ultimately the only path to real connection and real greatness. Brene’ Brown helps us on that path through her stories and research, even while helping us to see that each of us makes that path our own by walking into vulnerability.