Is The Protestant Work Ethic Really Protestant?
“Wish we could turn back time to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out.”
Lyrics from Stressed Out, by TWENTY ØNE PILØTS
My very young grandchildren know the lyrics to this song. Thanks to Papa. These kids now ask me to play this song when in my car. I admit to being fond of hit tunes even in my 60s. Must be my hard-wired radio life.
Speaking of “wired”—or more appropriately, WIRED the magazine, I just read a disturbing online post of theirs titled, “The Gospel of Hard Work, According to Silicon Valley.” Really…you should read this. https://www.wired.com/2017/06/silicon-valley-still-doesnt-care-work-life-balance/?mbid=nl_6417_p1&CNDID=30783642
In a nutshell, the storyline explains a Tweet firestorm that erupted over the subject of work-life balance in the tech world. One very experienced tech investor with major company credentials tweeted his thoughts on killing yourself by work habits. He believes that putting in time on holidays or weekends is a “recipe for disaster.” He advocates working smarter—not harder.
This generated some major feedback from some of his fellow venture capitalists and others. One VC-er, Keith Rabois, retorted by Tweet: “Totally false. Read a bio of Elon [Musk]. Or about Amazon. Or about the first 4 years of FB. Or PayPal. Or Bill Bellichick [sic]. It is pure arrogance to believe you can outsmart other talented people.”
The feud was underway. The Elon Musk stories are legendary. If true, he works incessantly. Supposedly, he’s even brought sleeping bags to his offices to increase his time on mission. Oh my.
But the story took a spiritual turn that caused me to growl. A former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, concerned over this work-life imbalance, interjected Max Weber into the discussion. Specifically, his book The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism.
Note what Fowler tells Wired magazine: “There’s this concept of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ that’s intrinsically related to capitalism, the idea being that, to the Protestant, ‘hard work’ is a religious duty, a profession of faith and devotion. The harder you work, the better a Christian you are, the better chance you have of salvation.”
Wait a minute here! That is not a good summation of Weber’s thinking. Max certainly links the capitalistic mindset and the making of profit to Protestant thinkers like John Calvin. But Susan understates a deeper theological issue and, for Protestants, working hard is never connected to earning salvation. That’s nonsense.
Giving a healthier view on all this was David Hainemeier Hanson, a bestselling author and creator of the programming language Ruby on Rails. In a blog, he “rails” against tech financiers preaching work overload to young talent. Why? Because the money guys are only interested in…money. As Hanson states, “Of course they’re going to desire fairytale sacrifices. There’s little to no consequence to them if the many fall by the wayside, spent to completion trying to hit that home run. Make me rich or die tryin’.”
In the tech world, pressure to overwork is often loaded up two ways. One is by management dictate: “You WILL work long hours if you want to belong.” The other way is to withhold promotions or being labeled a misfit for not putting in the hours.
One particularly disturbing quote came at the end of the article. Apparently, Super Bowl winning coach Bill Walsh wrote in one of his books, “that you know you’re doing your job right if you’re up at 3 AM and ‘have a knot in your stomach, a rash on your skin, are losing sleep and losing touch with your wife and kids.’”
Jesus of Nazareth gave us a different message, saying, “Come to me, all of you who are tired and have heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28, NCV)
God didn’t give us a gospel of hard work. He wants our work to reflect our worship. And part of that worship is healthy periods of rest.
So don’t attribute workaholism to the Protestant work ethic. Try labeling it what it really is. Selfish ambition.
Originally published on The Way WE Work.