Book Note: Harvey Cox’s The Market As God

Harvey Cox, The Market As God (Harvard University Press, 2016). (Amazon; Bookshop)

In The Market As God, the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, Harvey Cox, ponders the deification of “the Market”. This begins will a series of comparisons between the way people have spoken of the personified “Market” and deities like the biblical “God”. For example, the “Invisible Hand of the Market” echoes discussions around Providence in Christian theological works. The Market is presented as a Creator who brings into existence the “corporation-person” or the corporation-with-personhood. This deity is contrasted with some of the images of the biblical “God” who prohibits things like “usury” (i.e. predatory lending) and calls for periods of wealth redistribution (e.g. the “Jubilee”).

Once Cox has accustom the reader to a theological way of talking about economics, he explores the many unhealthy deficiencies in our capitalist system. To be clear, Cox will come to argue at the end of the book that “the Market” can redeemed when it is saved from the burden of being “divine,” so he doesn’t appear to be anti-capitalist, per se, as much as critical of what he perceives to be abusive forms of capitalism that can’t bear the weight of our expectations.

The final third of the book explores the history of how money and religion have related, looking at how money may have played a role in providing St. Augustine with his victory of the (declared heretical) monk Pelagius; how Adam Smith’s economics was grounded in his theology; and other similarities between modern economic-speech and theological-speech, such as a sense of mission and the missionary mindset, the function of “liturgical” seasons, and various forms of eschatology.

This book is insightful. While connected, certain parts could be read independently of the others as mini-essays. Whether or not Cox’s confidence in the small-m “market” is justified is something not all readers will resonate with but his broader comparative insights are thought-provoking and at least raise the question of whether work and business is taking the place in people’s lives that religion once occupied.

On a related note, I’m happy to promote a video that I had a small part in scripting: Religion For Breakfast, a.k.a. Andrew Henry, has addressed a related book, Carolyn Chen’s Work Pray Codehttps://brianleport.home.blog/2022/06/03/book-note-carolyn-chens-work-pray-code/ in the video (“Tech Companies: A New Religion?”) linked below:

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A balanced high school religious studies curriculum

I’m writing this for myself. All my blogging is basically journaling. If I wanted more interaction, I’d have to catch up with the times and shift to Tik Tok. But Tik Tok isn’t like journaling, so I won’t be doing that. Also, this is for me because there are few people with jobs like mine who work in schools like mine with departments like mine. So, why do I put it on a blog? Well, a way that blogging isn’t like journaling is the decision to make your thoughts public. I want to make these thoughts public just in case (A) someone out there has feedback to contribute or (B) one of the estimated seven people in the world who are in similar situations come across it and find inspiration—or whatever the opposite of inspiration is.

What’s my situation? Well, I teach at an Episcopal school. Episcopalianism isn’t a monolith but among Christian traditions in North America, it tends to be one of the most hospitable to academic freedom. I’m confident that there isn’t even one other school in the Greater San Antonio region that would give me the green light to teach what I do like I do. Also, I teach high schoolers, and as anyone reading this is aware, very few high school teachers get to say much about religion in their courses let alone teach multiple classes completely devoted to the discipline. While you can teach religion in a public school setting, for various reasons related to sensitivity around the Establishment and Free Exercises Clauses of the First Amendment, and trouble budgeting for someone qualified to teach these types of classes, few public schools are willing to offer anything like what I teach. If you teach religious studies in a high school, usually you have major “confessional” restraints. You need to stay in line with the Catholic or Evangelical doctrine of the schools that exist independent of the public school system for the central purpose of raising young people to adhere to the worldviews they are promoting. Episcopalian schools exist to shape young people from within the Christian tradition but most Episcopalian schools see fidelity to Christianity as compatible with higher levels of pluralism and academic freedom than their Catholic and Evangelical counterparts.

Many public high school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because while they may be able to talk about Hinduism for a class period while teaching more specifically about India, they can’t spend a month on Hinduism. Many private school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because they either disagree with my approach or have administrations that would never allow anything like it. This brings me back to the seven or so people out there who may be in similar situations! And this ends a prolegomenon to this blog post.

When I first began teaching high school religious studies, our courses were (A) “Old Testament”; (B) “New Testament”; (C) “World Religion”; (D) “God Debate: An Introduction to Philosophy”. I’ve worked to change some of the names to better align with how I teach and how I think religious studies should be taught at our school. “Old Testament” is now “Hebrew Scriptures” because we consider Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh as much as, if not more than, Christian interpretations of the Old Testament. “New Testament” is now “Christian Scriptures” because we don’t restrict the content to what’s canonical—for example, the Gospel of Thomas and Infancy Gospel of Thomas get a lot of attention—and most of the class is now spent on the Gospels with only a little time being given to the Epistles. “World Religion” has been abandoned in favor of “Religion in Global Context” because (1) our freshman-sophomore classes, Global Studies I and Global Studies II, led me to realign the focus to parallel those classes and (2) the “world religion” model tends to focus on overviews of some of the “big” religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, usually—at the expense of literally every other religion. Since my pedagogical philosophy is concerned more with teaching students how to think about “religion,” the concept, rather than trying to provide them an impossible overview of these “major” religions, it made sense to change the name. Finally, due to personnel changes, the “God Debate” class was dropped.

A few years ago, I added a class titled “Religion in the United States” that examines, amongst other things, the concept of “religion” as it has been interpreted and applied in this country. We talk about Supreme Court “definitions” of religion and rulings related to the First Amendment; the role of the IRS; Native American spirituality; religion when the United States was founded; race and religion; how religions that were “imported” (i.e. pre-existed the country’s birth, e.g. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) have evolved in this context; and what expressions of religion have been created in and “exported” from this country (e.g. Scientology, Pentecostalism).

As I prepare for my seventh year, the catalog (not including classes like “Religion in San Antonio” that were designed specifically for the summer school context) will be:

  • The Hebrew Scriptures
  • The Christian Scriptures
  • Religion in Global Context
  • Religion in the United States

Now, what I’m about to suggest may be rejected by my superiors but I want to process it out loud here anyway. Generally, I’m comfortable with these offerings but I think some improvements can be made. For one, while Episcopalians are Protestant or Protestant-ish (the so-called “Middle Way”), they aren’t biblicist, usually. Many within the Anglican tradition, of which Episcopalianism is part, talk about a “three-legged stool” upon which the tradition sits: (1) the Bible; (2) the “great” tradition; and (3) reason. Some within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition add (4) experience, which I see as a positive addition. (Pentecostals add experience too…though their meaning is slightly different at times!) For this reason, while most of my academic training has been in biblical studies, I think the catalog is flawed when half of the religious studies offerings are related to the Bible. This means that the Bible receives as much attention as every other religion combined—including Christianity, which isn’t limited to the Bible (even when traditions are biblicist ones). One alternative would be to shrink “The Hebrew Scriptures” and “The Christian Scriptures” into a single class and then add a course on church history or theology. There are contexts where this may work. Ours might be one of those contexts but I’m doubtful for a whole variety of reasons, beginning with my presumption that only a handful of students want to talk about the intricacies of the Trinity or care for a week on the Nicene-Arian controversies.

What then is the alternative I’m suggesting? In my uniquely Episcopalian context, with the pluralistic student body we educate, and considering the present context of the world into which they’ll be graduating, here are the four courses I think would provide the most balanced high school religious studies curriculum (if only four can be offered):

Why these four? First, they encourage critical thinking that’s introductory in nature and “meta”. By the latter, I mean I’ve noticed that most of my students are very engaged when we’re thinking about the subject we’re thinking about. In other words, I can teach them the content of the Bible but they’re more interested in the concept of the Bible. The content of the Bible becomes more relevant when they’re considering what the Bible “is” and what’s at stake when we interpret it. Second, this balances what they need to know as emerging citizens while also aligning with the decision to go to a private school with a religious affiliation. Third, and related to the second point, it’s an alternative to the aforementioned approach of Catholic and Evangelical schools—our school has a daily chapel where constructive spiritual formation occurs for a pluralistic student body through the paradigm of Episcopalian spirituality. How that works exactly is the concern of our chaplain. My concern is that spiritual formation will be as strongly equated with human formation as possible so that my atheistic and agnostic students can take a religious studies class and come away just as mature in their thinking and acting as my Christian or Muslim students. In other words, there shouldn’t be any confessional barriers to their learning and participation.

“Introduction to the Bible” would retain the Bible’s place within a school that reads from it in daily chapel while focusing more so on what the Bible “is” than the type of deep dive that may be better suited for seminarians who plan on preaching and teaching from it. It would connect to whatever literary studies are happening in our English classes and study of the ancient world that’s happening in our history classes.

This would bring philosophy back into the mix. When my colleague Fr. Nate Bostain left, our curriculum developed a gap that needs to be filled. Also, I’m increasingly interested in philosophy, sponsored our school’s philosophy club for years, and have incorporated philosophy into our biblical and religious studies classes, so this would be more natural than say a course on historical theology or church history.

The theory class, “Introduction to Religion,” would be “Religion in Global Context” with a simplified name. It would retain the “global” focus which aligns nicely with “Religion in the United States” which has more of a local focus and is more historical and social in nature with an emphasis on our civic lives. Also, as I plan on doing this year, it’ll place more emphasis on the 3 B’s model that encourages students to recognize that while “belief” is part of what makes something religious, religions don’t always center on belief—rituals, holy days, communities, etc. can be even more central to someone’s religious identity.

Finally, and most importantly, each of these classes can become stand-alone so that there’s no need for one to be a prerequisite for the other like “The Hebrew Scriptures” is for “The Christian Scriptures” and “Religion in Global Context” is for “Religion in the United States” in our current catalog. I’m sure that would make scheduling easier for our Registrar!

Now, this blog post may be a futile writing exercise, and it may be that my superiors will disagree, but I plan on making a pitch like this to them this year in preparation for the 23-24 academic year.

Book Note: Carolyn Chen’s “Work Pray Code”

Carolyn Chen, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in the Silicon Valley (Princeton University Press, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

In Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in the Silicon Valley, Carolyn Chen asks us (p. 196), “What happens to society when its members worship work?” Then she responds, “Silicon Valley offers us an answer.” The answer is, on the one hand, enlightening, and on the other hand, terrifying. It’s enlightening because it provides us with much-needed insight into the spirituality of the so-called “Nones” (i.e. those who answer the question “With what religion do you affiliate?” with the answer “none”). When people hear “Nones” they may think of people with a religious void, or people who claim to be “spiritual-but-not-religious” (which is a claim founded on a misplaced concreteness regarding the word “religion”). But few “Nones” are religiously apathetic; they place the energies that others may devote to going to a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc., to something else but with similar vigor and intent.

While Chen doesn’t provide a working definition of “religion” until Appendix A, her implied definition is clear and aligns with her stated one in the appendix. In short, Chen admits (p. 213), “To find ‘religion’ in Silicon Valley, I realized that I’d have to reexamine my assumptions about what is ‘secular’ and what is ‘religious’.” To do this, she says that there “are two ways of studying religion empirically in a secular age” which she claims are through the clearly “religious” “religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and so on” which doesn’t work well for finding religion in the Silicon Valley, and through the less clear idea of “the sacred” which are “the institutions, ideas, practices, spaces and things a community sets aside as special and worthy of worship. Something is sacred because of the power it has over the members of the community.”

This reminds me a bit of Paul Tillich’s definition of “religion” in Theology of Culture (pp. 7-8), “Religion, in the most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern. And ultimate concern is manifest in all creative functions of the human spirit.” For a Christian, ultimate concern may be a relationship with their god through the person of Jesus resulting in the award of eternal life, and for a Buddhist, ultimate concern may be to reach nirvana, extinguishing the pain of suffering and dissatisfaction. For a Google employee, ultimate concern may be the creativity inherit in their job and the mission of the corporation of which they’re a part.

And this is where it’s terrifying. We should use the word “cult” cautiously because as we know it’s a pejorative that’s often used to dismiss or demonize a religious movement that seems fringe or unfamiliar. As it’s said, “cult plus time equals religion”. Most religious movements are seen as fringe and unfamiliar, dismissed and demonized, in their earlier state but come to receive some level of “respectability” over time. But I do think that when most of us use the word “cult” casually, we’re expressing discomfort not only with the difference we’re observing but the difference plus the level of demand. We’re used to Catholic priests and Buddhist bhikkus giving their lives but outside of these very old, well-established institutions, when a religious movement begins to demand all of someone’s life, especially when it results in that person becoming divorced from the world outside of their religious community, popular discourse refers to this level of control as “cultish” or “cult-like” and the group/community/organization as a “cult”

As you read Chen’s account of how much tech employees pour of their lives into their place of work, and how much it shuts them off from the outside world, you’ll begin to understand why some people see the religious devotion of Silicon Valley workers to their companies as, at least, “cult-like”.

In the Introduction, “How Work is Replacing Religion”, and Chapter 1: “Losing My Religion…and Finding It at Work”, the reader comes to see how and why work has begun to fill the hole where religion used to reside in the hearts of many people. In Chapter 2: “Corporate Maternalism: Nurturing Body and Soul” and Chapter 3: “Managing Souls: The Spiritual Cultivation of Human Capital” we receive insight into how the tech industry sees their employees, in a competitive “knowledge economy”, as investments. They can’t burn out their workers when these are some of the best and brightest minds coming from the top universities and colleges, so they must invest in them, and keep them healthy and happy. Pardon the analogy but it’s like this: you won’t get as much from a cow if you work it to death, so for as much extraction as you may require, there better be an investment. Similarly, free snacks and drinks, yoga lessons, on-site gyms, child care, etc., help corporations keep their employees happy and satisfied, and in return, with every need met on location, it allows for the employee to put in more hours for the corporation.

Now, if this seems dehumanizing, remember what the introduction and first chapter establish: work has become one of the ultimate forms of fulfillment in our society. And as I read these sections, I was reminded of something I’ve seen stated by people who survived the tragedies of The Peoples’ Temple, the Branch Davidians of Waco, and Heaven’s Gate: those were some of the most excited, fulfilling, best days of their lives, even if it all came crashing down on them. And many survivors of these movements, while recognizing something went wrong, never could get the same high as when they were on a mission to save the world. Silicon Valley is full of companies that encourage their workers to see themselves as world-changers, so 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week, isn’t a sacrifice.

Chapter 4: “The Dharma according to Google” and Chapter 5: “Killing the Buddha” examine what happens when workplaces import religious practices while often stripping them of their religious affiliations. This process is what Chen calls, “the secular diffusion of religion” (p. 16). We’ve seen it: yoga has hardly anything to do with Hindu thought and practice in the minds of most Americans who practice it; mindfulness has little to do with the Buddhist meditative practices from which it derives. So, what happens when a Zen teacher is contracted by a corporation to come and teach mindfulness while leaving their Buddhism at the door? Cognitive dissonance is often what happens. For many “spiritual coaches” in the Bay Area, there’s the pragmatics of needing to afford to live in one of the most expensive places in the world, so if they have to offer “Diet Buddhism” so be it. For others, there’s a sense that some Buddhism, even if unnamed, does more for the world than no Buddhism. And for others, it was too much, and some tech workers, meditation teachers, etc., decided that their religion was being corrupted by its marriage to big tech and then decided to choose their religion over big tech.

Chapter 5: “Killing the Buddha” may be worth the price of the book (though, you benefit from the rest of the book when it comes to understanding this)! Chen takes from the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” (which, while interpreted diversely, has come to mean for some that you should kill the “religious trapping in the practice of Buddhist meditation” [p. 155]), and shows that this can be very problematic when we observe how it’s applied. Chen discusses five types of Buddism that emerge when corporations want the perks of Buddhist practice without all the things that may be considered “religious” sounding and looking. Those types of Buddhism are “Hidden Buddhism” as in the practices are Buddhist, but out of fear of violating Title VII, must be done without reference to their origins. Whitened Buddhism is Buddhism not only without its religiosity but “It erases the ‘ethnic’ and ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans in favor of the thinking and experience of White Westerners.” (p. 162) Scientific Buddhism is when CEOs or HR can be sold the benefits of Buddhism by appealing to the scientific studies that may indicate that meditation/mindfulness has certain psychological and physical benefits to it that will benefit the company (remember the themes of chapters 2 and 3). Bottom-Line Buddhism is directly connected to Scientific Buddhism: if workers are serene, peaceful, and free from anxiety, this will bring down lost hours, health-care costs, etc. So, Bottom-Line Buddhism is sold to corporations on the promise that it’ll increase productivity, reduce costs, and ultimately result in profit. Finally, On-the-Go Buddhism is just as it sounds: a religion that may ask you to spend time being in meditation is squeezed into a fast-food version of itself that’s suitable for busy tech workers.

The Conclusion: “Techtopia: Privatized Wholeness and Public Brokenness” examines the fallout of this sort of work-as-religion worldview, ranging from work “colonizing” the time of its employees to the displacement and economic turmoil the tech industry has caused in the Bay Area. Now, as I’ve spent much more time on the negative impact of work-as-religion, I want to be clear that this book isn’t a hit job. It’s quite fair to tech industry at many points. Chen embedded herself in that world for five years, so she got to know the people, the companies, and their culture. And as a former resident of San Francisco myself, I can resonate with the high of Bay Area life. It’s not just the West Coast of the United States but it often feels like you’re on the edge of the future, and I didn’t even work any jobs even remotely related to tech. So, while we may be rightly concerned with people giving their everything to work so that they’re no longer part of a church, or a PTA or HOA, or local politics, etc., let’s remember that tech jobs do provide purpose and mission, and as many religious institutions have failed to be able to show people their “purpose-driven life” (to borrow from Rick Warren’s 2000s approach to American Christianity), the tech industry has been able to do it. As religion becomes less relevant in the lives of many Americans, new forms of “ultimate concern” are created and offered to seekers everywhere.

A non-confessional alternative to BibleProject

This morning a news article was shared in my Facebook feed that provided yet another example of why so many public schools avoid promoting/offering religious studies courses in spite of the obvious danger that religious illiteracy presents. It’s titled “‘How to Torture a Jew’: Chattanooga mother raises concerns with Bible class taught in public school”. In short, in public schools you can teach about the Bible, contrary to the imagination of some, but you can’t teach the Bible from a religious perspective or with the intent to proselytize. The teacher mentioned in this article appears to be doing the latter.

In a Facebook post by the mother, she mentions that the teacher uses BibleProject videos. This got my attention because I use BibleProject videos in my classes as well. For those who aren’t familiar with BibleProject, they are videos about the Bible made by Evangelical Christians mostly for Evangelicals though maybe with a less stated goal of proselytizing. My main concern with BibleProject, which admittedly makes excellent videos, is that they’re clearly supersessionist. Often they talk about how the whole Bible is a “unified story that leads to Jesus” which is a fine thing to say in the Evangelical bubble but very problematic outside of it, for the basic reason that you have to apply that meta-hermeneutic to the Bible. The very existence of Jewish hermeneutics indicates that there are other ways of reading the Bible that don’t point to Jesus as the central figure of the canon, not to mention that Judaism doesn’t recognize the Christian New Testament as authoritative. Likewise, critical scholarship from the past few centuries strongly pushes against the idea that the Bible is unified. It takes a special kind of confessional hermeneutic—like “inerrancy” or “infallibility”—to arrive at that conclusion.

Now, I teach at an Episcopal school, so the legal questions related to using these videos (i.e. basically violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment) don’t apply to me but (!) I do try to teach from a non-confessional; non-sectarian perspective. I have students who are Christian but also students from a wide array of religious and non-religious persuasions. I’m proud of the fact that my students constantly recognize my classes as a confessional neutral space. Some of them may be bothered by the critical scholarship that’s employed but I don’t try to make my Evangelical kids give up their identity any more than I do my Muslim kids. The goal is to introduce them to the Bible as a cultural item that continues to influence civil discourse. I want them to be biblical literate not because I’m concerned with influencing their religious identity but because I want them to be informed citizens in a society where political and legislatures still quote and appeal to the Bible.

One thing that’s nearly essential when teaching a generation shaped by Instagram and TikTok is that you use visuals. I use plenty of YouTube videos. As I said, I use BibleProject. I’ve tried to balance it by using Unpacked’s videos which provide a Jewish perspective (works for Hebrew Bible but not Christian New Testament). Unfortunately, the only really good resource that consistently creates videos from a non-confessional perspective is Andrew Henry’s “Religion for Breakfast” project which is excellent but needs more financial resources if it were to offer a non-confessional alternative.

So, what’s to be done? Can AAR and SBL members take up the task of finding something like this? We have Bible Odyssey which is great and provides us all with resources. I know some members of SBL wouldn’t be interested in creating a Religion for Breakfast alternative to BibleProject because BibleProject fits their hermeneutic and pedagogy but what about the rest of us.

As Gen Z continues to enter college and grad school, I’m convinced that teachers at that level will want high-quality resources like what Henry produces. I know as whatever-is-after-Gen Z arrives, I’ll continue to need videos to supplement my teaching. How can we make this happen? How can we create a BibleProject-alternative? How can we help Religion for Breakfast become that alternative?

[If you’ve benefitted from Henry’s Religion for Breakfast, or if you agree with what I’m saying in this post, here’s his Patreon.]

Is Bitcoin a religion?

Joseph P. Laycock tackles the question of whether we should think of Bitcoin as a religion in his article “Why are people calling Bitcoin a religion?” Semi-spoiler: Laycock reminds some of us and informs others that:

The dirty secret of religious studies is that there is no universal definition of what religion is. Traditions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism certainly exist and have similarities, but the idea that these are all examples of religion is relatively new.

The word “religion” as it’s used today – a vague category that includes certain cultural ideas and practices related to God, the afterlife or morality – arose in Europe around the 16th century. Before this, many Europeans understood that there were only three types of people in the world: Christians, Jews and heathens.

So, quoting Russell McCutcheon, the real interesting question “is not what religion is or is not, but ‘the making of it’ process itself – whether that manufacturing activity takes place in a courtroom or is a claim made by a group about their own behaviors and institutions.” In other words, why would someone suggest Bitcoin is or isn’t a religion? What’s the point/objective?

Publication Notice: Visions and Violence in the Pseudepigrapha

While I may have been a third wheel whose most important contribution was being a gofer-editor, I’m happy to announce a volume that Bloomsbury is publishing titled Visions and Violence in the Pseudepigrapha. It was edited by Craig A. Evans, Paul T. Sloan, and yours truly. If it’s any good, they get the credit. I was happy just to be included so that I could learn a bit about editing and the publication process.

Gen Z’s religiosity (or lack thereof)

The aforementioned PRRI “2020 Census of American Religion” continues to provoke a lot of thought and conversations. For example, the eyebrow raising stat that the white mainline is remaining static, or maybe even growing, while white evangelicalism plummets, is being questioned (e.g. Ryan Burge’s “Why It’s Unlikely U.S. Mainline Protestants Outnumber Evangelicals”). Also, the PRRI census seemed to indicate that the rise of the “nones” was slowing. Well, there’s other data out there like what Ryan Burge tweeted about Gen Z based on the data from the Cooperative Election Study.

Introducing Confucianism

One of the final projects for my “Religion in Global Context” class asks my students to do a YouTube or podcast episode explaining what Confucianism is and whether it’s a religion. (I’ve blogged about it: see “Chinese Religions Podcast Project”.) Future renditions of the project will juxtapose Confucianism with Daoism and Shinto and not just Daoism. Thankfully, my life as a teacher keeps getting easier as Andrew Henry’s “Religion for Breakfast” project, which already includes several episodes on Shinto, now will have a series on Confucianism. The first video was released a few days ago:

NPR discusses the prosperity Gospel

In the New Testament, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. In the United States today, many Christians believe in something radically different. In what’s known as the prosperity gospel, wealth is a sign of virtue and God’s favor. The effects of this belief can be seen throughout American life from business to politics to social policy.

Listen here.