Jesus is Coming …To Silicon Valley?

Is there a Christian renaissance afoot in Silicon Valley? That’s probably an overstatement, if HBO’s fictionalized account of the place is any guide. Recall that in season two of Silicon Valley, Erlich Bachman tells incubee wannabees pitching a religiously themed dog sharing service that “Christianity is borderline illegal in Northern California.”  

Jesus is similarly scarce in real-world tech culture. At first glance, life along the San Francisco-San Jose axis is defined by a few simple realities, including exorbitant housing prices, soul-crushing traffic, and the fact that the closer one gets to any sort of orthodox viewpoints on the divine, the weirder it seems.

Except for Pat Gelsinger.

Gelsinger is the CEO of VMWare, which has ridden the cloud craze to become the world’s fifth-largest software company. By most measures, he’s in the club of tech elites, not that he’s pleased with how the group has handled its Wealth of Solomon success, particularly in the Bay Area. He’s pointed out that despite being among the world’s wealthiest regions, the Bay Area is basically full of rich, influential, miserly pagans, an assessment unlikely to earn him invites to cocktail parties in Atherton and Woodside. He gives away around half of his eight figure gross income to charity. But what makes him a real outlier is his motivation, which goes beyond sitting in pews on Sundays.

“Yeah, I’m delighted to have a job, I’m delighted to be paid by the company, but ultimately my CEO is Jesus Christ,” he said in a 2016 interview with The Gospel Herald, a Christian news site not normally courted by Valley PR teams. It’s one among countless outlets where Gelsinger has spoken openly of his evangelical views. He’s written books on his own faith and contributed to others, including Skip Vaccarello’s Finding God in the Silicon Valley. Vaccarello’s chapter on Gelsinger contains a slew of quotes that surely make many at VMWare wince: “At every stage of my career, I’ve always said ‘Okay. Now I’m in the next phase of my full-time ministry.’ I like to think I have a congregation of 18,000 today at VMWare…that’s the church that God has given me to be a minister to.” 

Suffice it to say, most in the Valley, CEOs and otherwise, don’t talk this way. Likely most rank and file couldn’t talk this way, even if they were similarly convicted, given HR rules and certain cafeteria scorn. Comments like this make Gelsinger something of a cultural unicorn, perhaps even rarer than the near-mythical startups with billion dollar valuations. Witness the collective yawn when Mark Zuckerberg, the unicorn turned demigod and possible presidential candidate, suggested that Facebook might be an outright replacement for the church. That’s just the sort of utopian hubris with which the Valley is comfortable—and that makes it such an easy target for parody by Mike Judge and the rest of the writers for Silicon Valley. While Judge and company lob occasional potshots at the faithful in the HBO show, the real target of ridicule is the oft-repeated and so obviously phony goal of “making the world a better place.” Judge told The New Yorker that this is “capitalism shrouded in fake hippie rhetoric.”

Christians seem to represent the inverse of the bombastic hypocrisy Judge is caricaturing. That is, with a handful of exceptions like Gelsinger, Jesus followers are basically a quiet subculture, apparently sincere in their views but generally closeted and off the radar.

James Cham at Bloomberg Beta is among the quietly observant. He grew up a churchgoer and, like Gelsinger, passed through a set of elite waystations—undergrad at Harvard, b-school at MIT, software developer, various management consulting gigs including at Accenture and Boston Consulting Group. Have suspicions softened over time against believers? Cham said that if anything, the broader political context, with categories crashing down, has helped Christians. “Was it harder in the 2000s because Evangelicals were so closely associated with Republicans? Maybe. Now it’s sort of become much muddier. The loss of labels makes the whole conversation easier, I think.”

Still, on Twitter—the public conversation forum in which everyone in tech participates—Cham is notably mute on the topic of his faith. His Twitter feeds contain links to smart chatter from fellow VCs and journos on topics like machine learning and next-generation Web-based microservices, and scant to nothing on the Messiah or even the search for meaning.

Then there’s Gelsinger’s Twitter timeline. It contains the tweets you’d expect from a CEO—links to Harvard Business Review articles on mobile strategy, a major VMWare focus, and retweets of fellow exec titans Eric Schmitt and Jeff Immelt. However, there are also overt exhortations like: “As people of #faith, we have a unified purpose for our lives that we can all pursue together.” And this: “Through our #faith, we all have the power to embrace good in the world.”

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Cham was quick to point out that Gelsinger has a different level of fame. (Not on Twitter, I should have pointed out, where both are in the one-comma club in terms of followers.) Temperament matters too. Christian or otherwise, CEOs by nature are usually out-in-front-leaders painting triumphalist visions of the future. “I’m probably a little on the side paying attention and looking for signals,” he added, insisting he will talk about his faith when it comes up. As an example, he pointed me to an October 2016 interview he gave The 20 Minute VC, modestly well known in the venture world.

The podcast is billed as “GREENFIELD OPPORTUNITIES FOR MACHINE LEARNING, WHY MASSIVE CORPORATES FINALLY SEE IT’S POTENTIAL & WHY VC’S INVESTMENT DECISION MAKING PROCESS NEEDS TO CHANGE WITH JAMES CHAM, PARTNER @ BLOOMBERG BETA.” A nearly 30-word all-caps headline with no mention of faith should say something. Still, I listened and sure enough at the end of the interview, Cham told host Henry Stebbings: “I do take my faith and my Christianity seriously. The thing that I love about entrepreneurship is it’s the act of creation. And I think the act of creation, making something from nothing or something from very, very little, is as close as we’ll really get to doing the work of God.”

It’s a bold statement. It’s also a few sentences at the tail end of a podcast with no search-indexed transcript. That may be as close as most Christians are willing to get being open about their faith, likely because they’re concerned about becoming pariahs in a region notorious for its general apathy toward organized religion.

“The fact that there haven’t been new Christian movements built around social media is really more about the weakness of social media’s influence rather than the fact that Christians haven’t been able to figure it out,” he said.

For now Gelsinger will remain the closest thing in the Valley to John the Baptist, albeit without clothes made of camel’s hair. In an age when Twitter can elect a president and blog posts can sink CEOs, nothing is accidental in terms of online image. In his Twitter header image, Gelsinger, VMWare’s self-declared lead pastor, wears the business-tech-software-standard jacket and no tie among a smiling, polyglot group—one fond of selfies, maybe the smartphone era’s most ecumenical ritual.

Despite the prominence and press earned by big nondenominational churches, the big cultural trend line points decidedly away from faith of all stripes. Christianity is well on its way to becoming a minority religion in the United States. As in most other things, Silicon Valley, which Cham called the great staging server and development sandbox for the rest of the world, is likely to get to this secular future first.

“I think the really interesting story is that there are 23-year-olds going to church here and not because their mom is telling them to go,” said Cham, the VC signal scanner. “To me, that’s worth checking out.”

Technology (and the nerd execs like Gelsinger building it) will loom increasingly large in daily life even as Christianity recedes. Based on written responses to my questions, Gelsinger clearly keeps one eye on eternity and saving souls, though he remains a pragmatist about the here and now, too.

In my last email question, I asked Gelsinger: “Which would be a better outcome? That the Valley would lead instead of lag the nation in philanthropy? Or that the tech elite in the Valley would be more overt in their disciple making, or least more open about their faith?”

“Of course the answer to this question would be—both!” Gelsinger replied. “However, if we had the most philanthropic area on earth but had made no progress in faith and attracting Christian believers, I’d have failed the Great Commission.”  

Always ready with a reference to scripture, Gelsinger sure enough had one here, pointing to the parable of the vineyard. In that story, Jesus says that no matter how late workers come to the vineyard, a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven, they will receive a reward equal to those who have been faithful and toiled the longest. This is an ultimate reality without ahistorical fortunes for founders, early stage investors, and CEOs like Gelsinger, who has talked about running into tax limitations due to the magnitude of his charitable giving.

Judge, of course, makes hay mocking billionaire scorekeeping in his version of Silicon Valley—a place where Gelsinger doesn’t fit, and likely doesn’t want to. The open question is where exactly he does fit in the real-life version of the world’s tech dream factory.

“The parable of the vine is clear,” Gelsinger wrote. “Eternal fruit is the only measure one of has of their work on this earth.”

Geoff Koch is a writer in Japan.  

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Author: Geoff Koch