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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 [1] 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 [3] 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 [4] and so obviously phony goal of “making the world a better place.” Judge told [5] 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 [6] 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 [7] 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.”

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 [11] 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 [12] 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 [13] 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.  

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Jesus is Coming …To Silicon Valley"

#1 Comment By William Dalton On December 7, 2017 @ 1:58 am

Perhaps it is because Geoff Koch “is a writer in Japan”, but, if one were going to write an essay about a man’s Christian faith, wouldn’t one of the first places one would go to learn about him and that faith be to talk with the members of his church? Maybe that question is answered in the books Gelsinger has written, but from this article it would be difficult to tell if he even belongs to one.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 7, 2017 @ 6:29 am

Will VMWare bounce its CEO now the same as Mozilla did, for being revealed as openly Christian?

#3 Comment By Rhys On December 7, 2017 @ 8:53 am

Are these guys part of a faith community? My personal views are similar to theirs, and I too work in the tech industry. But I stopped attending church a few years back. I came to question the extent to which the broader evangelical movement was actually committed to the Gospel, as opposed to promoting the narrow political interests of middle-class whites in the US. The conversations occurring at my PCA church on Sunday morning sounded more like an extension of Fox & Friends than anything particularly Christian. I still meet informally with some Christian friends, who also stopped attending church. Several of us joined a running club, and now reserve Sunday mornings for long training runs. And when I look at where the evangelical movement has gone since my departure—in throwing its weight behind Trump and promoting the candidacy of pro-life pedophile in the Alabama race for Senate—I’m persuaded that I made the correct decision in leaving institutional evangelicalism behind.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 7, 2017 @ 10:43 am

“And when I look at where the evangelical movement has gone since my departure—in throwing its weight behind Trump and promoting the candidacy of pro-life pedophile in the Alabama race for Senate—I’m persuaded that I made the correct decision in leaving institutional evangelicalism behind.”

The pressure to conform politically when the conformity has little to do with faith and practice is tough.

But neither is embracing accusations minus a fair hearing. There is a scriptural process that is easily missed when considering issues through the lens of the media.

I am not defending child abuse. Nor am I uniquely defending Judge Moore. But I am in defense of the christian process of how such matters are to be addressed – as per the New Testament.

#5 Comment By MACKERAL On December 7, 2017 @ 11:59 am

Christianity is borderline illegal in N. California – more or less true. While serving on a major finance committee we only had Jewish religious holidays to avoid for meetings – not Christian nor Muslim nor other. These dates were predetermined for the committee. Out of deep and abiding respect, no one raised the separation of religion and state issue. Maybe we should?

#6 Comment By Youknowho On December 7, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

How does Geisinger faith translate in teh workplace? There are some egregious cases of labor abuses in the area.

[14]

What is Geisinger’s attitude about it? Does he participate or does he fight against it?

On the answer depends on my evaluation of how true his faith is.

#7 Comment By One Guy On December 7, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

To believe that “Christianity is borderline illegal in Northern California” is insanity. I live here. I’m a Christian. I haven’t been borderline arrested. Neither have I seen or heard of anyone else being “borderline” arrested, whatever “borderline” means.

Stop with the histrionics.

#8 Comment By Mia On December 7, 2017 @ 9:59 pm

“But neither is embracing accusations minus a fair hearing. There is a scriptural process that is easily missed when considering issues through the lens of the media.”

Okay, I’ll play along. I keep seeing things like this posted on the threads regarding Moore, so since we’ve suddenly become very concerned about due process, which is ridiculous when you consider how wealthy and politically powerful many of these abusers are, that they’ll never be punished and never see the inside of a courtroom no matter how guilty they are, and women who have been harassed have gone years unemployed as a result of not going along with harassment and other consequences with no due process either.

Are you okay with that due process that didn’t happen for those women over the years? How about Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown? Do you worry about due process being denied to them as the press prosecuted the cases? My point is that we play a lot of games with this stuff and are very selective about how we apply them. But now that people want to justify supporting Moore, it’s suddenly a big concern when it wasn’t for, say, Eric Garner.

#9 Comment By Joe M On December 8, 2017 @ 12:02 am

What percentage of Americans participate in Twitter?

#10 Comment By Brad Cooper On December 10, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

Thanks, Geoff, good article. For some of the other commenters, yes, definitely encourage you to read Pat’s book, you can also find many other interviews on his faith background.

You may also want to hear my interview with him on our podcast (episode #4) where some of your other questions might be answered.

He’s the real deal and, as this article points out, a bit of a rarity in Silicon Valley. This is not about his (or anyone’s) politics, but rather about the intersection of faith and tech.

He’s not completely alone, some Christian tech execs are not outspoken about faith (yet), but also encourage you to listen to our interview with Mark McClain (#9) and one we have coming 12/11 with a CEO of another Silicon Valley tech company (#13).

I also lived and worked for a decade in Silicon Valley and 20+ years in tech and, while I wouldn’t have been arrested, I would say that it seems to me that tech’s celebration of diversity sometimes seems to leave out celebrating diversity of faith and religion.

#11 Comment By Geoff Koch On December 10, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

“…ut, if one were going to write an essay about a man’s Christian faith, wouldn’t one of the first places one would go to learn about him and that faith be to talk with the members of his church?”

A good point. Would have loved to do so. It’s in part the whole economic reality of freelancing of course. Mostly I was trying to get at the idea of what’s going on in tech culture regarding attitudes about Christians, not necessarily specifically focus on Pat. By the way there is much out there about his own faith journey, in his books and several talks on YouTube.

Re: labor in the Valley, I hadn’t heard of the investigation Youknowwho mentions. I think generally tech is the most egalitarian and diverse of all major industries — and there is still miles/decades to go as it’s made up of humans who fail regularly and spectacularly to be decent as we all do.

No histrionics in that “illegal” statement either. It’s a quote from Erlich Bachman after all. It was funny to me because it had the air of truthiness around it. I know there are lots of churches there that are full and thriving; there’s been good reporting on that. But broadly speaking, again based on data, there is no denying that it’s a fairly areligious place. Again, rich, influential, miserly, pagans… there is data behind each of those adjectives.

Put a longer version of the piece up here with some additional voices if there is any interest: [15].

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 11, 2017 @ 4:51 pm

I have a much longer response, but here is the short version.

In response to your press — I am not inclined to abandon due process for any US citizen.

But everyone in circumstance must decide whether to pursue a wrong. That does not mean by definition that their due process rights have been violated in either direction.

Only a rendering of what occurred can accomplish that – and even then as we have seen it’s hard to guarantee fairness, even when due process is applied.

When considering a case against public figures, I think few serve as warnings as those of Charlie Chaplin and more so — the case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuncle.

And in my view, christians are required a heavier burden to address fairplay. It is not as if Christ said the woman caught in adultery was innocent of the behavior — but he demanded a very high standard of fair play a jury not of her peers.

Women should be heard — whether or not that means a conclusion of truth to what they are saying is another matter.