In a trenchant article that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1998, the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox argued that the God of contemporary culture was The Market. Think about it, wrote Professor Cox: The Market moves in mysterious ways, it is believed to be omniscient, it boasts its own caste of priests who alone understand its workings, and, ultimately, it will bring about goodness and happiness for all. But if The Market is God, then who are its saints?
Surely at the top of this litany of saints is Jack Welch, whose new book, Jack: Straight From the Gut (Warner Books), is currently the nation’s bestselling nonfiction book. And with his recent retirement and the release of his memoir (whose advance one publisher called papal level), we are witnessing the canonization of the former C.E.O. of General Electric. Indeed, all one has to do is read any recent newspaper or magazine article about St. Jack of Fairfield to see how closely the telling of his story mirrors the telling of the classic stories of the saints.
Hagiographies frequently speak of the saint’s beginnings in an obscure situationbut one where, even there, the saint demonstrates remarkable holiness. St. Augustine begins his life in the backwater town of Tagaste, in Northern Africa, where his mother, Monica, realizes early on that he is destined to serve God. During her girlhood in poverty-stricken Domrémy, Joan of Arc is given to amazing visions and voices. Likewise, profiles about Jack of Fairfield invariably stress his humble beginnings in a working-class family, his surmounting of early difficulties (e.g., a persistent stammer, his short stature), and the launch of his career at G.E. Plastics in a backwater town called Pittsfield, Mass. Like Augustine, who would eventually dominate the Christian world, St. Jack labors in Pittsfield, far away from the Rome of Wall Street, which he will come to dominate.
The young saint, however, because of his heroic virtues, quickly rises to the top of the religious or secular world. Augustine was so readily recognized as a leader in his hometown that the townsfolk ordained him priest by acclamation. Joan of Arc moved swiftly from illiterate girl to trusted commander of the Dauphin’s army. Jack, too, is catapulted from G.E. Plastics into higher and higher positions of leadership, until assuming the mantle of C.E.O. at, we are reminded, the precocious age of 45.
Because of his great holiness, even the saint’s flaws are treated gently by biographers, as a way of humanizing him for followers. St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into the Latin Vulgate, had a personality that could only be described as nasty. But no, hagiographers aver, he was just tough-minded. The business press describes Jack Welch as, variously, hotheaded, short-tempered and impatient. Like Jerome, he has a sharp tongue. St. Jerome called his detractors two-legged asses; St. Jack terms them brain-dead idiots (The New York Times 9/6). But followers declare these weaknesses to be hidden strengths: Jack’s legendary impatience helped G.E. to surge ahead of competitors; his famous temper whipped lazy executives into shape; indeed, all of these faults miraculously worked to strengthen G.E. and, as a result, the worldwide economy. O felix culpa!
In many cases the saint is a font of eminently quotable quotes, treasured by hagiographers. In these sayings are embedded hard-won wisdom. Find God in all things, says St. Ignatius of Loyola. All will be well, says Julian of Norwich. Lean and mean, says St. Jack of Fairfield; Fix it, close it or sell it. Happily, Jack’s new memoir will enable his acolytes to follow his example in all things business, and to witness how providence (coupled with his natural talents, since grace builds on nature) led him to accomplish his miraculous work at G.E. Jack: Straight From the Gut is for his followers comparable to, say, Augustine’s Confessions or Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. Here, believer and skeptic alike will draw inspiration from St. Jack’s agony in the garden of Kidder Peabody, though not, one suspects, from his dark night of Honeywell.
Sometimes the saint must make hard decisions and do things that to the unbeliever seem unduly harsh. Francis of Assisi, seeing his monks building a house that the saint considered a violation of their vow of poverty, tore it down himself. Likewise, Jack of Fairfield saw a house of bloated bureaucracy at G.E., and tore it down: laying off tens of thousands of longtime employees in the process. (In his memoir he reports that one of his chief regrets was not laying off more employees.) But, say hagiographers, we cannot judge the past by the standards of today. Surely the saint had the best of intentions. Francis knew what was best for his monks, and had you been C.E.O. of G.E. at the time, would you not have gone and done likewise?
And, of course, there are the miracles. Here is where St. Jack towers over other holy men and women. What is Francis of Assisi’s ability to converse with birds, next to a 2,786 percent increase in share prices since 1981? Joan of Arc was able to pick out the true Dauphin from an enormous crowd of people, though she had never before seen him. Jack, the business press reminds us, was able to discern the economic future and led G.E. into the Internet Age. Padre Pio, it is said, could bilocate. But did he ever acquire NBC?
As the saint’s passing (or retirement) approaches, worries arise about how the organization will endure. St. Francis died leaving his monks confused about exactly what Franciscan meant. Many feared for the Missionaries of Charity after the death of Mother Teresa. Whither the House That Jack Built, asked a worried New York Times (9/6) headline; His Successor Faces Skeptics. But such fears are unfounded, for the saint prays for the success of his followers from afar. St. Jack, too, will be there to help. The press reports that he has been given a hefty stipend to serve as a consultant for G.E.
The media’s canonization of Jack Welch is not surprising, nor is the success of his new book. Over the years, St. Jack has been painted by the business media as an icon of all that is holy for The Market: intelligence, hard work, energy, as well as ruthlessness, greed, self-interest and the belief that money and power are the prime, if not only, markers of success.
Pray for us, indeed.