Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Protestant Sparring (P.S. What the Hell is Water?)

Written by: on October 16, 2023

My copy of Max Weber’s book has a blurb on the back cover. It says “First published in 1905, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” is listed by the International Sociological Association as the fourth most important book of the 20th century.”

Personally, if this is true, then I would hate to read the other THREE!

Working through Weber was like an eating a piece of Melba Toast (with that god-awful MARMITE on it) that had been sitting out on the counter for a month, better yet, since 1905. Melba Toast is dry ALREADY. Time only makes it worse.

OK…I got that out of my system. Now, I proceed.

Most consider “The Protestant Ethic” to be a groundbreaking classic, with insights that still resonate today. At its core, Weber’s book explores how Protestantism, particularly Calvinism, played a pivotal role in the rise of modern capitalism. Weber’s thesis is the notion of the “Protestant work ethic.” He argues that certain Protestant beliefs, such as the idea that hard work, thriftiness, and self-discipline are signs of God’s favor. These work ethics played a pivotal role in shaping the capitalist spirit.

One hundred plus years later, others concur with many of Webers assessments regarding morality and the marketplace, all while continuing to modulate the discussion (ie: disagree and develop further thought).

Mark Valeri, in his book “Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America” provided readers a summary of his book in the opening line of the preface where he stated that, “This book explains how transformations in religious thought contributed to the creation of a market culture in early America.” Valeri asserts that “Weber’s thesis is complex enough to sustain various interpretations and applications…Nothing in this book amounts to a wholesale attack on Weber” (Valeri, 7). Yet Valeri goes on to say that “if this book serves as a corrective, then it is in part to critique this misuse of Weber [ie: how many historians have compressed Weber’s arguments into a single dictum: puritans were protocapitalists in their genes, by constitution), and complicate the narrative” (Valerie, 8). All this to say, there are mixed feelings regarding Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic” while also maintaining the ongoing importance of his influential thesis.

I observed some of these mixed feelings in reading the chapter on anxiety and assurance from Professor Clarks dissertation on  “Evangelicalism and Capitalism” (which was far from Melba toast it ought be clearly noted!). 😉

Clark alluded to a debates about Weber’s thesis as well as his method, and I concur. I found Weber to make suppositions that I didn’t feel he offered adequate method. I was struck by the number of times Clark mentioned something to the effect of “Weber has misinterpreted/misread…” (for example: Clark, 83, 95). I was particularly impressed by this calling out: “Not only is it incorrect to describe Calvin in terms of this dogma, but there were also many other groups, captured within Weber’s historical net, that did not hold to this doctrine, and were directly opposed to the anti-predestination theologies, and the anti-election doctrines of Arminianism. It would seem that “The Protestant Ethic” makes no account for this, and shows no understanding of it” (Clark, 93).

OK. Gloves are off.

It’s this kind of intellectual critique that seems to be prevalent within academic ranks regarding Webers work. Then again, most threshold concepts tend to take hits like this. They are the first over the wall. They are laying foundation for others to constructively build upon, modulating the learnings, presenting signposts for understanding yet-to-be articulated.

That’s why I can truthfully say: I didn’t particularly enjoy this weeks reading, and yet I was honestly tickled by the intellectual exchange that I continually witness, from Jason Clark, Mark Valeri, David Bebbington and Mark Noll, to name but a few. Even now as I tip my toes into Karl Polanyi, I sense another coming session of “Protestant Sparring.”

Sparring is defined as “the making of motions, as in boxing, without the landing of heavy blows; as a form of training.” It’s a respectful way of developing academic growth through pedagogy. The result is the betterment of the entire intellectual community, of which, and I say this with deep feelings of imposter syndrome:  I am a part of this community.

I am a Protestant Sparring Partner.

Time to lace up the gloves, and keep on training.


P.S. I read Weber, and wrote this blog post a few weeks ago, but a fresh interaction regarding this material took place just today [10.16.23]. I am with Tim Clark in Los Angeles, and he said to me something to the effect, “I’m sure you know John that the phrase ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ is really common and well known culturally.” I replied to Tim, “Actually, I had not heard the phrase until reading Weber.” Tim was shocked. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about the “Protestant Work Ethic” before reading Weber, especially since I grew up in the Midwest, specifically a small farming community in Wisconsin, which is full of hard working, church-going ‘Mericans. I was literally raised in the epicenter of the Protestant Work Ethic! Perhaps I am like David Foster Wallace’s story about a fish that encountered another fish while swimming around in the ocean. One fish asked the other, “How’s the water today?” The other replied bluntly:  “What [the hell] is water?”


Little did I know, I had been swimming in the “Midwest Waters” of the Protestant Work Ethic, and didn’t even realize it.




About the Author


John Fehlen

John Fehlen is currently the Lead Pastor of West Salem Foursquare Church. Prior to that he served at churches in Washington and California. A graduate of Life Pacific University in San Dimas, CA in Pastoral Ministry, and Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA with a Masters in Leadership and Spirituality. He and his wife Denise have four grown children and four grandchildren. John is the author of “Intentional Impressions," a book for fathers and their sons, "Don't Give Up: Encouragement for Weary Souls in Challenging Times," a book for pastoral leaders, and "The Way I See You," a children's book. You can connect with John on Instagram (@johnfehlen) as well as on his blog (johnfehlen.com).

9 responses to “Protestant Sparring (P.S. What the Hell is Water?)”

  1. mm Russell Chun says:

    Thanks John for your post. I am still wrestling with mine. Sparring = educational dissent/discussion. I like it. How does the protestant work ethic/connection to capitalism impact your church today?

    As a cultural side note: I wonder how Asians immigrating to the U.S. A. would consider the “protestant work ethic” within their experience. Like all immigrants seeking a better life. The idea of work was not unknown. Our borders are teaming with those seeking to find work.

    Maybe Weber strikes an intercultural thought about “work ethic” and Christians like Weber have templated it over their faith.

    Not sure how I am going to end up on that train of thought.


    • mm John Fehlen says:

      You asked, “How does the protestant work ethic/connection to capitalism impact your church today?”

      We are located in the capital city of Oregon, so it is a blue-collar, seat-of-government mid-size city. Lots of farming (traditional crops as well as lots of weed). Politically speaking, we are fairly split down the middle. I find in cities like Salem, Oregon they have a fair amount of folks that are hard-working, God-fearing. In our particular church we are the same: hard-working, God-fearing.

      I like these kinds of people, especially having lived most of my life in very small towns with salt of the earth folks.

      I’m interested in getting to your blog Russell, and seeing where you take it. I am grateful for your perspective!

  2. Travis Vaughn says:

    John, you referenced connecting with Tim C. about the book… I thought Tim did a great job summarizing it in his own words. Both of you guys had great posts for the week’s dense/complex reading of Weber.

    I get the comparisons Weber made to calling, work, assurance of salvation…to a degree…, but the way he got there and the way he worked out his thesis…well, that was like the Melba Toast reference you made. I thought Tim’s summary of Weber’s book was quite helpful. Dr. Clark’s honest and dispassionate engagement with Weber’s work was quite helpful, too. I read Clark’s chapter before engaging with Weber, and I’m glad I did.

    You quoted Clark: “Not only is it incorrect to describe Calvin in terms of this dogma…” As one in a Calvinist tradition (Presbyterian), I concur. I haven’t met many Calvinists who would equate material blessing with assurance of their salvation. But, like I mentioned replying to Tim’s post, I do see where many could be tempted to wrestle with doubt if their work (or business) fails. But I don’t think a Calvinist’s assurance of salvation would be located there. The failure of the business, especially if their identity was wrapped up in it, would probably make them question a great number of things.

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      On behalf of Tim (who is sitting about 8 feet away from me at this very moment), I say, thank you for the compliment you gave us regarding our posts. I especially found Tim’s summary to be helpful as well. Tim has a really good way (and I told him this to his face) of synthesizing complex information. Me, on the other hand, I try to deflect with a funny story or winsome anecdote, and hope no one catches on that I actually snuck into this graduate program as a part of a witness protection program!

      You mentioned that a “Calvinist’s assurance of salvation would not be located there.” In your opinion, where do you see it most “located?”

  3. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Hi John-

    Thanks for this post. I really appreciate the cross referencing you do with other authors. Your wrestling with the topic is helping me articulate my thoughts as well- signs of a good post!

    While I had heard of Protestant Work Ethic before, I really didn’t understand exactly what it meant or all the associations linked to it. I am not sure I do still, but I am getting closer. I am wonder- though you disagree with some of Weber’s assumptions (as do I), do you identify with the idea of there being a PWE? Do you recognize any of the 4 characteristics he pulls out (The Protestant Ethic, Asceticism, The Spirit of Capitalism and The Iron Cage)?

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      Oh, I wrestled with this post, alright! This book was a doozy, and I know I could have “inspectionally” read it, but I opted to read it from cover to cover, and don’t think I understand it any better than if I had skimmed it.

      Appreciate your kinds words about my, um, “good post.” 🙂

      I DO agree that there is a PWE. That agreement comes from the last few sentences of my blog in which I realized that I grew up in a small Midwest town of around 1000 people. I swam in those waters all my early life. After that I pastored in a small Norwegian farming town. In both these towns (too small to call a city) there could have been a sign at the entrance to the town center that said “Welcome to _________, Home of the Protestant Work Ethic.”

  4. mm Tim Clark says:


    I’ve read the THREE most important books of the 20th Century and they were MUCH better. 🙂

    I’m a fighter so I love your metaphor of boxing. Reading people disagreeing with one another is in my mind a great way to learn and grow. And for the record, my money is on Dr. Clark.

    Yet I also agree that ‘first one over’ gets a lot of hits. Often when we read seminal books (like Hero’s Journey or Failure of Nerve) we can find so many issues with it, but it’s because these ideas hadn’t been criticized and argued with so much because they were so new and revolutionary. Now we have the benefit of hindsight and more careful analysis.

    But sometimes (not always) I like reading the important primary works even if they are flawed. And I’d love to think that way, too.

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      My money is on Dr. Clark too.

      I’d be curious if you could name (not to test you, I’m actually curious) an “important primary work” that could be deemed as “flawed.” In your opinion, knowing that, like beauty, flaws are in the eye of the beholder.

  5. Adam Harris says:

    Ha, yes, It was some dense material to wade through. I appreciate the “gloves being off” as well. No ideas or interpretations in academic or theological circles should be off limits to consider or push against. I love that about this environment and I appreciated Dr. Clark’s push back, it shows he knew enough about it to call some things into question. I don’t think I’m fully getting it all enough yet to do that with Weber. He did make me think and consider some things that have never been on my radar, which I always appreciate!

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