One of the hottest shows in years ended recently at the Noël Coward Theatre in London’s West End. Playwright Lucy Prebble’s production, entitled simply, “ENRON,” charted the rise and fall of that energy giant, which prior to its spectacular collapse on December 2, 2001, was America’s seventh largest corporation.
The theoretician of ENRON’s chimerical success was one Jeffrey Skilling, who received a 24-year prison sentence on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy. Skilling remained defiant to the end, in spite of having effectively ruined the lives of more than 20,000 of its staff through the loss of $1.2 billion in pensions and investments.
What was Skilling’s business philosophy? It had a number of elements, the first of which was Skilling’s antagonism toward government intervention in the economic sphere -- so as to leave the field entirely open to his own brand of uncontrolled investment. ENRON was successful in getting the federal government to allow the deregulation of electricity. When California deregulated, for instance, ENRON caused appalling electrical power shortages in the State, thereby effectively blackmailing California into electric bills which rose by as much as 400%.
Secondly, Skilling shifted the focus from tangible assets (pipe and cable) to the brokerage of energy through the creation of a stock market for electricity and natural gas. This destabilization was accompanied by the realization of immediate profits on future activity -- which created a smoke and mirrors operation. When debits rose, Skilling’s CEO (who would later confess all and receive a considerably lighter sentence) came up with the idea of creating “special purpose entities” (in effect, sub-companies) for hiding ENRON’s debt under the guise of assets.
In the play, Skilling justifies all this on Darwinian principle, specifically citing atheist Richard Dawkins’ notion of the “selfish gene.” He also argues that since the value of a company’s stock is really based on the faith of the investment community in its intangible worth, this is comparable to religious faith -- belief in the unseen.
One can of course draw lower-level lessons from ENRON’s collapse and that of its famed accountancy firm Arthur Andersen. For example: blame-shifting writ large -- no-one willing to take responsibility (the lawyers blaming the accountants, the accountants blaming the directors, and the directors blaming everyone else; cf. Genesis 3:12-13). Another is the outworking of a classical Greek tragedy, eliciting pity and fear (Aristotle’s Poetics), since this could happen to each of us as well. But let me suggest an even more compelling lesson: that what one believes will inexorably impact what one does.
In the film, All the King’s Men (1949), based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel, the leading character, a thinly disguised, young and idealistic Huey Long, lets the end justify the means to become governor. Over time, his philosophy of selfish compromise causes him to forget his youthful ideals entirely. In ENRON, an atheistic belief in infinite human possibility leads to immense hurt. Dawkins’ “selfish gene” reminds us of Ayn Rand -- or of Robert J. Ringer’s 1978 book, Looking Out for Number One. When absolute moral standards are regarded as nonsense, and the egotistic individual is all that matters, as Skilling maintains in the play, chaos and destruction are just a matter of time, no matter how glitzy the present situation may appear.
What about Skilling’s conviction that business success, as reflected in the stock market, is like religion -- in the sense that both are founded not on tangible reality but on perceptions of worth? This is not a bad characterization of non-Christian faiths and the cults, but it certainly does not apply to historic Christianity. Genuine Christians don’t have faith in faith (“the magic of believing”) but faith in what God has concretely revealed. The Christian gospel is founded on reality itself: the demonstrable fact that God revealed himself in history, through the events and prophets of the Old Testament, and principally through the salvific work of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by way of his incarnation, atoning death, and physical resurrection. Believing does not create reality; it makes the benefits of reality available to the believer.
The ENRON messes of this world -- including, more recently, the staggering Ponzi schemes of Bernard Madoff -- arise, not from an economic extension of biblical faith, but from the loss of it. (Madoff, allegedly a Jewish believer, first conned his fellow Jews out of their millions -- “to the Jew first, then also to the Greek.”) Christian faith, with its justifiable belief in moral absolutes and its demonstrable gospel that one is saved not by self-aggrandizement but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, stands as the only effective counter to endemic ENRON-ism.
Be very careful what you believe. The consequences extend even beyond earthly economics: they impact eternity.
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One of contemporary Christianity’s leading apologetics experts, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery holds eleven earned degrees and has authored more than fifty books in four languages on the issues of human rights and biblical apologetics. Read full bio.