Dilbert and the History of Redemption

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken February 9, 1997

Two things are missing from the Comics pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer these days. One is Gary Larson’s The Far Side, which is in a permanent state of retirement. The other is Scott Adams’ comic strip, Dilbert. In case you haven’t seen it, Dilbert is about life in corporate America. It is about the way the marketplace has a dehumanizing influence on our culture.

Adams has recently turned his comic strip into a best-selling book called The Dilbert Principle. The book advertises itself as “A Cubicle’s-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions” (San Francisco: Harper, 1996). Adams is well-qualified to write a “Cubicle’s Eye View” of almost anything, since he toiled behind a computer desk in a corporate cubicle for nearly a decade.

In the introduction to The Dilbert Principle, Adams asks, “Why Is Business So Absurd?” His answer is very simple: “People are idiots.” Especially people in management. Hence the Dilbert Principle, which runs as follows: “The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management” (Adams, p. 14).

In the world of Dilbert, people in management are not very clever. One comic strip depicts Dilbert’s boss coming out of his office and saying, “My laptop computer is locked up. Can you help?” Dilbert walks into his boss’s office, picks up his computer, flips it over and gently shakes it from side to side. “Remember,” he reminds his boss, “you have to hold it upside down and shake it to reboot.” As Dilbert walks away he says to a co-worker, “I wonder if he’ll ever realize we gave him an ‘Etch-A-Sketch’ ” (Adams, p. 11).

As soon as Adams began to write Dilbert and post it on the Internet, he started getting electronic mail from disgruntled employees all over the country. Most of them wrote to say, “That’s just like my company.” They also started sending Adams horror stories about conditions where they worked. One worker shared the following excerpt from a corporate memo:

This change will allow us to better leverage our talent base in an area where developmental roles are under way and strategically focuses us toward the upcoming Business System transition where Systems literacy and accuracy will be essential to maintain and to further improve service levels to our customer base going forward (Adams, p. 49).

Huh?!? The employees crossed out all the unnecessary words in that memo and shortened it to this: “This change will improve service to our customers.”

Another worker wrote about how demoralized he was after his… company decided that instead of raises it [would] give bonuses if five of seven company goals are met. At the end of the year the employees [were] informed that they [had] met only four of seven goals, so no bonuses. One of the goals they missed was “employee morale” (Adams, p. 2).

No kidding.

Part of Dilbert’s point is that working in corporate America can be a humiliating experience. That is not what God intended work to be like. The Bible teaches that work is a gift from God. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden he gave them jobs to do: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). God told human beings to raise families and to exercise loving dominion over the world he had made. Work itself is a gift rather than a curse.

But work has become cursed. After Adam sinned God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” (Gen. 3:17b, 19a). That curse is not just for farmers, it is for everyone who works. The reason work sometimes seems like slavery is because we are in bondage to sin. The problem is not that “we’re all idiots,” as Dilbert says, but that we are all sinners, including the people we work with.

The biblical writer who would appreciate Dilbert the most is the writer of Ecclesiastes. He was the philosopher who wrote, What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief (2:22-23). He also saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind (4:4).

Ecclesiastes sounds a lot like Dilbert, only not quite so funny. And rightly so. There is nothing funny about God’s curse on our work. Every one of us has experienced it. Some have been cursed with working to find work. Some have been cursed with jobs that are boring, others with jobs that are mentally, emotionally or physically exhausting. Still others have been cursed with work that does not match their skills and interests, or with unreasonable bosses or nasty co-workers. Even the best jobs sometimes bring weariness and discouragement.

Dilbert’s answer to these curses is to make light of work. The Dilbert Principle is partly a survival manual, full of humorous tips on how to pretend to work, disparage co-workers, steal office supplies, get other people to do your work and take credit for their accomplishments.

The Bible offers something better than laughter for redeeming the curse of work. It reminds us that work is one of the first gifts God gave us. It teaches us not to work for money or for pride, but for the glory of God (Col. 3:23). Best of all, the Bible introduces us to a Savior who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

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