Short Takes: Are we turning Steve Jobs into a saint?
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, who died this month, was published this week.
October 26th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Short Takes: Are we turning Steve Jobs into a saint?

CNN asked four experts on religion and technology to weigh in on whether former Apple chief Steve Jobs is achieving a kind of secular sainthood. Here are their responses:

Steve Jobs for Sainthood? Absolutely.

Gary M. Laderman is chairman of Emory University’s religion department, director of the online magazine Religion Dispatches and author of "Sacred Matters."

The face. The face is everywhere now.

Steve Jobs the man is dead. But Steve Jobs the myth is only growing in stature and will only continue to grow as a cultural point of reference as an inspiring model for aspiring entrepreneurs, as a compelling success story with perplexing moral commitments and as an appealing icon whose life, death and products will, for many, cross over the line from profane to sacred.

In a USA Today review of Walter Isaacson’s new book, "Steve Jobs," the author rightly suggests that no Silicon Valley figure has attained the “mythical status” of Jobs and notes his “almost messianic zeal” for work.

Why the religious language to characterize his life and death? How does a mere mortal transform into a superhuman, glorified cultural hero?

Jobs has been the object of numerous memorials, and tributes - more than a million - are being posted on Apple’s “Remembering Steve” webpage, with condolences as well as testimonials about how Jobs and his products have touched and indeed transformed the lives of countless individuals.

Make no mistake about it, the veneration we are seeing in the aftermath of Jobs’ death is religious through and through - not “kinda” religious, or “pseudo” religious,” or “mistakenly” religious, but a genuine expression for many of heartfelt sacred sentiments of loss and glorification.

It is not tied to any institution like a church or to any discrete tradition like Buddhism; it is, instead, tied to a religious culture that will only grow in significance and influence in the years ahead: the cult of celebrity.

As more and more people move away from conventional religions and identify as “nones” (those who choose to claim “no religion” in polls and surveys), celebrity worship and other cultural forms of sacred commitment and meaning will assume an even greater market share of the spiritual marketplace.

In life Jobs may have been something of an enigma who maintained his privacy and generally stayed out of the public limelight. In death, Jobs now is an immortal celebrity whose life story, incredible wealth, familiar visage, and igadgets will serve as touchstones for many searching for meaningful gods and modes of transcendence.

It has been said that death is the great equalizer - rich and poor, successes and failures, the powerful and the disempowered cannot escape the one inevitable fact of human existence.

Jobs and other celebrities cannot escape this reality, but unlike you and me, they live on in the memories of fans and followers and become guiding lights in the mundane darkness of our ordinary lives.

Reassessing Jobs' elevation to sainthood

James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and author of "My Life with the Saints" and "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Religious Life."

Asking if we have turned Steve Jobs into a saint is different from asking if he was a saint. The first question turns on how society sees the digital-age genius. That’s a question of perception.

The second turns on how Mr. Jobs lived his life. That’s more a question of reality. The first is easy to answer; the second less so.

So onto the easy answer: Yes, we have turned Steve Jobs into a saint, in the same way that we often project qualities of holiness onto any celebrity with whom we felt affection.

The reactions to his death, which both surprised and moved me, mirrored the ways that many respond to the passing of those revered as “living saints,” like Mother Teresa.

But it wasn’t hard to see why people reacted with displays of quasi-religious affection, like leaving handwritten messages at Apple stores, offering heartfelt tributes on Twitter and posting worshipful photos on Facebook.

After all, he had several things in common with the saints. Steve Jobs was - and obituary writers seemed obliged to use the word - a visionary. (The word originally described the mystics, who were literal visionaries.)

Jobs was the object of a “cult,” in the classic Christian sense: someone who evokes great devotion and whose words and actions are anticipated, catalogued and scrutinized.

Like the saints, he was both worldly (manifestly human in his foibles) and otherworldly (particularly in his protean creativity). He gave us something we didn’t know we needed. He was mysterious.

Finally, Mr. Jobs was, as his now-famous Stanford commencement speech shows, a spiritual man in his own way.

Yet there is a key difference between the saints and Mr. Jobs that we may overlook. For all of his talents, Mr. Jobs did not seem to be - to put this as charitably as possible - the kindest man in the world, which is something of a requirement for a real saint.

Walter Isaacson’s new biography, "Steve Jobs," is chock full of incidents of its subject’s less-than-charitable behavior. And even though the saints didn’t always act lovingly, that is a rock-bottom requirement for a saint: kindness.

So here’s a third question: Is it accurate to speak of Steve Jobs as a saint? Probably not.

There are many other worthy, albeit lesser known, people who have not only accomplished great things but also have done them without, as a New York Times column said of Mr. Jobs, “incorrigible bullying, belittling and lying.”

People who were both creative and kind. Successful and charitable. Hard-working and forgiving.

Perhaps Mr. Jobs is, as all those editorial cartoons have depicted, in heaven showing St. Peter how to use an iPad. I hope so.

But a saint? To answer that question let’s begin not with how successful a person was, or even how much they changed the world, but how much they loved. Even if you spend more time with iPods than icons, “saint” isn’t a word to be thrown around lightly.

How Jobs' sainthood was derailed

Leander Kahney is editor and publisher of CultofMac.com, a news site that tracks Apple and the people who use its products.

Steve Jobs was quickly on his way to becoming canonized when a strange thing happened. Walter Isaacson's authorized biography hit bookstands.

Following his death earlier this month, the outpouring of grief for Jobs was huge and unprecedented. All over the world, people felt a keen sense of loss. Not since Michael Jackson has there been such an outpouring of public grief. And it's never before been lavished on the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation.

But Jobs was no mere business leader. He was a cultural figure of the highest order. He was an artist whose medium was business and technology.

He crafted superb products that had great impact on our lives, His products, or copies of his products, have become near universal in the West. We all have computers, iPods and iPhones. They are indispensable - at work and play. They are well crafted. Before the iPhone, people hated their cell phones.

The story of Jobs' life also touched many people. He was an adoptee, a college dropout who enjoyed great success but also battled near-devastating setbacks and failures. He became an inspiration to lots of different people, from aspiring entrepreneurs to transplant patients.

He's a good candidate for a saint. There was something otherworldly about him. He clearly wasn't like the rest of us.

His severe aestheticism, his stern, intimidating self-assurance, his complexity: He was a Buddhist anti-materialist who made the world's most desirable products. A leftist multibillionaire who loved Bob Dylan but off-shored production to China. An elitist loner whose stated ambition was to democratize complex technology and make it easy enough for any bozo to use.

He was cut short in his prime. He was just getting started really. For most of his career, Jobs was regarded with skepticism or disdain. The business press regarded him as a mercurial madman who was good at marketing and got lucky with the iPod.

But when the iPhone took off, and Apple became the most valuable company in the world, he was suddenly lionized as the world's greatest CEO.

There was always the problem of his horrible reputation as a manager, of course. Everyone knew about the legendary tantrums, the outburst, insults and humiliations. That often got swept under the rug. It was just Steve being Steve.

Quirks, oddities, the price paid to put a dent in the universe. No one seemed to mention his lack of philanthropy, or the Chinese sweatshops that made his products.

And Isaacson's biography shows that Jobs' mean streak is much worse than we ever suspected. On page after page, the book details just how mean he could be. It's actually exhausting and more than a little bit depressing reading about the incessant torrent of outbursts and humiliations heaped upon his hapless colleagues - even the ones he liked.

The initial reaction is one of muted shock - people aren't liking what they're reading. Headlines like "Jobs the Jerk" aren't helping the canonization process.

But it's early days. The book has been out only a few days. Jobs' life and career were marked by bouncing back. Perhaps his reputation will outlive his own biography after all.

Steve Jobs was a saint. At least partly.

Gerardo Marti is L. Richardson King Association Professor of Sociology at Davidson College and author of "Worship across the Racial Divide" and "Hollywood Faith."

The passing of Steve Jobs provoked an outpouring of appreciation for a man who, frankly, most people did not really know.

Admiring his company, his design, and the devices he promoted, mass sympathy gave way to an idealization of the person behind the products. The recent accumulation of reams of Post-it Notes on retail Apple Store windows is one of many testaments to his status as a fetishized icon.

Should we be idolizing this assuredly genius entrepreneur?

Let's be honest. Steve Jobs was no saint, that much is clear. Every day we know more about his character, most recently through the startling revelations in the best-selling biography published by Walter Isaacson.

Jobs could be callous and cold. He rejected paternity of his first daughter. He refused many co-workers the riches of company stock options. He thought of himself as smarter than just about anyone else he
ever met.

If "saintliness" is measured by the virtues of extraordinary kindness, generosity or humility, Jobs fails the test.

However, "saintliness" in religious practice is less measured by a person's moral perfection than his or her ability to serve as a mediator between the ordinary and the transcendent.

In lived religious experience, a saint is not always admired as a righteous person to be imitated. But a saint is always trusted as a negotiator, a bridge-builder, an esoteric "middleman," who removes obstacles, facilitates progress and promotes blessing.

Fundamentally, a saint is an intermediary who makes the intangible accessible and more readily available.

Jobs had a single-minded vision for the varied media he designed, making complicated technology supremely accessible. He promoted his own genius while striving to bring out the genius of others.

In doing so, Jobs accomplished what few are able to do: connect with everyday lives, enrich people's aesthetics with evidence of beauty and offer tools for exercising personal gifts and talent.

Steve Jobs is certainly not a god-some otherworldly being who wrangles with intangible spirits in a largely unseen realm for justice or glory.

Instead, we see Jobs as an imperfect mortal who crafted software that stimulated our imagination alongside machines that motivated a seamlessness between ideas and objects, making the elusive tangible, decreasing the distance between ourselves and our ideals.

Jobs is being canonized to a secular sainthood as a flawed, charismatic visionary who transformed wires and plastic into sophisticated, supremely handy tools fitted alternatively to the demands and the dreams
of everyday life.

Yes, he altered the trajectories of whole industries, but for the ordinary worshipper, Jobs alleviated our frustrations while allowing us to go beyond them in cultivating words, objects and whole environments that give us fulfillment while productively transforming the world.

The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Technology

soundoff (848 Responses)
  1. Jyothi, St.Louis, MO

    A man who has gained the wisdom of humanly life can be considered as a Saint. Steve Jobs was a smart man and a very rare innovator. If not by birth, he attained the stage of wisdom probably after knowing about his birth and the biological parents and after learning about his death. That made him act and talk like a saint. Though nature gives similar opportunity for many people to attain sainthood, not everyone realizes it and accepts it. I admire Steve for taking the bold step of realizing the saint inside him.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Tim

      There are no saints. All of us are saints and sinners at various stages of our lives. You don't really know who Jobs was. He was an intensely personal man. But what amazes me more than anything about his passing is that he was a business connosieur... nothing more. Yet the front pages have been awash with him ever since he died several weeks ago. At the same time, Dennis Ritchie, who was a true genius and without whose contributions, Jobs may have never been known, also died recently. His death merited a small article in the obituary column. People, you need to take a good look at yourselves.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  2. PappaZ

    Wow. CNN and another Jobs story... Too bad he wasn't still alive so Obama could raise his taxes...

    October 26, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Paul

      moron, check the facts before you speak.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  3. BlackYowe

    The techy left may be making him a saint but the rest of us know he was just a disturbed dude who was good at his "Job", The majority of Americans don't own Apple they can't afford it. His biggest talent was marketing. How could anyone think he was a saint he was such a narcissist? I woke up to NPR going on about Steve Jobs yesterday and had to reach over and turn off the radio.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  4. mike

    I don't believe that he was or ever will be considered Saintly. His legacy will be more like the people he admired, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jim Henson, etc... Flawed or quirky individuals who made important and ever-lasting contributions to modern culture. There is a lack of archetypical hero's so we tend to endow too many modern day people with cult-like worship.
    That said, the only computer I have ever owned is a Mac but at work I was forced to use a PC I will always prefer the Mac.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Tony B.

      Oh. like "official saints" aren't flawed or quirky...

      October 26, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  5. Jimtanker

    That would be kind of stupid seeing as how he was an atheist.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  6. Mark

    I'm more thankful to Steve Jobs than I am to the Pope. The Pope enabled child molesters. So why shouldn't Jobs be elevated to saint if child molesters can be?

    October 26, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  7. GR1088

    Well, CNN needs to stop running damn articles about him.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  8. Dave

    CNN has been trying to make Jobs (and all things Apple) holy for years...

    October 26, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  9. Max

    those of us who 'really' knew him, know he was no saint. you don't get to the top by being nice.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  10. truthhurts

    He was obnoxious, greedy, arrogant and a fool. Saint? What a joke.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  11. John

    We should be in praise of Dennis Ritchie!!!! May he rest in peace....

    October 26, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  12. Tony B.

    Steve Jobs a saint? Why not... You make pedophile pimps saints, why not a computer guy?

    October 26, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  13. Really?

    No, he can't be a saint since the US is mostly made of right-wing christian nuts who do not believe in sainthood. So, he is probably just a prophet with really good tablets, pun intended.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  14. Bob Longo

    I will leave any decision about sainthood to more qualified authorities than myself. But I am qualified to speak of Steve's kindnesses to me and my family. Multiple times since I first met him in 1981, he volunteered his help during health-related crises. He did this on two occasions without any solicitation. I knew Steve as a very private but sensitive man. I also experienced him in is deserved role as one America's Toughest Bosses. Steve didn't strive for excellence but rather for perfection. It was difficult for us mere mortals to meet his high standards. Similar to sinners attempting sainthood, perfection was easier said than done. I was glad to discover that Steve struggled with his belief in God, I hope he reconciled this in the end. I do know that he treated his body like a temple. He was meticulous about his eating and I think influenced by his search for truth earlier in his life. Frankly, I find comments like Dr. Mart's as arrogant, in that he did not know the man, and foolishly selected some aspects of his life from a biography, in order to make a silly judgement. I have a relative who was beatified by Pope John Paul II who was a satanic priest while attending the University of Naples. I suspect that holy people like Blessed Bartolo, or Saint Augustine for that matter, are lucky the Church didn't consult some of these "experts" during the canonization process.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  15. Lor T

    Sheesh. DO we have to over analyze everything in the world? Let's accept he was an amazing innovator and perhaps one of the best in recent times. Congrats on his success through the contributions his innovations gave the world. Like all of us, he's a mixed bag with just as many fabulous attributes as flaws. Enjoy his autobiography or not. I'm intrigued by him and look forward to cracking open the book of his life. Now let's focus on more pressing issues, please.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  16. Desi Des

    It goes to prove that technology is what we live and breathe. I, personally, find that disturbing. Sorry about his illness, but people die every day. Hard working people at that. No one goes on for weeks talking about what great of person/hard worker they were. So, give it a rest. Thanks.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  17. thepotsareround

    Saint? I sure hope not. I do think that what he fought through with cancer was brave and all, but he is not to be idolized. I will be the first to admit I am FAR from perfect, but he was a horrible man. Not a huge fan of his in any way shape or form.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  18. gaucho420

    Not after reading the exerts from his biography! I actually lost a bit of respect for him!

    October 26, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  19. B-b

    Steve Jobs a saint? What baloney. You can't be serious. Steve Jobs is God.

    You must be a PC.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  20. iamajim

    I never liked the SOB in life and I don't want to hear more endless prattle about him now. RIP Steve, cancer sucks but...enough is enough.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Tony

      Good comment i thought i was the only one that felt that way.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.