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. IM

    Useless article.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  2. Good Stuff

    I'm pretty sure at least CNN thinks he's a saint, or at least they receive tons of bribe money from Apple to keep their products plastered all of the tech section. It was always funny to see four out of the six articles on the tech section of CNN's home page pertaining to Apple products. Other products got a short and sweet half a page article but not before being compared against an Apple product and criticised.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  3. This is Steve Jobs...

    ...writing to you from the afterlife. If you do not pray to me, erect large buildings in my honor, slay or convert non-believers, or if you Google on Fridays, you will surely rot in the bowels of Hell...where you must spend all day on a Windows NT machine....reading The Belief Blog.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  4. confused

    I'd certainly say he had a devout cult-like following, which I cannot fault him for. What I find interesting is that the people who are out occupying wall street and protesting against the richest 1% of the population are at the same time, the ones who are elevating this anti-philanthropic multi-billionaire as one of the greatest human beings of all time.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  5. LOL

    "Anyone who owns an Apple product should be ashamed of themselves." LOL , Those people should go check their every electronic device in their houses and report back where they're made of. I bet one that their PC/notebook that is being used to post the comments on here was made in China.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  6. Brian

    This is pseudo-intellectual garbage! I swear Apple has bought the main stream media!

    October 26, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  7. T3chsupport

    If he's a saint, what does that make Bill Gates, who's foundation and works have saved literally MILLIONS of lives?

    October 26, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  8. clay

    Oh dear God, how many people worship Steve Jobs? My Graphics design teacher drove our class insane the week he died. Steve Jobs was nothing special, he just had a bigger ego then any other CEO out there.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Jason K

      That's not true, he just had better PR, more money, and developed a smaller discless walkman that people really liked the design of. He perfectly catered to mindless hipsters that had to catch on to the craze. Hopefully Apple will fade back to its lackluster 1990s number soon.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  9. jgmcd

    A Saint???? Hardly. More like the leader of a cult. I also agree with the statement about building his personal wealth on the backs of Chinese labor.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  10. B-b

    Steve Jobs is God.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  11. Greg

    Steve Jobs was a brilliant innovator, but Apple was interested in quashing creativity and basically behaving like a jerk to anyone who didn't use apple products. So not a saint, and it's pathetic. Not saying he was a bad person, but not a saint.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  12. dave

    most RIDICULOUS article CNN has ever produced. I'm almost about to remove CNN from my bookmarked sites.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Just Sayin...

      'cause it's so hard to type all those letters c-n-n-...and then your browser auto-completes the rest pretty well.

      Oh, you're an IE6 user because it came with your PC. Sorry.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  13. jon

    For the technology age he was a saint. If it wasn't him and Gates the technology we have now would be science fictoin. We would be lucky to be cruising the internet with a 400mhz processor and 32mb of ram.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Joel

      Idiot, jobs and gates have NOTHING to do with processor advancement. lol

      October 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  14. Brian from St Charles MO

    Steve Jobs is a Saint. He has done more for our people than any other """Saint"" if you dont agree go pray for a better response. I beleive in Steve Job....

    October 26, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Chris R

      If you want a secular saint why not the guy who made all of this possible by creating the transistor? Why not the people who actually came up with the idea of GUI, folders, and mice? Why not the scientists and engineers that made Apple possible? Steve was the consummate showman and a fanatic (to the exclusion of his own humanity) in the pursuit of his vision. Does that make him a saint? Does the impact on our lives make him a saint? If so why not sanctify Henry Ford who radically changed the entire growth of America and the world? Why not sanctify Philo Farnsworth who brought us television? Why not sanctify Jon Postel who basically created the internet as we know it?

      October 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Jim

      What exactly has he done but given people a different device for surfing the web on demand?

      The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has worked very hard to make changes in impovershed areas of the world. Jobs gave yuppies toys.

      Oh, and he beat the system and went to TN to get around organ donor wait list restrictions. Forgot that.

      He made toys, nothing more.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  15. thenedster

    Man am I sick of Steve Jobs. Yes, he was an extremely smart and successful businessman.I love my ipad and iphone, sure. But I don't think he was a nice person, he was ruthless and at times not 100% honest. He was a typical greedy executive who only cared about making money. I love the story about how he used Steve Wozniak to make PONG then kept all the money except $500 for himself. Gross.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Brian from St Charles MO

      the church did worse is the olded times..business is a cruel world.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Dollie

      He was just a smart man, certainly not a saint. I hear he was ruthless and did not have much tolerance for people "beneath him".

      October 26, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  16. Jonathan

    You people are stupid

    October 26, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  17. rICK

    I consider Steve Jobs a slave owner who used the Foxconn factories in China to make his billions of dollars on the backs low paying "employee's". Anyone who owns an Apple product should be ashamed of themselves.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Brian from St Charles MO

      where do think the jeans u wear are made and by who... good luck in life shortbus..

      October 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  18. BellaTerra66

    Since CNN (and other news media) has dug up EVERY bit of dirt that CNN could find re Steve Jobs the person, I think for CNN to ask this question is hysterically funny - and sad. And, BTW, since the news media usually distracts us with some celebrity's life and/or death when the government is doing something it doesn't want us citizens to focus on (like the news media blitz re Michael Jackson's death as the government was planning on invading Iraq), I wonder what our government is up to now?

    October 26, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Chris R

      You make it sound like CNN is ruthlessly trying to destroy Jobs' character. The fact is that his *authorized* biography does that for them. No digging is needed – you just need to go to the bookstore (or Amazon and download it to your iPad) and read about who he was as *he* himself wanted the world to see him. The truth is that he wasn't a nice guy. He was, to be perfectly frank, a first class jackhole. Did he help create some wonderful things? Of course, but don't overlook who *he* was as a person when you idolize him.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • BellaTerra66

      What do you mean "sounds like"? I thought I was very clear. And I meant everything I wrote.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  19. What!!

    If you have the oportunity to read his authorized biography, you'll be concluding this article is nonsense, Jobs was very unrespectfull person, zero tolerance to people.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  20. keith

    he's far from being a saint.....considering how he took credit for other peoples work (Woz created the Apple computer that started the company – the iPhone, iPad and other hipster products from Apple were created by engineers are Apple, NOT by Steve Jobs)

    October 26, 2011 at 12:20 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.