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. Huat Liaw

    Rember, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.", if the God exists you have to be very carefull, you all think it is a joke!!!!!

    October 26, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Chicken Flippers

      Ummmmm, what? Sounds like someone got up on the wrong side of the bed.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  2. Doubter


    October 26, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  3. TK

    "Where is he right now?" is a better question to ask

    October 26, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  4. CM

    I just like him becos he was willing to publicly admit that psychedelic drug use played a positive role in his creativity and success and vision. Maybe if we legalized some of those Americans would start innovating again.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  5. John Luma, Moorpark CA

    I think we are, but I think it's necessary. We know he's a flawed saint, but worthy of admiration for his accomplishments, his wisdom, courage, work-ethic - but not his personality. America needs success stories and, unfortunately, the media don't remind us often enough that success stories are all around us. Jobs success just happened to be unique and extraordinary.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • News Flash

      There is no such thing as a "non-flawed" saint.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  6. Jacques

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


    October 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  7. Matt

    Saint? No. But I did read this on my MacBookPro..

    October 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm |

    I don't remember any one turning Edison into a saint ,as far as I'm concerned he did a lot more to further humanity than Steve Jobs ever did.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  9. foreman

    Steve Jobs was a great inventor but now he is dead. Leave him and his family in peace.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  10. Chris

    Give it 10 years when someone comes up with something better and the young folks will ask...whose Steve Jobs?

    October 26, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  11. Dollie

    I think some are trying to make Steve Jobs a saint. He was a very smart man, he seemed to be an elitist. If you were not as smart as he thought he was, you didn't matter. I think he got too much praise in life and much too much in death. It seems Americans always need a hero. There were other creators on his team, he didn't do it alone.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • David1958

      Humans have been 'deifying' other human beings for thousands of years. Steve Jobs, and the Church of Apple, are a great example.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  12. Monti

    With all the jobs he sends over seas, he sould have changed his name to Steve No Jobs and after he died this name would still be correct.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  13. Enema Bandit

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

    Answer: Who are "we"

    P.S. I hate Apple products. I am a PC

    October 26, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  14. ajk68

    Steve Jobs is not a saint. He was the messiah of consumerism. This was not his choice, but is the way he is viewed by society.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • News Flash

      Or the way YOU see him.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  15. Diana

    You have got to be the dumest person on earth.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Dot44

      It's spelled "dumbest". HA ! Go figure.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  16. chrisg

    Of course he is not a saint. how silly. But he was the PUSH behind the fantastic Apple products we have today.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  17. Dot44

    He is not a saint. He is a God. Deal with the fact that Gods don't pat everyone on the head and kiss babies. Read the Old Testament...God wasn't exactly a Saint either.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Chicken Flippers

      Ummmm, what?

      October 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • David1958

      I have read the Hebrew scriptures (new testament) many times. First, the word 'Saint', appears nowhere in the Bible. Its a term created by the Catholic Church, along with 'Nun', 'Pope', etc., and many 'unscriptual' concepts. Second, what exactly are you talking about when you say, 'God wasnt exactly a saint either?' Just curious.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Biff

      NO, he was not. He's dead. Very human and very dead. Try and get acquainted with the real God, Jesus Christ.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • News Flash

      David 1958
      Um, ..... the "Hebrew" scriptures are the Old Testament.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  18. Diana

    Yes he created a few good things but those thing are too freaking expensive and in no way they make my life better. He didn't invent the cellphone and smartphone should be re-named, dumbphone for those who pay all that money for the phone and those crazy high monthly phone bills. All in all Steve Jobs only helped apple shareholders. They send lots of jobs overseas to make their chit, and then then bring it back to the US and sell it at prices most people cannot afford. I am sad a human being lost their life especially so young but I could care less about his guy otherwise.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  19. Bob

    Just when I think I know how powerful the media world is I get proven wrong. I can’t say that I am the most in touch person with what’s really going on in the world. But what I do know, is that when credit is due for those who are responsible for large leaps in our society, the media will be very unclear as to what or who is responsible unless they that can cash in on it somehow. For example the Name Dennis Ritchie may not mean much to most of the people that read this, but if the media companies had stock in the company he worked for, maybe you and many others would have heard of him. Dennis Ritchie was creator of the C programming language and co-creator of the UNIX operating system. For those of you not familiar with the C programming language it was the corner stone in the programming language world. Without C most of what you see today on any computer, like reading this online and even using any program would not be possible without it.

    I guess my real gripe here is that it’s so amazing that the media hold Steve Jobs so far above other figures in our society that have made such big changes to world, that it would be impossible to conduct business just plane live life the way we do today. I am by no means saying that Steve jobs was not a great man, he did help create some of the most relevant parts of our technologic age. But if I had to sum it up it, Steve Job Helped create the computer but people like Dennis Ritchie made it possible for people use them.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  20. tkessler45

    I always thought "S. Jobs" stood for Saint Jobs...

    October 26, 2011 at 12:34 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.