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. If I had a penny for every stupid Republican I'd be rich!

    No matter how hard one tries it is not possible to make Jobs a saint.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Tony Montana

      But when you become rich, you'll be a Republican.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  2. evermore

    if you seriously have to ask this question

    then the answer is already yes....

    October 26, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  3. brett

    Can people stop talking about this guy. He's dead!!! People are so ridiculous and so is Apple.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • brett

      My opinion is that Jobs and Gates are both hippies that had a lot of luck on their side.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  4. Big Shaft

    Seymour Cray should be nominated for sainthood. Honorable mention for Dennis Ritchie as well.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  5. Joaquin

    I think the mass media is canonizing Jobs. It is not the people, but the media that should be blamed. Jobs was a successful person but do not confuse genius and success with being a saint.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • JBC

      You are 100% correct. He was a successful thief.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Joaquin

      It isn't stealing if people buy the product.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • zeke2112

      It IS stealing if you take someone else's technology and sell it as your own. That's why we have patent laws, genius.

      Go look up the LG Prada and see where Jobs got most of his "inspiration."

      October 26, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  6. JBC

    A saint?? I dont know, lets ask his daughter that he ignored for years.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • zeke2112

      Or the companies from which he stole technology. LG Prada, anyone?

      October 26, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • brad-ash

      Its obvious he wasn't a Saint, but do you work for LG or something Zeke? If LG had such a great phone, why didn't it sell like iPhone? All technology is built on other technology...nothing is that unique. I give him credit for Apple's success, but personally was he someone who gave a lot to others (not just monetarily)? The ones that knew him best can judge.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  7. BS

    What's ironic is that Steve Jobs ran a company that epitomizes the "evil" corporation that everyone loves to hate. And yet everyone loves him and loves Apple. Apple makes insanely high after tax profit margins of about 25% (about 3-4x higher than big oil), and they sell people products that are both expensive and designed to fail or become obselete within a couple of years. Apple is the perfect example of why the rich get richer and the poor and middle class get poorer. Because the poor and middle class keep giving their hard earned money away rather than actually saving a little.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  8. Hecate

    I think Jobs made people feel safe, because they could take refuge in gadgets and forget about refining other qualities necessary for civilized life, like compassion and empathy. And isn't that the most problematic thing about modern living? We all seem to value cleverness over compassion and stocks over sympathy. Recently, a baby girl in China was left in her own pool of blood on the street in China as passersby walked on, probably looking at their iPhones. That is the opposite of saintly and something we should be concerned about, if we are on the side of life and love at all, religious or not.

    Here is a link describing the China incident. It has too much of a Christian emphasis for my taste, but the lesson and the warning are still there. We need to heed it.


    October 26, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Thanks for the eye opener Hecate. I will check out the site you posted.

      God Bless.


      October 26, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  9. Kristal

    how can any1 sell rheir country short as Jobs did taking work out of country is wrong dead wrong fxxk him and the horse he rode in on a Saint is that some kinda joke You moron

    October 26, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  10. Andrew

    Steve Jobs was a genius and a nut job, but I hardly think people's remembrance of him could be called making him a saint

    October 26, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  11. Helen

    Steve Jobs was innovative, rich but was a complete self-centered ass. The storyline about not giving any shares to a man that worked along side him but was not an engineer and refused to give this man any shares of the company is a dick.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Helen, I caught that story and was just as horrified as you to find out how Jobs cared less about this man's input.


      October 26, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  12. Kristal

    a Saint lol a tyrant yes a Saint no lol what a stupid article

    October 26, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  13. Doc Vestibule

    I'm still chuckling about how the Westboro Baptists tweeted how evil Jobs was from an Iphone.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  14. RGS

    Jobs gave the world a beautiful gift and although I concur with all the praise he rightfully deserves, fans are taking it to far. Being compared to Da Vinci or having the world Saint thrown around is not only insulting but scary at the same time. Jobs might have been a different kind of CEO but he was a CEO non the less.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Joaquin

      What's the matter can't CEO's be saints now.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  15. james mcneil

    No, not at all. The more we learned about Steve Jobs the more we see him as an ordinary man, very ordinary. Sure, he is absolutely technologically talented, but as a human being he is rather questionable. Does Steve Jobs love anyone in his life, truly love – God, his adopted parents, his biological parents, his children, his friends and colleagues? Perhaps, his work!

    October 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  16. You numba-one Fanboi

    Yes. CNN is making Jobs a saint... as it has been doing for years.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • marv

      Yeah, leave it to the lame-os at CNN to bring in like 5 authors to discuss this pointless byproduct of some editors mangled thought process. We know you miss Jobs' salty goodness, CNN. But perhaps you can lick your chin to remember the taste. Love you, Jobs. No disrespect.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  17. LameJobs

    Sorry, he is no saint at all. Not even a patriotic one. He just one of those greedy CEOs. Sending jobs overseas. He used only 10% US parts and put premium price on his products for US market which is Apple's biggest market.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  18. WB

    Yes we are, but this has been going on for some time. Look he didn't invent anything, he copied Xerox's GUI. He advanced and the public liked it. His fame is really due to his Hollywood connections and naive users.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  19. Doug

    Steve Jobs is more popular than Jesus.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • You numba-one Fanboi

      Well, right about now, maybe Steve will know where he really stands. I kept hoping the endless BS such as: "because Apples operating system is based on UNIX, it doesn't get viruses" would cease. Too bad it had to end this way. Now the jerk is a martyr.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • marv

      You numba - a martyr is someone who dies for a cause, not cancer.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • You numba-one Fanboi

      RE: Marv "You numba – a martyr is someone who dies for a cause, not cancer..."
      If you don't think Jobs timed the release of a mediocre phone instead of the hoped-for iPhone5 to boost fan-boy sales by playing the 'sympathy card'? You don't know Jobs and you don't know the definition of martyr. You can only be a fanboy.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • marv

      You numba – YOU clearly don't know or understand the def of martyr. A phone release doesn't equate. Bin Laden, a guy who is murdered because of an ideal. That's a martyr. Back to class, son.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • marv

      Also, he wasn't playing a sympathy card if you're reaching for a deeper def of martry. He WAS suffering. So you are trying to call him a fake martyr, but that def doesn't really apply to the facts.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Kristal

      doug the ass hole has a nice ring 2 it has it not popular because of what ? u moron

      October 26, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  20. Samantha

    The man is dead, why are we asking this question. He may not be a saint but is that really what we are focusing on here? We are missing the point of death and the person. Let's remember him for who he was and let others write what they want. No judging who the man was because there should be no judgment now.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • You numba-one Fanboi

      The point of his death? There is no app for hiding from the truth. iLied... iExploited... iFleeced... iAbandoned... iHumiliated... iCopied...iHadToHireMicrosoftToBuildMyUserInterfaceThenSaidTheyStoldMyIdeaWhichIBorrowedToo

      October 26, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27
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.