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. TeXan

    Are you kidding. Steve prodded his engineers make a superior phone, and he encouraged Woz to create the Mac.

    Steve even make sure the Mac had a nice case..

    Over look that he was mean to people at times. It takes some egg breaking to make an omlet.

    What do you expect he should be a Saint.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  2. cody

    same bull cr ap from the apple/jobs haters. its turning very monotonous. yes i know you are ignorant about apple. yes i know you are just talking from a hater perspective. yes i know you think we think apple invented the world. yes i know you are ignorant about what we think. none of you all ever mention anything worth respectable. jobs saw the potential in technology and mass marketed it like no one else. why any of you all fail to see that and think that we are saying apple invented this or invented that is beyond me. you haters are pretty lame. must be your hp's and dells thats making you like that.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Pat Taylor

      Note to Readers: this is what an Apple zealot sounds like. Altho' most have a better handle on grammar and senteence structure...

      October 26, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  3. Ima Pc

    Moar jobs for Steve. We should carve him over Washington in the grand canyon. eat a turd.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  4. success

    Apple builds its well-known strengths in simplicity and elegance of design on a UNIX-based foundation. However, noone cares about Denis Ritchie who invented C++ and UNIX system. Mr Ritchie died right after Steve Jobs passed away. Let's talk about Mr Ritchie first, he was a genius. If Ritchie and his coworkers didn't invent UNIX and C++ , Apple wouldn't exist today. Let's be fair. No, I don't think Mr Jobs was a saint. It's ridiculous.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  5. Gort01

    He wasnt philanthropic? why not? does anyone know? or could it be he gave but just didnt want people to know he was the giver?? ju st asking

    October 26, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Scott

      When he returned to Apple, he immediately cancelled all of the company's philanthropic activities.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  6. lordpet

    He was brilliant at making the computer an indispensable part of your life. But from everything that I've read, as a human being, he was pretty 2nd rate, if not 3rd. You can appreciate the guy's inventiveness without putting him on a pedestal. It's ok, America.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  7. Mark

    Our Jobs
    Who art in Cupertino
    Hallowed be thine Mac.
    iPad 3 will come
    It will be sold
    In Apple Stores as it is in Cupertino.
    So give us this day
    Mac OS X.
    And give us many wonderful apps.
    But shield us from spyware, adware, and viruses.
    For thine is the throne
    Of One Infinite Loop
    And the glory of the Cult of Mac, now and forever.
    Think different.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  8. Pat Taylor

    Oh, God! Yes! The man was a tyrant and a thief. His theft at Xerox PARC is legendary; he took the idea for the mouse, the user interface, and Ethernet and ran with it. He treated his employees like trash. Did he change the way consumers use computers? Yes. But he did not change computing. His enterprise efforts failed miserably (Xserve, XRAID) and he never had more than 4% market share. Then he came up with iStuff and the rest is history. A creative genius? Yes, I'll go with that... but the equivalent of Edison and Einstein? Puh-lease!!! That is the sound of his mindless minions at their candlelight vigil.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Gary

      You are right a number of points. Apple tried to claim credit for open-systems windowing but it was actually developed by a number of companines including Xerox, IBM, Microsoft – to name a few.

      Apple (and Jobs) weren't actually that sucessful again until just recently. The iPhone wasn't released until 2008. The iPod wasn't even developed by Apple (developed by PortalPlayer). Neither were many Apple products. Microsoft actually wrote many of the MAC applications.

      Jobs was an excellent marketting guy but let's don't overstate his abilities or give him too much credit. Richie deserves this sort of credit – Jobs does not.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  9. oledad

    Unfortunately we're trained to want to be like the rich and famous from childhood. All you have to do is observe parents of a children's soccer team or football team. A very high perentage of them believe its only good if you are a winner and by golly their little Suzie or Johnny will get a scholarship to college or play professionally. We can be rich like some of those famous criminals in the NBA or NFL...or Steve Jobs, corporate super human, that never did much for humanity that someone else would have come along and done the same thing. These are the same kids that have grown up and are now in the corporate world where the focus is it's all about me and how much money I can make at the expense of anybody thaat gets in their way.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  10. Cory

    It is absolutely ridiculous. People are making this guy into a saint and it's disgusting. People have even gone so far to call him the creator of the smartphone. COME ON PEOPLE!! Give your head a shake!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  11. success

    If Dennis Ritchie and other scientists from the AT&T bell lab didn't invent UNIX operating system, there wouldn't be any Steve Jobs. i respect Mr Jobs and value his contribution into today's technology, however, it's not fair that Dennis Ritchie who died a week after Jobs doesn't get the same public attention.Ritchie, Thompson were inventors of UNIX and C++ which are used to built applications. It's not fair.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  12. Red Pison

    CNN you're trying to make him a saint, only the rest of the world doesn't think so other than Macheads.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  13. david iverson

    i don't consider steve jobs a saint–just a visionary, who was very ruthless. ask the people who worked for him if he truly used the buddhist principles that he was supposedly following as he ran his companies....

    October 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  14. Allison

    Sorry. Can't stand the guy. Was he creative...yes he was. Was he a genius....nope, don't think so. Did he care about anyone buy himself....nope. Was he greedy...yes he was. Was he a CEO who cared more about profit than the people who bought his product....yes he was. Did he give back to his community or to those less fortunate? No he did not. Hell, he didn't even give a crap about his kids until it was too late, and then he wants someone else to tell them that Daddy was really a good guy. NO HE WASN'T.

    Is he a saint....not on your life.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  15. Cassarit

    I too was upset when Jobs died. But then I heard that he wanted Obama to extend even more freebies to corporations than they already have. The truth is the guy was probably a narcisistic self centred SOB who thought he knew even more than his doctors. He probably treated people according to his estimate of their capability, treating the highly capable well and the less capable like garbage. This man was an elitist and we should be very careful before following him anywhere. As for Apple products, any product that needs to be peddled on the charisma of it's inventor should be looked at with greater scrutiny. Apple products are expensive and have limited capabilities.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • JJ

      Yeah, but he is responsible for the iPhone so........

      October 26, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  16. Dazzle

    People, dont bother with CNN, instead go to MSNBC or BBC

    October 26, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  17. Dazzle


    October 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  18. St. Mykul

    That's the LAST thing we need: to make capitalism a religion with the mythological characters to go with it. The Dude, with the help of others, created some cool gadgets and we are all the more distracted from reality by them. Thank you Jesus! Moving on . . .

    October 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  19. rick

    Only the NERDS ARE...They have nothing else going on intheir pathetic lives than to honor some corporate man thats dead!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  20. mecatfish

    WE are not making Jobs a saint, CNN, YOU are making Jobs a saint.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • c

      I watched a very interesting interview Walter Issacson did about his book on Jobs. Issacson seems to make excuses for Jobs he says Jobs was often "mean" to a lot of people. Maybe it's okay to be nasty if you're a genius. According to Issacson; Jobs had a habit of abruptly leave conversations in mid sentence often leaving the person staring at air.
      He petulantly yelled/cursed people. Issacson say's some nice things about him too . Jobs was good but distant family man who loved his kids- Jobs agreed to help with the book to "connect with his kids- (Jobs dictated to the writer) how he wanted to be portrayed in the book.
      He was very controlling and "took no prisoners if you didn't agree with him. To his credit – they say he could be kind. Jobs was a genius; but not a very nice person. In a hundred years we'll all be teleporting to Mars with speed of a blink and the Iphone will be a relic- I think treating human's better is more important than a fancy talking machine.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:50 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.