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. What else is new

    Jobs was a jerk as is the author and editor of this article. Moving on.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  2. Paul

    "We" are not making Mr. Jobs a saint. Somebody is, but not me. I never heard of the guy before he got sick and I was very confused about all the attention he was getting.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  3. Dan

    he is not a saint, he's a bi ratial angel

    October 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Dan too

      He's a what?? bi ratial angle? Thats just weird dude! He's allot like the guy you can only stand to be around for short periods of time but as soon as he's away your life seems better.

      October 26, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  4. mbane18

    CNN is making him a saint. Anyone who knows anything about the computer industry would never do such a thing. He was a guy who had great speaking skills, nothing more. He didn't create any of the products his company made and the majority of his ideas were stolen from other people who never get any credit.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Dan too

      Amen reverend brother mbane18. Anybody who had grown up and read all the stories would know that a saint is the furthest thing he was. I'd go as far as to say he was the other thing "a sinner". His sins were not small.. they were big. He was a selfish beyond reason person. If anyone was going to make money on his products it was going to be him and only him. Thats why Apple stuff is so proprietary and it takes an act of congress to get an app into the apple store for resell. He was feared by anyone who worked not only for him.. but with him. Even those who had athority over him feared him. He was plain and simple.. a tyrant all the time and a good person when it had finacial gain (for instance if one of his techies came up with an idea he could use to make himeself more famous). This guy stole an organ from TN's organ bank when he didn't even meet the requirements to be an organ transplant recipiant because he had cancer and it was in his body and the doctors knew this even while they give him the new liver. Evil.. it comes in many forms.. I think the Apple icon stood for something allot more evil than anyone will admit.

      October 26, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  5. ABN

    Enough with the lionization of a person with myriad faullts and not much of a giving/philanthropy track record. No doubt he gave some gadgets and eased the communication and accessibility of everyday tasks for people, but beyond that nothing more.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • MM

      Couldn't have said it better myself!
      The more time passes the more the trutth comes out. He was arrogant, selfish, self serving, sometimes abusive, bully, dishonest, etc.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  6. Eragon

    New images hosting provider http://www.imgwi.com !!!

    October 26, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  7. QuietStormX

    Hey, it's the media with all the glowing reviews of his products and how he controlled them. When he was ruthless to people and those working for him to produce. I never thought his apple products were anything special, just maybe some new features and not much at that year after year like with the iPhones and iPads with no Adobe Flash compared with others. And those who rush to buy this overpriced stuff.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  8. Alan Stephenson

    He was truly a visionary .. and a hypocrite. He slams Bill Gates for stealing ideas?? Lest we forget that Apple stole the idea for it's desktop GUI from Xerox. Jobs was great for the gadget world, and he may have done something for the movie industry as well. Yes, he changed many people's way of listening to music, but Bill Gates and Microsoft changed the worlds way of doing business. That's not Apple's OS running on almost every computer in the business world. Like it or not, it's Windows!

    October 26, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  9. btinc

    If you believe that the last pope or Mother Theresa deserve to be saints, then I'd say that Steve Jobs does as well.

    If you're like me, you can recognize genius when you see it, and appreciate it, and leave all the religious BS out of it. Jobs certainly did.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  10. c s

    Making Steve Jobs into a saint is incredibly stupid; especially since Steve Jobs was probably a Buddhist and Buddhist do not believe in God. So go ahead make him into a saint; stranger things happen all the time. He was just a smart guy who was driven to succeed. I guess that it is about the best you can say about anybody: work hard and hurt no one.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  11. True Story

    They probably are. I say a 20 minute news story on Steve Jobs yesterday but a 3 minute story about a college rap ist. Priorities are interesting aren't they?

    October 26, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  12. Alex

    Listen, he changed the way most of the world listens to music. He also changed the way we use computers, and devices. I don't thin he was a saint, but i am intrigued at what went on in the mind of a genius. As you all are very aware, society does not just spawn these when ever we need them. They are rare. So i think that is why so many have been attracted to his genius brain. They want to pick at it and learn, and see really went on in there. It's human nature to do this. Bottom line is that he did make a huge impact on the world. Even if you hate Apple, it still impacted in some way your life. Because you know someone, or even have someone that owns one of their products. Look, your still here talking about it. So it has made an impact on you. ROFL!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  13. orlop

    Not a saint, a huckster, preaching to a new age choir that wanted to believe that his ideas and way of life were so revolutionary that it was worth standing in line to pay a premium for his products. Most of these products he, himself, did not create. Saw an article just a few days after Steve Jobs death that "The father of the Ipod and Iphone" had developed a revolutionary new wall thermostat and it was not him. He did come up with a great idea of manufacturing his products in China and Fedex-ing them to you quickly on the cheap so that he could profit even more from people's stupidity.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • btinc

      Not a huckster (reserve that for Bill Gates), but a marketer.

      Of course he never built the devices he developed, but he did make them the best they could be, and better and more usable than anything else out there. He had a vision of simplistic elegance, and there are very few successful tech companies who understand how important that is.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • MM

      Huckster and a thief among MANY other UNDESIRABLE things.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  14. John

    This man was not a saint. God gave him knowledge. I had hoped that he would have come to know God with that knowledge before he left this world. He knows who God is now. The Maker and heaven and earth.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • btinc

      Well, that's a load of garbage.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  15. Bill

    Yes, I am sitting at my computer doing things that I would not be able to do without the advances that have been made in the manner in which we communicate. But, are we making Steve Jobs out to be a saint. Yeah, a whole lot more than I think we should. As far as I'm concerned I have no need for and IPOD or any other type of electronic device that everyone seems to be addicted to. In my opinion, Steve Jobs is actually one of the main people, if not the main person, that is to blame for this world being as crazy as it is. We are living in a world today that with all the advances, and the new electronic advices that put the previous one in the obsolete catagory, people are riddled with more anxiety, stress, etc. We don't need to know, and shouldn't know, all the things that we think we need to know. Give me back the 50's and 60's any day. And, I could actually do without the computer I'm using right now. I honestly don't need it. But, then again I do because the rest of the world is continuing to use it to sell items that I couldn't purchase otherwise. But, if the retail business conducted their businesses the way they were in the old days, I wouldn't need it. Thank you.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  16. bluemax77

    If there’s a dollar in it...

    October 26, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  17. matt

    How about asking what Steve Jobs did for Human Rights in China? How about asking what Steve Jobs did with the outsourcing of jobs to China? I'm a Mac user and have been since the early 90's as managing editor of a 4-color magazine. But worship? Please, don't make me puke. Our society is so ignorant and blind and ready to grab onto the savior-du-jour. So, let me toss this one out there...suppose you had more money than god, the devil and bill gates. Suppose you stepped down from your company and wanted to live the rest of your life unfettered by the media and society in general? Would you fake your own death? Just a thought.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  18. Mark

    The "prayer" in my previous post was a tongue-in-cheek way of saying ENOUGH ALREADY. Time to move on.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  19. cody

    uh yeh Jobs was a shred biz man and an a hole! thats no surpirse. anyone see pirates of silicon valley? hello! just because he was an arrogant jerk does mean a hill of beans about what he did for the tech industry. some of you all apple haters have a hard time seperating him from that. he was no saint... but as for the tech world he was a guru.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  20. I-Phone I-This!

    The reporter who up this subject must be an air-head and should be fired! Hes making CNN look soooo Stuuuupid!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:45 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.