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. JB

    Marketer, Innovator, Leader….Dead...let it go, leave his family be. There are other things we will need to focus on now that he's passed and been interned.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:45 pm |

    He earned respect admiration from his fans, he was one of the greatest inventors in the history. He will continue to inspire the world.Some choose to make big bucks by cashing after his passionate life, full of innovation. if anyone's believe system allow them to make an icon a saint then thats all personal

    October 26, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  3. John


    October 26, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • .....

      TROLL ALERT – don't bother viewing this garbage, click the report abuse link instead!

      October 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  4. Suboptimal

    Sainthood? If judged by the deeds that one does, the life they lead and the true impact they have on people....then Steve Wozniak has my vote!

    October 26, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  5. nick2

    Jobs was a marketing genius. Not an innovator. He repackaged other people's inventions, made them very stylish and in the process created the biggest company in the world.

    If you want to adulate somebody who died in the same month as Jobs, then adulate Dennis Ritchie – who created the language of 'C' – which is the mother of about 95% of all current operating systems and computer languages today.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  6. scott

    i so sick of hearing about him he did not do all they say he did it was the people around him who hired to work for him he is just another rich ceo that made billions off the people and died young bye bye

    October 26, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  7. Bobby

    The IPOD did not create World peace, a higher consciousness ( more of the same informationn).. Steve Jobs did not save the poor from starvation ( although he may have given to charity), how many" jobs" he created well add em up.. No Steve Jobs was an ordinary man with a talent for innovation and business... What he did speak to me as a human being, no matter how powerful and rich you are, your body is still going to die.. Now if he still continues as a Soul in some heavenly region of the Universe, well that would be important for us to know.. Keep on learning in the afterlife, steve..

    October 26, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  8. Summer

    Its so sad that this important man died

    October 26, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  9. John

    He developed sold innovative machines and had a brilliant marketing department. The fact that anyone is even entertaining that this man is a saint is a sure sign of the coming apocalypse. We have all been fooled. Good marketing does not make someone worthy of veneration and canonization. He was ego maniacal and disrespectful but he was also a entrepreneurial genius.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • god

      Anti-christ,,,, Anti-theist,,, Ante up?

      October 26, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  10. Rob

    I don't know if anyone is actually reading the biography to develop a better understanding of Mr Jobs..... but he is definiately not a saint. Egomanical disrespectful industrialist... yes. A driven, influenctial, imaginative, innovator... yes.

    Saint... really... Come on? He was a product developer who changed the industry, not a saint.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  11. pritam

    The man is dead, leave his life alone...!!! don't you guys have better articles to write about?

    October 26, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Good Stuff

      Obviously not. Lord knows CNN was hard up for Jobs the week of his death. So much that 3/4 of the home page had headlines and articles related to Jobs. The Tech Section was bloated with Jobs articles for two weeks straight.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  12. atroy

    Yes CNN you are! Every day you launch a volley of Apple/Jobs stories at us. Why don't you build a temple while you are at it?

    October 26, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  13. kire

    A little girl is missing, but CNN wants to write about Jobs for all the apple-booty lickers.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  14. Kyle

    Jobs did not claim to be a Saint, this article does. For better or worse, Steve Jobs created a compnay that changed the landscape of computing, entertainment and communication; in that sense he is the Thomas Edison of our times. He also managed to live a modest house and not to go crazy with is money; most would be a bigger jerks if they had a fraction of his money.

    We have to accept the fact that he is gone and is not here to defend himself with all the rants that are expressed here. We also have to accept the fact that we live in a world when nice deeds/people go unnoticed. Jobs devoted his entire life in creating something , he did what he believed in and never gave up; that's enough for me to respect him.

    May his soul rest in peace....

    October 26, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • atroy

      We should all live in a 17,000 square foot "modest" house.....

      October 26, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  15. paulc

    I agree with Kevin.I read about when he passed away.I gave him credit with launching the desktop revolution on my facebook status.Then i read or heard nothing about him until I saw this article.Kind of a goofy article really.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Kevin

      Same. It's as if these people think there's nothing else to cover.

      October 26, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  16. Ebenezer Chizom Echehieuka

    I have never met Mr. Jobs personally, but having to know about his way of Life from the internet has told me he was a man with many challenges. Saint? We cant really judge and say much about him. All we have to do is to "IMITATE HIS GOOD ACTS AND LEARN FROM HIS MISTAKES". STEVE JOBS HAS DONE WELL WHEN IT COMES TO PRODUCTIVITY.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  17. Kevin

    We as in the people who read the countless articles about him? No.

    You negligent newsmen, however? Yes. Every inch of pagespace you dedicate to Jobs is a different piece of information that gets buried.

    Stop navel-gazing and just cover the damn news if you're so self-conscious.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • paulc

      Amen brother,well said.

      October 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  18. Bill

    Not Steve Jobs, but the sentiments, the cult impulses throughout parts of the society, beware heading for antichrist. It is written: Thou shalt worship the LORD thy God and him only shalt thou serve. People need Acts 2:38, Jesus Christ is where peoples faith and affections need to be. Only Jesus can save and satisfy all of humanities needs.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Bill

      I'm responding to my own comment and desire to say that I'm NOT the Bill whose comment appears just below mine, I guess that it was just a chance thing that some other Bill appeared with a comment just below mine and at the same time. In mine I did not say anything evil of Steve Jobs, I warned about worshiping anyone other than God.

      October 26, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  19. Bill

    Jobs a saint? – He may have been an innovator, but he was also a small, mean spirited man who though the worlds rules didn't apply to him because he was too "special". A amassed billions but shared none with the needy. He stole from his co-workers and claimed the work as his own, while accusing every other innovator of stealing from him. He disregarded his children, and took pleasure in demeaning others. He overcharged customers for his products while the company transferred hundreds of thousands of jobs to other countries. A saint......Not hardly

    October 26, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  20. sunshine2511

    SAINT? The same media that questions Belief and God now wants to exercise when to pick and choose to validate who is a Saint or not! Confused Much CNN? The new TMZ trash news!

    October 26, 2011 at 5:22 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.