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. bob tom

    i think this article so stupid.,,,,steve jobs is a normal person.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:41 am |
    • Trystan

      No he isn't. He's dead.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  2. Miss Demeanor

    The dead-beat dad who used Chinese slave labor to make more-polished versions of other peoples ideas and sell them to snobs willing to pay 5 times more than what they were worth? That Jobs? His name is Jobs, not Job. Stop the shameless free advertiser for Apple, CNN. It's not professional.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:24 am |
  3. AusieSceptic1

    I was getting absolutely no reception on my iPhone and was absently looking at a picture of steve jobs when suddenly the road we were driving on curved around the side of a hill within sight of a telecom tower. immediately my iPhone began to function and I was able to send a text.
    it must be a miracle.

    October 27, 2011 at 1:58 am |
  4. RightTurnClyde

    The media even called the current president a "messiah" ... does anybody still think he is? You make all kinds of hyperbole with speech and metaphor .. and you can make Jobs a saint. O.J> Simpson was once a saint to .. greater then Gale Sayers. So was Kobe Bryant and Dennis Rodman. Lindsay Lohan; Michael Jackson; Charlie Sheen; Arnold Schwartzenegger ... they are not hard to find .. and many of them did not quite live up to media hype (did they?)

    October 27, 2011 at 1:28 am |
  5. Bo

    It all depends on how you define 'saint'. Original greek meant: set aside. That has nothing to do with religion. It was used by the Bible writers to mean: set aside for God.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
    • A different adopted hippy techie

      The whole Jobs thing is kind of gross... how can you invent something by copying it and say "We didn't even know we needed it?"

      October 27, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  6. lastofall

    How is it that having eyes some cannot see, or having ears, some cannot hear, nor understand with their heart that the secular world does in no wise represent God, neither does one who invents a thing made with hands which causes many to worship and serve the creature more than the Creator. How is it that the idea of a saint would enter into mind?

    October 26, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  7. Bill Gate

    Beat it! Jobs is a businessman, an artist, an innovator. He didn't set out to be a saint. People responded naturally on how they feel about Steve Jobs. Why impose a crime on people's affection to his work. The author can't stand ordinary people spend a moment away from his only faithful subject, Christianity, and he has to instigate a social crime for everyone.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  8. CleanKo

    No doubt Steve Jobs has contributed a lot to the current technological state of the world. But, let us stop there. Let us not keep digging until we see the darker side, which everyone has. Let not only Steve RIP, but also the world. It has become customary nowadays to dig too much ! Leave him alone and spare the readers too !!

    October 26, 2011 at 9:37 pm |


      October 26, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  9. Bearer Of Bad News

    Well, he did accomplish more than jesus. Plus, I doubt he'll spawn any religions that kill in his name.

    So yeah, Steve Jobs > jesus.

    October 26, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • *frank*

      Can I let you know what I think without taking a look?

      October 26, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • *frank*

      (@Joe Brooks)

      October 26, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  10. Joe Brooks

    Each epoch has found in the Gospels what it sought to find there, and has overlooked what it wished to overlook. – Ludwig von Mises
    “One has to wonder, how many people, self-proclaimed Christians, many of whom we see in church with us every week, never really even made a conscious choice to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. How many people inherited their faith, have maintained it, and adhere to it publicly, but have never actually asked Jesus to be lord of their lives? How many of us are unwittingly destined to hear Christ tell us, “I never knew you; depart from Me.”
    My new book, The Four Pillars of the Kingdom, is set to be released in a week. It is, not only a response to some of the metaphysical arguments of the so-called New Atheists, but also a call to believers to take their faith serious in a very real way. You can find a few excerpts from the work and the cover art on my website, The Immaculate Conservative:


    Please read and let me know what you think!

    Joe Brooks

    October 26, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  11. Medical Justice

    Steve Jobs anti-materialistic? Consider the highway robbery of the new Lion operating system. Prior to Lion there was Snow Leopard, and before that Leopard. If you skipped an upgrade – that is, if you still have plain Leopard on your Mac – you cannot install Lion. No, you must first buy Snow Leopard (cost $29) and then the Apple store graciously permits you to buy Lion (another $29). Tech gurus say this is not necessary: Lion does not use Snow Leopard as a foundation; it is simple greed.

    Suppose you had a PC and bought Windows XP, then skipped the Vista upgrade, then bought Windows 7 when it hit store shelves – but were forced to buy the pair of operating systems (Vista and Windows 7) even though you will only use the latter. If Microsoft did this, they would be laughed off the map, and perhaps face a class-action lawsuit.

    I am Apple devotee enough to have plunked down $620 (CAD) for an iPad 2 last week. My disappointment was great. The iPad is not a machine for work; it is chiefly a glamorous portal to the iTunes Store.

    Steve Jobs knew he was dying, and realized his own contributory negligence when he delayed medical treatment. If he was in a state of rage, may he have peace now.

    October 26, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  12. augustghost

    How many more stories about Jobs...let him RIp already

    October 26, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  13. CNNreader

    How about a CNN poll asking "Are you tired of hearing about Steve Jobs?" Choices would be Yes or No. I would vote YES!

    October 26, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  14. mr280zxt

    This is crazy. So what he is a very smart and succesful man...But thats it....He is no saint.....He wasn't the most compassionate person...God rest his soul....

    Come on, Steve Jobs maniacs...Flame me....

    October 26, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  15. Hof

    Folks, it's CNN. They write about Steve Jobs with one hand, while they're, um, pre-occupied with the other.

    October 26, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  16. AGuest9

    Haven't seen a "What Would Steve Do?" bumper sticker yet, but give it time.

    October 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • augustghost

      Now that you have brought it up....we will see it

      October 26, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  17. pete

    I really like the products – thanks – I gave you my $$$ – thanks – keep producing good products and I'll buy. I don't need a new deity thanks.

    October 26, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  18. Bob (Illinois)

    This is a stupid article!

    October 26, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  19. god

    Steve Jobs, a man who had a mission,,,,,,,, 😐 How long will it be before we forget?

    October 26, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • AGuest9

      To make money and ensure that as many of his employees were divorced as possible?

      October 26, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  20. John Richardson

    Jobs is no saint, and neither is anyone else.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • *frank*

      What about Bela Karolyi?

      October 26, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Bela is hanging at the ranch with Marta, while she trains the gymnasts.

      October 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @*frank* Thanks for the moment of high randomness!

      October 26, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      OK, then, how about Bela Bartok?

      October 26, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Tom Tom, can't help you with Bela Bartok. I don't have 2 degrees of separation from him.

      October 26, 2011 at 9:39 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.