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. mbog song johannes

    i will suprise you because i know that steve jobs is not the inventor of the ipad. it's reather mbog song johannes who invented it at rue de serbie 76 in liège belgium. the secret of fabrication of ipad had been stolen by some cia agent throught out an espionnage conducted by the congress and the belgian gorv in belgium and then had been sold to steve jobs. there exist a record tape or dvd or cd about it; other wise they could not have design it. and the name of ipad is really the deep memory of johannes. many other industrial fabrication had been stolen by espionnage that period while johannes had been tortured. this is unfair you know. so steve jobs was an opportunist and usurpator

    March 3, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  2. tony william

    My question is" is he afraid to die?", suppose, he knows the cancer will eat him up and did not afraid to die, I can give him happy saint, does not matter when he lives all life without good cause. If he afraid to die like me he is human like me, it does not matter when he die.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:43 am |
  3. Bob Decker

    I think better him than any religious leader alive or dead and certainly better than any pope or catholic saint. One of the most influencial men of his time and he never touched a alter boy. Noticed you always ask those making a living in the god myth.

    November 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  4. rfk

    there's an old story that says when you get to heaven God asks you one question: Did you become yourself, or did you become what other people thought you should be? They waved Steve through the pearly gates.

    For all his good and for all his bad, people for most part admire him in that he was true to himself and lived HIS life.

    Unfortunately, his longevity was like the battery in an iPod Touch, down to 20% way too early, then the off switch. Perhaps, he will be recyled, or reincarnated as a squirrel and run up Bill Gates pant leg.

    October 31, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  5. ClaptonToo

    Virtually any celebrity is adored by fans on, say, youtube. And they will eagerky, zealously "defend" their idol against even the most minor critique with vulgar insults, slurs, death threats, etc. in direct violation of the Terms of Service they'd signed their own names under, promising to abide by its rules. "Yeah, but Clapton is God, so drink p*ss and die, you f*g n*gger"

    And thats why I believe its absolutely possible, even logical, that Jobs could somehow someday be written into some online Bible. Thanks to the smart majority, the 99%, out there.

    October 31, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  6. MnTaxpayer

    As a business man and technical innovator he would rank historically with the likes of Henry Ford. But he's just a man that had some good ideas of his own, built on the ideas of his predecessors and contemporaries and was very successfull in bringing his ideas tro market with creativity and a little bit of snake oil. Like the rest of us, his personal life was full of contradictions and short coming, highs and lows. It's interesting that anyone needs to make any more of him than that.

    October 31, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • mark Espy

      Here's a guy who was so passionate, driven, and contributed so much. When I look back at the almost deification of a pop entertainer-Michael Jackson-, Sainthood for Steve Jobs works just fine for me.

      October 31, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  7. John


    October 29, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  8. midgick

    yes. he was an egomaniac who terrorized his staff. Einstein, the smartest man ever was humble and a good human being.

    Go figure?

    October 28, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • VTJ

      I agree , there are over billion people who are/were kinder and more generous in various way. I personally would respect a street vendor who behaves respectful to his employees more than I respect Jobs.

      November 1, 2011 at 5:48 am |
  9. ron mcloughlin

    If U believe in saints. Certainly Steve Jobs was not interested in the common man by all his high-priced products that never got reduced in cost. I don;t have one product of his or his company's. After he competed against the PC by being unique & therefore exceedingly expensive for the average lower middle class man who never knew Y I shud buiy one of his projects. One thing is certain he took the HUMANITY out of us by making speaking directly to one another by electronic gimmicks.That's not my defionition of a saint.

    October 28, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • ron mcloughlin

      Corrections of my entry ronjayaz: buiy shud read as buy & defionition as a definition.

      October 28, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  10. David Klinger

    The more I read about Steve Job, the more I realize what a heck of person he was.

    October 28, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Jon Samuel

      The more I read about Steve Jobs the more I see what a cold callous jerk he was.

      October 31, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  11. Dan

    What is the true measure of this man, Steve Jobs? He was a success in the boardroom were profits exceeded expectations and the tech-world will forever be in his debt for the inventions. Plus, the one-man show on stage to “charge” the crowd with his new inventions set a precedent copied by all for that special “power” moment!

    He failed in this precious fleeting life for not making amends with his biological father. This move tipped the scales back to earth and at the end of the day; he is just a regular person like us all, which fall short.

    My vote is “not even close” for sainthood!

    October 28, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  12. Truthmonger

    Steve Jobs was an egocenntric, meglomaniacal a**clown. What all you worshipers seem to forget is that he abandoned his first son and wife shortly after he "made it big" in San Francisco. He never acknowledged the child as his and the guilt from that is probably what gave him cancer. Guilt and negative feeling do have a direct effect on the body. Serves him right, he was the dumbest most insecure smart guy in the history of the planet. Not to mention that he didnt PRODUCE anything himself he relied on the work of his engineers and code writers to make his "visions" a reality. The Universe is done with Jobs we should be too.

    October 28, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Maddy

      Well I am not. I am typing this on my most wonderful IMAC and very grateful for all his hard work. He had a very strong work ethic and it's really difficult for many to comprehend this. Sloth and torpor were not in his vocabulary and we are all in some way reaping the harvest.

      October 28, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  13. Amanda

    Granted, Steve Jobs was a very intelligent man, who brought major changes to the world; however, a saint? I think not. God blessed Mr. Jobs with that intelligence (whether he recognized it or not). The media is putting him on such a huge pedestal that it's making him seem almost superhuman. I

    October 28, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  14. Sarcelle

    How is this news, but the assault on Marine Scott Olsen is not?

    October 28, 2011 at 8:41 am |

      Of course we are! It's even in the Bible! The Book of Jobs! Get it? Job. Jobs. Oh, well! I'm an atheist anyway1

      October 28, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  15. Yo

    I don't think so – but we should turn war veterans into saints, especially the one's beaten by the police in America.


    October 28, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  16. Mary

    Shameful that one would even use his name in relation to a Saint. Please. Steve Jobs had great ideas and other great people made them come to life. But, realistically – this man was far from Saint anything. In fact, his life revolved around Steve Jobs and honestly he is not the model for anything sacred – including family, co-workers, friendships. Unless of course, denying you have a child – to the point of lying for years about it is considered sacred. His treatment of others – friends and other family members – not impressive. The billions he made and the fact that he was more a taker not a giver – not that I believe in the dems side of giving .... but I understand that Jobs was actually very selfish. Whatever – Jobs is gone – not to Heaven (and yes, I believe there's such a place) – real Saints are there.... not Jobs.

    October 28, 2011 at 5:48 am |
    • Maddy

      This is most interesting.
      Do you help St Peter with "intakes" into heaven? Are there any openings? I would very much like to assist.
      A word of caution...beware! You might lose your very own one way ticket to heaven because it's not up to use to judge. Saints don't judge.
      No one is perfect and if your God is a forgiving God...I just bet he made a little room up there for Mr Jobs!

      October 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • MnTaxpayer

      Well where ever he is, i bet everyone there will be uisng iPhones very soon.

      October 31, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Rich

      I admire Steve Jobs for his creativity and focus....he did much to bring joy to others through his inventions. But let us not forget, the fame and fortune he enjoyed were his rewards. He was not and is not a saint......he was a remarkably brilliant man.......but as several folks have pointed out, his behavior in many cases was not saintly.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  17. paul1121

    Steve Jobs did more for this country in recent years than any President, Congressman or any other elected official. I think celebrating him at this moment is appropriot,

    October 28, 2011 at 2:42 am |
  18. Leigh

    " ... celebrity worship ... will assume an even greater market share of the spiritual marketplace."

    How sad is that? Mr. Laderman mentions "other cultural forms of sacred commitment and meaning, and I have no issue there. But celebrity worship? Mr. Laderman, are you trying to say obsessing on, say, Michael Jackson is akin to a spiritual experience? Now, I liked Michael Jackson's music and found some of it deeply meaningful. I have nothing against Jackson as a person, but a saint? Same with Steve Jobs. There is no doubt he was an amazing man, and I am awed by his accomplishments, but Steve Jobs as an object of veneration? Please.

    "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."

    As I said, there is no doubt Steve Jobs was an amazing man, but he was (and is) no saint and should not be viewed as one.

    "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."

    Steve Jobs had many admirable accomplishments and qualities, I'm sure, but sainthood? Even secular sainthood? Really? Just how barren are our spiritual lives? He had a lot of excellent ideas and the savvy to make them reality, but from what I've learned about about the man, he was the sort of executive and boss that give executives and bosses a bad name.

    Steve Jobs for sainthood? Sorry, I'm not buying it.

    October 27, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  19. Gregg

    I tell you, the more I learn about this guy, the less esteem I hold him in.

    October 27, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  20. Rebecca

    Corporate-owned media hype which is repulsive and degrades the man's accomplishments. It also does not hide his bad characteristics.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:47 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.