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. Srinivas

    Yes. He got a fair share of credit for his abilities. However, he was another successful businessman – like MANY of his kind who dont get the same type of publicity and media attention. Gadgets dont change societies radically. Technologies come and go over time. These days, success is measured in revenues and market share – not value creation. With so many means to communicate today (cell phones, smart phones, email, chat, facebook, twitter) the reality is that "emotional intelligence" has disappeared. I now have more ways of reaching out to people who dont care about what I have to say for the most part. The original phone system over copper wires did more than pocket-sized devices today to connect people and families separated by distance. Has the quality of the dialog between calling and called parties improved because of advances in technology? We have not gotten SMARTER or improved the social fabric of society with these technologies. Sure many conveniences has surfaced. The Arab Spring has used the technology to organize themselves. But in countries like India, leaders like Gandhi still messaged effectively through whatever form of media was available to them then. I still cherish the hand written letter from my grandfather from 25 years ago (glad it was not a electronic tweet)!!!

    October 26, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Really


      October 26, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  2. Really

    All of you three are incorrigible idiots for writing such non sense

    October 26, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  3. Newyorker

    Should we be turning Steve Jobs into a saint? Well, if anyone can show me a single saint who had more of a positive impact on the world than Steve Jobs did, then maybe you can argue that he doesn't deserve it.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      define 'positive impact'

      October 26, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • joe

      all of them....? you get that macs are just products right? the same way gasoline or mcdonalds is. youd be as well off worshiping ray kroc or the ceo of exxon.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:49 am |
  4. Exarkun1138

    Steve Jobs was nothing more than a salesman. THAT'S ALL. All this media hype about him is sickening, considering all he did was pitch high tech TOYS to the masses. That does NOT make him special in any way! All you sheeple getting all wrapped up in this man makes me believe that this country is in serious trouble! We have far more important things to do with this country than make this man into something he wasn't. All he should have been known for is being a good marketer for Apple, nothing more. He never invented any of the products Apple sells, and never wrote a SINGLE line of code for OSX! Apple products are good, yes, but I own exactly ZERO Apple iDevices and have no plans on buying one any time soon. Steve Jobs was a man, that's all. a SALESMAN at most. NOTHING MORE. He's gone, so lets move on to more important things.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • jecd


      October 26, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Newyorker

      He was just a salesperson? Sure, just like Einstein was just a scientist, or George Washington was just a politician.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • joe


      October 27, 2011 at 3:50 am |
  5. jecd

    Had he manufactured his Apple procucts here in the U.S. instead of China – it would be different – but Apple has far more employees in China than here. Too bad. No saint in my book. He was just like any other CEO of any other big business.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  6. NorCalMojo

    Stop this. You're only making yourself look foolish.

    Outsourcing, questionable labor practices, buying judges and police to raid peoples' homes. Wake up, icult.

    He marketed the image of hippy, but in reality, he was a card carrying member of the 1%.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  7. Paul

    "WE" as in CNN?!
    Who are you guys kidding? You've had his face on the front page for two weeks making your ratings and selling books and now you pose the this SILLY question? Really?

    October 26, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  8. Ken M

    Let us be careful of bestowing ALL the credit for the advancement of technology in our time on Steve Jobs. Although a great visionary who led a good portion of technological advancement in household technology and communications products, lets not forget the brilliant individuals who toiled and continue to toil for his company, adding ideas, and testing prototypes through to production. They deserve as much credit for being part of the Jobs team. 200 years ago we had folks like Ben Franklin who put his ideas to production by himself using his own craftsmanship. Jobs was an idea man, his minions crafted his products. Let us not forget who does the work.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  9. richard

    I dont believe Steve was a saint, to agree with most on here. Its disappointing, however, that so many feel the need to tear him down. Steve was the true definition of success – unabashed professional success – done so without apologies or regard for others, which ultimately is a shame. The author of this article was simply posing a question – is Steve Jobs a saint? However you feel about the mere suggestion, it doesnt dissolve the areas where he was great and really shined. His impact on the world, the now "everyday" devices we utilize are quite brilliant, and something that we'd all like to tap into in some fashion. He's a man that invented a lot of great "stuff," but no sentimental hero. I would have enjoyed him to be everything for everyone, but honestly, none of us can be.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      what did he actually invent and what did he take credit for?

      October 26, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • richard

      point taken, cedar, but again – its a shame people feel the need to tear him down. i'm sure if we started delving into every facet of your life, there would be a few skeletons there too...

      October 26, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      There may very well be but at least then you would have an accurate overall picture of me and not some idealized false one.
      Its like people that hold the founding fathers as some kind of infallible super geniuses.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  10. Phil/Born again/saint Thru Jesus CHRIST ONLY.

    WELL I disagree, many are fooled these times/just don't read your BIBLE john 3:5-17 john 1:12-14 THE RICH/FAMEUS IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO ENTER KINGDOM OF GOD. ROMANS 1:21-30 READ IT FOR YOURSELF.Sorry steve died in his sins he died because of aids/cancer /othersmed. problems . He also same club of billionsairs NEWAGE/NEW WORLD ORDER /FREEMASON OTHER CULTS...

    October 26, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • george

      you really refer to the bible on this one? You know it has no meaning right? Bet you on the back of yours it says made in china too. That about sums up the quality of religion right there.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  11. COlady

    Steve Jobs a saint? Hardly! I actually thought much more highly of him when he was alive. He kept his life very private, so not too many heard what Steve Jobs, the man, was really like. Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, did great things. But now that he's gone, more and more info about the man is coming to light. And to be quite frank, I'm not at all impressed with what I'm learning. He was a control freak, obsessive compulsive, and cruel. The way he handled the situation surrounding the birth of his first child is appalling (and I don't buy the excuse that he was just young). And his family suffered at the expense of his business. No amount of money can make up for the damage he's caused his kids. Steve Jobs, the man, was NO saint. Not by a long shot.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  12. TruthInPerception


    October 26, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  13. Liquidus

    I am absolutely sick of hearing about Jobs as if he was the deciding factor in the digital revolution. Dennis Ritchie, the creator of C, dies and only barely gets a single footnote on CNN in passing? It's well known that the US mainstream media has a habit of making messiahs/poster boys out of those who are in bed with them, but that doesn't mean it is right.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  14. Debbie

    ENOUGH ALREADY. He was a great man but he is gone and we need to move on.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  15. Richard

    I have never owned an iMac, an iPod, and iPhone, or any Apple product period in 30 years, so Steve Jobs is just another person to me. Sure, Apple has come a long way in the world of home computing, and more importantly, mobile electronic devices, but not everyone uses their products.

    He may be the hipster messiah, but to normal people, Steve Jobs was just another inventor. Saint? Hardly.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Newyorker

      If you actually used one of his devices, you might change your opinion.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      I have an iphone and ipad. they are just tools, nothing more.
      Certainly nothing worth shouting genius to the heavens about.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  16. John

    Steve Jobs wasn't a saint, but he was a brilliant strategic thinker. Maybe once in every generation do we get someone who consistently achieves all of his or her life.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  17. Steve

    Not a saint, but a fantastic way to find the irrational around us. Seriously, what kind of person idolizes a person who is quite frankly ripping them off the way apple does?

    October 26, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  18. Demihuman

    yes – we are taking this steve jobs thing way too far. He didn't fundamentally impact how we view our universe or galaxy. Or help us understand our place or purpose in the universe. He did not help move the human race toward an age of enlightenment where the search for meaning and purpose in life is the main focus. No he invented accessories that distracted us from all of this. Made us less social in the real world – entrenched us into digital slavery where one can't even have a whole conversation without being inturrepted by a txt, facebook alert, face time chat or twitter feeds. Yes he was a great thinker, so on and so forth, but a mere blip of importance in terms of significant or positive impact on humanity. whats our Orgin? who created us? (don't say GOD) whats in a black whole? Why is quantum mechanics so different from classical physics theories; why is the quantum world so unpredictable? How can we travel faster than the speed of light and leave our planet to expand the reach of humanity? what physical/non physical, or dimensional world hold all of this together? Answer a couple of these questions with proof and THEN I can start to care that Steve Jobs died.....

    October 26, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  19. Robin

    He was a person but the media is having a Steve Jobs frenzy, enough already!

    October 26, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Weethatpeeps

      Go back to your Dell Dude!

      October 26, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  20. Sabina

    I take umbrage with this statement in the article: 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.

    As if there is something wrong with "secular" sainthood? We all know that Jobs was no saint, but what if he was? Does he have to be religious to be considered a saint? Can you be an atheist or agnostic and live a saintly life?

    October 26, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Jesus

      You have to be Catholic to be a saint, they invented them. They also invented child molesting.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:47 am |
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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.