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. TheLord

    Steve Jobs who? Give me a fkn break! He was nothing, just a normal guy with a great idea to put all the technology that was already out there in one little shinny peace of metal. The fans and CNN probably think he was a GOD!

    October 26, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Moe Smith

      same as the fuktard who uses the avatar of TheLord? hypocrite... but wait... that's actually typical of any and every religion... hypocrisy. continue as you were.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  2. chris

    wait how did Jobs make anyones life better like your examples...Cell phones were already out....He didnt invent the cell phone...

    October 26, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Gene

      Yes, and, as somebody has already commented, Shakespeare didn't invent the English language.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • jay

      It's not a fair comparision, Shakespeare most likely worked alone as Jobs did early on. Apple has many people working on R & D. Remember that Steve Jobs didn't do this alone and as far as you and I know, may have simply been pushing people to improve and refine the products. The scientist and engineers improved the products like the iPhone, not Jobs. It's like saying a single person is responsible for a new Ferarri.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Gene

      It's not a comparison, "fair" or not.

      It's an analogy.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  3. jay

    He is not a saint just a businessman. He produced electronic consumer goods, he did not invent them on his own! Get real people!

    October 26, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  4. mwjeepster

    Definitely not a saint. Next.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Chuckles

      but he cured my headache! and I knew a friend of a friend who prayed to the almighty steve jobs to make his knee pain go away in like, days later it did. MILAGRE!

      He'll be beatified in no time

      October 26, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  5. jayare

    Steve Jobs came up with great ideas that made himself and a select few around him very wealthy. He then exported all the manufacturing jobs created by his ideas to other countries which allowed him to be even more wealthy. He represents all that is wrong with America today.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  6. Then

    and it took you, CNN, until his death to figure this out?

    October 26, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Moe Smith

      drink enough of the "cool-aid" and people will believe anything... just look at (any) religion!

      October 26, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  7. Sean

    Im on my second iPhone.. I love it for the most part.. But the OS is getting old and played out.. If they dont make major updates to iOS when the iPhone5 comes out then Im jumping ship.. And despite having an iPhone for the last few years I have never thought of Steve Jobs as anything other than an arrogant dbag.. And the picture they put on the book is not helping that arrogant dbag image..

    October 26, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  8. really?

    CNN-A saint is a holy person, now how does Steve fit in that category?
    Granted, Steve is a tech 'genious',
    A saint? sorry -NO.

    Steve is to a Saint as CNN is to Christian.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Moe Smith

      a saint is not necessarily a holy person... it's someone who has committed THREE miracles and has died. It's a misguided stereotype that it has to be a "holy person".

      October 26, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Catch a clue, Moe

      @Moe – If you actually were to do something radical like use a dictionary, you would find things like "one officially recognized especially through canonization as preeminent for holiness" and "In Christian usage, "saint" refers to any believer who is "holy" and in whom Christ dwells, whether in heaven or in earth."

      October 26, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • JayMueller

      IIf you read the bible you will realize the definition of a saint is not someone who has performed miracles, but rather a saint is simply a believer in Christ. You can find that in Acts 9:13. "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem."

      Catholicism has hi-jacked that definition.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  9. Dennis

    This is not something new in American tradition, Franklin for almost 150 years after is death was considered almost saintly as well as Edison and Ford. Check out the films made about Edison in the 30's and early 40's he was a revered character and like Jobs was a terible manager but someone who products affected the loves of millions.

    America likes to put people like that on pedistals its part of out national ethos.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  10. Pablo

    Nicole and atg284
    To say that we are giving this man way too much attention, is like saying we gave too much attention to EInstein, Edison and Tesla. The face of computing and communications would be VERY different today and most people don't realize his achievements. Don't simplify things you don't understand.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      The fact that you think Jobs belongs in the same sentence as Einstein and Tesla shows how you are simplifying things you dont understand.
      He does belong in the same sentence as Edison however seeing as both took credit for other people's ideas.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • chris

      LMAO Jobs compared to Einstein? Did I read this right...Jobs is really just good well great at designing his own products and great at marketing..>Well convincing you that you need it....Cell phones were around way before the Iphone...

      October 26, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Nicole

      He wasn't the one writing the programs and such, he definately had a vision but it was others who made it a reality, where is their credit?

      October 26, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  11. tallulah13

    Wow. This article elevates "fluff journalism" to a whole new level.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  12. johninmemphis

    " Are we turning Steve Jobs into a saint?"
    Looks like we are and it's a crying shame.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  13. Moe Smith

    "Are we turning Steve Jobs into a saint?"

    Only if you keep on publishing article after fnkking article about him on here. yes, you're sure as fnkk trying!

    October 26, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  14. frank

    I doubt that is what we are doing. What was the point of this article?

    October 26, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  15. _ThaNerd_

    OK why is Darth Vader's biography book white and has Steve Jobs on the cover!?!?

    October 26, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Moe Smith

      comparing steve jobs to darth vader is like comparing george w. bush to abe lincoln.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  16. jlsppw

    “We” is plural.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  17. Steve Bobsonnobs

    Open page about Apple, Control+F to open search, search "Biography", see many results. Oh look, another advertisement.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  18. Gene

    I would put him in the pantheon with Edison, the Wright brothers, and Ford.

    People who profoundly changed the materiality of our daily lives. Mostly for the better. No more, no less.

    But, Ford was a noted anti-semite.

    So, I would not put Jobs in the pantheon with Gandhi, King, or Bonhoeffer. These were our true saints.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Moe Smith

      King? as in Martin Luther King Jr? The alcoholic wife abuser? yep. definitely a saint.

      now... Where's my beer b!t@h? Don't make me tell you again!

      October 26, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Gene

      Yes, that King! That very one!

      Who called us to live up to the creed that "all men are created equal."

      Which dwarfs his all-too-human foibles. Like Augustine.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • emil

      King was no saint.

      King was a lying sleezebag with a funny voice, who used his celebrity to nail every young girl that worked for him. He never meant a single word he ever said because in his lifetime his work did not benefit non black people. And since his death people who "continue his work" have not done anything to bridge the gaps or make things better.

      His monument in DC is a disgrace.

      Jobs might have been a jerk but his work DID and CONTINUES to bring the world together peacefully. He is one of the people who transformed King's "dream" into a reality from a joke.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Gene

      Hoo, boy, did I ever drill a tooth or two!

      October 26, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  19. Nicole

    This guy knew how to convince us that his product was something we "needed" and we all fell for it. His "secrecy" is what made us spend WAY too much money on non-necessities even in times of a recession. While his products have been amazing and wonderful I think we are giving him WAY more credit than deserved...he's not the only person making these products and we are failing to give credit to those other people who made these items.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • chris

      Thats the truth...People in the end have no idea what Jobs does...They think hes designing and engineering everything...Hes a great showman....but if you read the book you find that some of the biggest moves were made by people who underminded him and disregarded Jobs...Like the parts about the disk drive into the Mac...IF they had listened to Jobs teh Mac would have been another 18 months on the shelve...

      This guy in no way is half of the person that Bill Gates is...

      He tried to drag his childs mother thru the garbage...Thought he was smarter than Drs...treated people poorly...respected nobody...took credit for things he had no idea of...Just a regular boss that took ideas and stole ideas from other people and got others to work for him...Which does deserve credit for manipulating and conning people and crapping on his good friend from teh beginning who he cut out of stock options...This guy is trash but its still interesting...

      October 26, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • dao

      Beverages existed before Coca-Cola. Cotton swabs before q-Tips. Steve Jobs was a nerd empowered, becoming the face of the easy to use computer device.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  20. atg284

    Really CNN??? This man is no saint. You are just so far up his butt you can't see daylight!

    October 26, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • gta 482

      No, your head's so far up your butt, you can see out your own mouth.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:13 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.