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. Max

    Let the man be dead, MOVE ON!

    October 26, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  2. Dazzle

    Moe Smith, are you on drugs? You really sound like it LOL

    October 26, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  3. Alex

    RIP Marco Simoncelli

    October 26, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  4. ID.

    No, Steve Jobs wasn't a Saint.

    He was a successful and ruthless business man who egotistically ignored the advice of his doctors and believed that he would beat cancer through diet. Why the media insists on martyring this false idol is beyond me.

    Let's talk about Dennis Ritchie instead. His contributions to computing science (C, UNIX) have had a much bigger impact on society, and yet his passing on October 12th was barely noticed.

    May they both rest in peace.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  5. TruAmerikan

    No, but you reporter won't stop with this drivel. Point in fact...you are still going on about Michael Jackson. He was a celebrity who abused his power and money and he wound up dead. End of story.


    October 26, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  6. stevie68a

    Apple haters are such, mostly because the products are expensive. As a work-around, I only buy used. They always work great! You cannot cut corners on quality. But I also think Jobs' cancer was brought on by stress from his megalomania.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Tom

      hehe, "quality" like a case antenna from the geniuses at Apple... Jobs: "Don't hold it that way." Or a "design decision" to not process Flash files, which is really about a dispute with Adobe. You're right, though, Apple always has the consumer's best interests in mind and never screws anything up.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  7. Brick

    Has the resurrection occurred yet? Will there be an Apple like there is an Easter?

    October 26, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  8. Rang

    Someone needs to tell Mr. Martin that paragraphs are made up of more than one sentence.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:07 am |

    A Saint? Give me a break. He invented electronical devices that would have been invented sooner or later by someone else. Jobs didn't cure cancer, he didn't run an orphanage in India, he didn't work two jobs to put six kids through school. He invented cool electronics for rich Westerners. Where are our priorities that so many people put him on pedestal. Anyone who knows the Silicon Valley scene knows this was a deeply flawed egomaniac who was cruel and often lacking in compassion. Oh but of course we should adore him because he invented the IPhone. People can be really dumb when it comes to idolization.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • anoher1

      This is the only thing that makes any sense on this page. The cognitive dissonance used to compare Steve Jobs to a saint is astounding. Just quit with the Jobs love already. Steve didn't care about anyone who wasn't paying into his walled garden, money was his god, and now people want tomsee him as a saint?? It's just ridiculous.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  10. Derek

    Being a CEO who generates profit at any expense may be the criteria for sainthood in the religion of unfettered American Capitalism, but that's about it. Jobs was a greedy billionaire who took advantage of 3rd world slave labor to make golden calves for the worshipers of technology. Add to that that he stole from business partners, was a deadbeat dad, and was by all accounts a tyrant and a**hole, and I'd say he was the furthest thing from a saint by the classic definition.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  11. Melissa

    No, we aren't. But you reporters won't shut up about him. Knock it off.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  12. Tom

    Amazing how CNN contributes to this celebrity stricken society- there is very little that is "saintly" about Steve Jobs- phenomenal businessman, but saint status is the obvious confusion of CNN and apparently a good chunk of the public not knowing how to differentiate between celebrity and virtue.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • ScipioRising

      Very good analysis of the cult of celebrity we find ourselves living in today. St. Augustine he is not.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  13. mark

    steve jobs is a worthless pile of dog crap. glad that he died... i will never purchase or use any apple products.. hope they go out of business

    October 26, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • tallulah13

      I bet Steve Jobs did more in a month of his life than you will do in the entirety of yours, mark. I don't think the guy's a saint, but he was the driving force behind some remarkable products. Businesses will come and go, but I will continue to purchase Apple products for as long as they exist.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  14. mark

    it was a glorious day when that a**hole steve jobs died... and it will be even better when apple goes out of business.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Augustine

      And why is this?

      October 26, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Alex

      I'll take your thoughts into consideration the day you create something awe-inspiring like Jobs did.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • tensor

      Relax, it's short term. All this hoopla is just synergistic capitalism = bunch of greedy people exploiting whatever happens in order to turn a buck. It'll all be over soon, just like the circus always eventually leaves town.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  15. TheTraveler

    I don't know which is funnier, the notion that people are venerating Steve Jobs as "saint-like" or, judging from some of the really rude responses to this article, people who could use a "saint" to teach them some tolerance ...

    October 26, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  16. Cron

    Well better than filling up web sites and newspapers with trash from hollywood, crimes of sports stars and all that useless stuff.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  17. Jim

    It all depends on how you define the word "saint". The Catholics place restrictive requirements on it, but Paul calls us all saints. Peter calls us all a royal priesthood.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  18. TheLord

    CNN, you guys can get really pathetic with your subjects. This guy a Saint? Then Madonna with Pop in her golden years could have been Mother Teresa?

    October 26, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • tensor

      Check more into how the Vatican exploited Mother Teresa and how she allowed herself to be exploited. Everybody has issues and everybody has their shtick. Sadly.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  19. North of the 49th

    Just wait. I am sure that, any day now, he will rise from the dead.

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

    LOL seriously??? The dude was a shroud businessman and when confronted by his doctors about his cancer, he thought he could beat it with carrot juice and becoming a vegan... if he had attacked it aggressively in the beginning he may still have been alive today. I can't believe he would attack Google Android until his last breath, as opposed to spending it with family and friends. What a waste.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:01 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.