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. Eric, Colorado

    I wonder why no one has interviewed Apples other co-founder regarding Mr. Jobs? Probably because he would not have anything nice to say about him. Please remember that Mr. Jobs ran Apple into the ground and was removed from Apple. He then founded NEXT which hardly anyone remembers because it failed as well. If it wasn't for one of Apple's engineers, not Mr. Jobs, coming up with the Ipod Apple would be non-existant today.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  2. Doc Vestibule

    He is being made into an idol, not a saint.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  3. Sidney Stickman

    No he is not a SAINT....... Why CNN finds it necessary to single him out for an article like this is beyond me; Society puts people on pedestals everyday, No ones questions the placement of EVERY "Ignorant Super Athlete" on a pedestal, why question that of Steve Jobs.... Who btw contributed far more to society than ANY "Ignorant/Uneducated Super Athlete" ever did. It is sad that most kids today can name the MVP for any given sport, but cannot find their own state on a map, and many can barely read and write as they "graduate" from High School..... Maybe we should be venerating Intelligent, Educated People instead of ignorant athletes (and rock stars).

    October 26, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  4. shawn L

    He was no saint. He was a businessman who took other peoples ideas and inventions and knew how to package them in a way people would buy them. That is all.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  5. MrMac

    Steve who?

    October 26, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  6. joepa

    Maybe CNN is trying to turn him into a saint to try and milk every dollar they can out of his death. Most normal people realize he was WELL compensated in wealth for his contribution to the technological world.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  7. am

    I agree that Jobs was not a saint, but the products that he presented to us have changed the way we live/work/play. SO to say he isnt an important person in our current culture is ridiculous. His life will continue to be analyzed with rose colored glasses because of the things he brought us. It kind of reminds me of Babe Ruth. Where he is still an iconic figure for 12 year old boys playing baseball, but his personal life was a disaster.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Bill

      what products? we have on iphone and one ipod in my household. what's the big deal??

      October 26, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  8. Rob

    Well, yes, Prof Marti. If you are going to completely redefine the meaning of the word 'saint' to suit your purpose, then I suppose we could argue that my childhood dog was a saint. (Can you guess his breed?) However, that's just not what a saint is. In addition to a quick dictionary look up, which does not support your definition, I looked up the entire list of Catholic saints and, while I certainly didn't read about them all, I grabbed about a dozen of the common ones to read about. Not one had served as an intermediary making the intangible accessible. Most of them just founded some order of priests or something, and virtually all of them were identified as being virtuous people (at least by the standard of their time). So I must reject your hypothesis that Jobs should be considered a saint, and would suggest that Father Martin has a better grasp of the issue. Jobs was a brilliant and driven businessman, who had both an incredible ability to make people see the world his way, and an uncanny ability to guess what consumers would want. But he was also a mean-spirited, selfish person who struggled just to be a decent human being. I think the world is better off for the products his company has brought us, and therefore by his existence, but the man was no saint. My greatest hope is that his family will have a more humanitarian outlook than he did, and that we may one day see a Steve Jobs Foundation competing with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation for doing good things in the world.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  9. keeth

    Some fools are, but a lot of us understand that, while he added to the human technological revolution, he was a real jerk to just about everyone, including his own family.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  10. MariaVzla

    OH and btw, I think this article is crap.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • ton

      Considering what he did to music and the music industry ( if you're on that end you know what I mean. do you see any record stores any more? and try making money from it NOW ) he is the devil.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  11. Sara

    You really think that all saints were good and led nice and impeccable lives? Did anyone say Cyril of Alexandria and his uncle Theophilus?

    October 26, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  12. MariaVzla

    I was actually looking forward to reading the biography till I read this. I dont want to read a book that rants on and on about how crappy someone treated somebody else. I thought it was going to be an inspiring book, not a "tell all the dirt you can find" book,

    October 26, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  13. iBod

    A majority of you are under-thinking the relevancy and point of this article...

    Is the guy a Saint? Depends on how one defines and categorizes "Saint". Steve Jobs was the Messiah of Modern-Day Innovation. You cannot deny that. He was our Savior, of sorts. On the subject of that same aura you can call him a Saint, for that exact reason. We would not be at the point of technology had Steve Jobs not set the bar for companies to compete with. That is a fact. When Apple innovates, competing companies apply Apple's ideas to their products, and with the ability to set low prices. Why? Because the consumers buy expensive Apple products, cheapening the technology abroad. Apple is one of the only modern-day corporations with enough money to apply new technology within their products to lower the costs Worldwide.
    The path Apple has taken during the reign of Steve Jobs is beyond extraordinary words to describe. Your mp3 player today is less than $100 because of the masterful success of the iPod. Your smartphone today can be bought for less than $200 because of the masterful success of the iPhone. Your tablet today can be bought between $200 to $300 because of the masterful success of the first and second generation iPads. Apple is the reason for this...Steve Jobs is the reason for this. He was the Saint of Modern-Day Innovation–a Messiah...a Savior. To deny this is to be blinded from history.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  14. Jim

    Unbelievable. The media continues to heap praise on this guy, who was really nothing but another snake-oil salesman. One of these writers seemed to be claiming that he invented the computer – absurd. He invented nothing; just took others' ideas and marketed them brilliantly.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  15. Travis

    All of these products do nothing but steal what little time and money you have away from you. F#$% Steve Jobs and his useless junk.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Shelly

      HAHA! Yes! and I agree!!! He had a brilliant mind, but was an awful, truly awful human being. let's all be straight here that he did not cure cancer or feed the hungry. He made really neat and handy gadgets. Had Steve Jobs never existed, I am sure the world would still be pretty much what we have today...his impact is being way over dramatized.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  16. Chris

    The guy updated the Walkman, that hardly qualifies him to be a saint. And, it sounds like he was a pretty nasty person in life.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  17. Pranita Kadam

    No sane person in the new world compares Steve Jobs to a saint! Steve Jobs has his place and his death is mourned by many. I think the report has gone tangential on a improbable concept that only he believes.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  18. Sidney

    I'm wondering why only men were interviewed for this topic?
    Diversity of voices, please.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • shawn L

      Oh shut up.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  19. Schwe1nehund

    I have tremendous respect for Steve and what he's done. But lets face it: comparing him to Einstein or even Alan Turing (the REAL father of modern computing), is absurd.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  20. CDM

    Of course he was NOT and is NOT a saint.
    He was a jerk, and his dying wish was to get to know his children and offering up excuses as to why he was a poor father.
    Saint? Not a chance. Narcissistic workaholic? ...absolutely.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Lemmingh8er

      The fan bois thought he was an iSaint on earth. Nothing will change their opinion of him.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:37 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.