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. Bob

    Apple fans are like a cult. He was a businessman who made a profit for his company, nothing more.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  2. bca

    He did nothing to change the world for the better, he simply showed us how to turn consumers into mindless zombies.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Hannah

      Amen to that.
      Oops, I mean "I agree."

      October 26, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  3. Brandt Hardin

    Visionaries like Steve Jobs reveal the true secret to the Universe in that nothing is impossible with time, perseverance, and positive visualization. Such a passion for furthering human communication inspires. His legacy will survive generations with names like Edison, Tesla as the greatest inventors and visionaries of all time. As an artist, I draw from these inspirations and advancements in my work and you may enjoy my recent portrait of Mr. Jobs, now In Memoriam at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/08/end-of-era-steve-jobs.html

    October 26, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  4. coder

    NO, but the media sure is – of course, the media has to protect the 1%

    October 26, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  5. vivian

    No one should forget the way he treated his first daughter from the ex-girl friend. No decent human being (no matter how much money they have or how old their are) would deny their own kid for so many years! This man is not a hero to me! He made good business decisions, but there are far better human beings everywhere.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  6. S-man

    Nothing new. People seem to take on amazing powers once they are dead. Look at Ronald Reagan. One of the worst presidents of all time. Took the country from a surplus to near-crippling deficit and clearly was partially lost in the head. Yet he's worshiped. As far as Jobs – being a genius and visionary in supplying us with electronic toys doesn't come close to saint qualities.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • james

      And the most amusing thing there to me is that if Reagan were alive and running for office today, he'd be politically crucified as a liberal by the conservative base that now idolizes the man. I don't get it.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  7. berman

    Yes people turned him into a saint and its disgusting. Y'all do realize that he moved his production operations to China where Apple employed close to 1,000,000 people by some estimates forcing them to live in company barracks, paying them $100 per month, AND using child labor. What a great American.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Miss Demeanor

      It's ironic that the beret-wearing academics who speak out the loudest against worker exploitation are his biggest fanboys. Jobs vastly improved a few devices. This does make a selfish, mean-spirited hippie a genius. iJerk, iSteal, iExploit. There's an epitaph.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  8. who wins?

    Steve Jobs vs. Chuck Norris ?

    October 26, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  9. Tim

    People who wander through life with no enthusiasm for anything are dumbfounded by those who do have it. They use words like "cult" and "fanatic" when talking about those people. Anyone who has been a fan of the Mac since it's beginnings understand that.

    This article is just an extension of that, except now they're trying to raise the bar to sainthood. Basically, if you have felt any sadness (and possibly expressed such sadness) for a man whose work changed almost everyone's life, then you are a fanatic contributing to some new religion.

    No, Mr. Laderman, we are not trying to elevate Steve Jobs to sainthood. Is this the kind of thing your students at Emory University are taught? If so, it's no wonder that today our children graduate with so little actual education instilled in them. I hope this is not the beginning of an effort to get a government grant to study the theory!

    October 26, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  10. Jackie

    The guy was a deadbeat dad of the worst order. His babymomma was on welfare while he was getting rich. He claimed he was sterile in order to avoid paternity. I have no idea why people are worshipping this man.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  11. Hugo

    Why do we always have to throw religion in everything? Why can't a person be good and be remembered for the good they did? Ronald Reagan is worshipped by the GOP, so why can't the people with some more realism like what Steve Jobs did?

    October 26, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  12. Kyle Christopher

    I think it's natural to speak of anyone reverently after they have died. Whenever you see family or friends talking about someone on the news they always say something like "Jane was such a great person. She just lit up a room and was the center of attention. EVERYONE loved her." The problem is, everyone isn't special and not everyone lights up a room. So, when you get a person like Steve Jobs who was special and nearly universally admired, the desire to turn him into a saint is understandable.

    If anyone is interested I started my own blog about religion.. no big deal just for fun:


    October 26, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  13. Barking Alien

    Steve Jobs was a great tech visionary but he was not a saint. Let's just remember him for his contributions to technology but not canonize him as a saint.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Miss Demeanor

      Borrowed the graphical interface idea, had Microsoft build it for his company. Lied to sell 'his' operating system (also borrowed) claiming 'because it is based on UNIX it is invulnerable. This is genius??? What a crock. IT-workers on the west coast all know Jobs was a jerk. Wake up sheep... read his biography.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  14. NorCalMojo

    Does anyone remember the inventor of the microwave? The dishwasher?
    Yeah, I didn't think so.

    In 20 years it'll be the same for the "inventor" of the ipad.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • vivian

      Jobs didn't invent anything. He bullied the engineers till they did.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • james

      Unfortunately the "inventor" of Apple in this sense was Wozniak, the other Steve. Woz was the true genius, the man behind the curtain, Jobs was the slick salesman who took the credit, and continued to exploit and take the credit of many brilliant engineers since.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  15. VegasRage

    Well yes, CNN is doing it's damnedest to make Steve Jobs a Saint. So stop it already.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Miss Demeanor

      All that free advertising CNN gave Jobs. It couldn't have cost him more than a dozen iPood's.

      October 26, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  16. Josh

    A Saint? That would be quite a downgrade for someone who is already considered to be the father of Jesus (-phone).

    October 26, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  17. Anonymous Coward

    "We all have computers, iPods and iPhones."

    Except that I bought my first computer long before Steve Jobs ever sold a Macintosh; my current computers run MS-DOS, Windows, and several different flavors of Linux, and there are a few packed in my mother-in-law's basement that have their own proprietary operating systems too. I had a cell phone before the iPhone, and I don't have a smartphone even today, i- or otherwise (the phones are handy, but the price of data plans bites). And I've never owned an iPod, either; mp3 players, too, existed before iStuff, going back even before the famous Diamond Rio.

    In short, the praise being heaped on Steve Jobs comes from the same source as the virtual worship of iEverything: the adulation of the ignorant, who think the first shiny thing presented to them is the original and the best, and eagerly pay to be "different", just like everybody else.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • EnoughAlready

      You may have bought your first computer before the Mac came along, but it is exceedingly unlikely you bought it before the Apple ][ was being mass produced, never mind the Apple I. Steves Jobs and Wozniak did, indeed, create the PC market

      October 26, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  18. Neo

    yes i would like to have a snow , and get my snowboard under my feet .

    October 26, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  19. Bossman

    I agree that no one really mentions what happens behind the scenes. Slaved production in China where workers get lied to and are underpaid and overworked to make iphones and ipads. A technology/marketing genius, but no saint...

    October 26, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  20. Roland

    Oh for Pete's sake!! A Saint. Hell why not, we managed to make Kim Kardashian a celebrity millionnaire.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:46 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.