Hopefully you saw Andy Crouch’s thoughtful piece in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend, “Steve Jobs, The Secular Prophet”, which explores the religious parallels that have become increasingly blatant (everywhere you look) in the days following Jobs’ death. I mentioned some bewilderment at the widespread emotional outpouring in Friday’s Another Week Ends column, and Crouch’s article touches on a number of the reasons why. Clearly a major spiritual vein has been exposed, one that goes beyond mere cultural preoccupation. Crouch does a fine job of unpacking the dynamics at work, particularly as it relates to the ‘message’ or hope that Jobs made no bones about preaching. Or at least including as a, um, core part of Apple’s marketing strategy, sincere as it may have been.
Clearly, many Apple users – particularly young ones – identified with Jobs’ Gospel of Progress. For them, his SteveNote talks were a combination state of the union address, worship service and magic show. And there was something undeniably exciting about those presentations i.e. what would he say next?! As a Christian, I happen to think Jobs was on to something about death being life’s change agent (big time), but still, the notion that technological advances could/would/should have any bearing on the profoundly static human condition – that technology has the power to make the world a better place, fundamentally – seems painfully lacking, as Crouch makes clear in his conclusion. That folks of my/any generation would be so taken in by it, so attached to it as an ethos that Jobs’ death would provoke straight-up veneration, strikes me as more than sad; it’s strikes me as, well, a little pathetic. Is this really what passes for wisdom these days? Would Jobs have even meant it to? Or am I ascribing an ideological ‘buy-in’ that’s not there? Are people simply mourning the fact that their next tech upgrades might not be as cool as they would have been if Jobs had lived?
Personally speaking, as much as I love my Apple products (and have since my first powerbook in 1998 – zing!), if I’m being honest, they have not been agents of peace or happiness or even relief in my life. Not by a long shot. And I suspect I’m not alone. If anything, my deeply entrenched iLife is emblematic of the illusion at the heart of all ‘idolatry’: that the next email will scratch the affirmation itch more satisfactorily, the next blog post, the next text, etc. Machines that promise control but deliver the opposite, re-contextualizing our inner agitation and bondage more successfully with each passing year/model, rather than assuaging it (remotely). Not that the tech itself is to blame in any way – someone’s got to make the most user-friendly, attractive, high-performing products and I for one am grateful I don’t have to cart all my CDs around any longer – just that any deeper ‘promise’ is so clearly belied by experience …he types… on his Macbook Pro… while listening to iTunes:
Steve Jobs was extraordinary in countless ways—as a designer, an innovator, a (demanding and occasionally ruthless) leader. But his most singular quality was his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple’s early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and turned it into a sign of promise and progress.
That bitten apple was just one of Steve Jobs’s many touches of genius, capturing the promise of technology in a single glance. The philosopher Albert Borgmann has observed that technology promises to relieve us of the burden of being merely human, of being finite creatures in a harsh and unyielding world. The biblical story of the Fall pronounced a curse upon human work—”cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.” All technology implicitly promises to reverse the curse, easing the burden of creaturely existence. And technology is most celebrated when it is most invisible—when the machinery is completely hidden, combining godlike effortlessness with blissful ignorance about the mechanisms that deliver our disburdened lives.
Steve Jobs was the evangelist of this particular kind of progress—and he was the perfect evangelist because he had no competing source of hope. He believed so sincerely in the “magical, revolutionary” promise of Apple precisely because he believed in no higher power.
This is the gospel of a secular age. It has the great virtue of being based only on what we can all perceive—it requires neither revelation nor dogma. And it promises nothing it cannot deliver—since all that is promised is the opportunity to live your own unique life, a hope that is manifestly realizable since it is offered by one who has so spectacularly succeeded by following his own “inner voice, heart and intuition.”
Mr. Jobs was by no means the first person to articulate this vision of a meaningful life—Socrates, the Buddha and Emerson come to mind. To be sure, fully embracing this secular gospel requires an austerity of spirit that few have been able to muster, even if it sounds quite fine on the lawn of Stanford University.
Upon close inspection, this gospel offers no hope that you cannot generate yourself and only the comfort of having been true to yourself. In the face of tragedy and evil—the kind of tragedy that cuts off lives not just at 56 years old but at 5 or 6, the kind of evil bent on eradicating whole tribes and nations from the earth—it is strangely inert.
…the genius of Steve Jobs was to persuade us, at least for a little while, that cold comfort is enough. The world—at least the part of the world in our laptop bags and our pockets, the devices that display our unique lives to others and reflect them to ourselves—will get better. This is the sense in which the tired old cliché of “the Apple faithful” and the “cult of the Mac” is true. It is a religion of hope in a hopeless world, hope that your ordinary and mortal life can be elegant and meaningful, even if it will soon be dated, dusty and discarded like a 2001 iPod.
For people of a secular age, Steve Jobs’s gospel may seem like all the good news we need. But people of another age would have considered it a set of beautifully polished empty promises, notwithstanding all its magical results. Indeed, they would have been suspicious of it precisely because of its magical results.
…technological progress, for all its gifts, is the exception rather than the rule. It works wonders within its own walled garden, but it falters when confronted with the worst of the world and the worst in ourselves.