Steve Jobs - modern prophet?

Harold Camping, the would-be San Francisco Bay prophet, wasn’t all wrong. Late October 2011 brought Judgment Day to this world, but not as he predicted. No earthquake or rapture was required. God didn’t even need to show up to do the judging. We’re judging our own culture through debate over the life and death of Steve Jobs.

I’m beginning to think that Jobs is the boomer generation’s JFK. He so embodied their idealized narrative. Now, in his death, their lives hang in the balance. Will they be found wanting? Will the rest of us?

Look at Jobs' resume:

Wealth and success: Apple, Pixar, Macintosh, iPhone, iPod, iPad, etc.

Spirituality: Zen Buddhism, consulted with gurus in India, meditation, diet.

Adventurous youth: drugs, sex, grew up a techno hippie in the Bay Area.

Family: died surrounded by his loving family, lived in a “normal” home.

Made a dent in the universe: fulfilled the dream of expressive individualism as espoused in his commencement address.

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

A respected pastor from my own denomination made this statement on Facebook: “You know who we ought to thank God for? Steve Jobs of Apple. He was an instrument of God without doubt.”

Now, with some time since his passing and the release of his authorized biography, “Jobs the Jerk” has become the defendant. Can we really have it all, success and niceness too? Is our lust for magic and power through technology destroying our ecosystem and exposing China’s character?

In the "60 Minutes" piece on the book, Jobs says this to the camera:

“I saw my life as an arc. And that it would end and compared to that nothing mattered. You're born alone, you're gonna die alone. And does anything else really matter? I mean what is it exactly is it that you have to lose Steve? You know? There's nothing.”

Where I think this is leading us is to an Ecclesiastes moment. Steve Jobs seemed to master all things under the sun, save death and himself. In the end, he finds “There’s nothing.” Apple will have its day, but that day will pass. He hopes the dent he leaves in the universe will be something other than beautifully designed e-waste. We are fixed on him today like the viewers of Truman Burbank of "The Truman Show," but once the show is done we’ll return to our baths, food and labors, which never end. How might his life arc have been different if resurrection had been part of his figuring?

When the Isaiah 60 ships from Tarshish arrive, Jobs and his gadgets may well be represented, but the man was a nihilistic Qoheleth. If this is the best we can do, we need a better prophet.

(Photo courtesy of Matthew YoheAido/Wikimedia Commons.)

Paul Vander Klay is the pastor of a church in Sacramento, Calif. Read more on his blog and Twitter.

Comments (12)

Leave a Comment
I’ve read a few of these “a Christian response to Steve Jobs” pieces since he died; what a tiresome endeavor. The structure: His work was great but isn’t it a shame he wasn't a professed Christian and now it was for nothing.

Suppose Paul is right and Jobs was nothing more than a “nihilistic teacher,” as with the writer of Ecclesiastes. Do we only lament? Centuries of saints have drawn deep wisdom from that book, embarrassing as it is to our chipper go-get-em-tiger evangelicalism. It’s something worth listening to. So also are some of Steve’s ideas and visions (though not to place the two on equal footing!).

Why is our first instinct to wag a finger of disapproval about his eternity and not to sit quietly and listen first, to see what we might learn? Are there packs of Christians who roam the halls of the MoMA and sigh deeply every time they come across the Warhol collection?

I still haven’t seen a single Christian commentator struggle with Steve’s actual depiction of Christianity, told on pages 14-15 of Isaacson’s book. Steve was raised Lutheran but gave up at age 13 after bringing his pastor a picture of starving children in Africa and asking if God knew about them. The pastor gave a glib answer, and Steve never again returned to Jesus. Our reflections are about Steve’s lack of faith, but not about how the church often fails to respond seriously to the deep questions of its youth.

Steve wasn’t a prophet, but he had deep wisdom and an insightful vision; let’s learn from that first, and let the Lord settle what does or doesn’t happen to Steve at the end of his arc.
Steve Jobs was never out to become a "prophet". His message was 'think for yourself'. He was a genius who struggled with religion and received the trite and incomplete answers that often alienate troubled seekers of faith when offered in lieu of serious discussion.

If we draw one important lesson from him it might be that he seems to consider that he some of his best work came after his diagnosis with Cancer.

Finding out you are living on borrowed time has a way of changing how you look at the world. I love the Song "Live like you were dying" by Tim McGraw.
I think you are probably right.  Steve Jobs is the JFK of this generation.

The question is, what do we make of these leaders, these icons?  

One can't ignore them.  Most of the time you can't partner with them, for they don't really preach the gospel.  It seems cheesy to use them, but say Jesusy things about them or their life work.  (like so many of the Christian Steve Job blog posts)  How do we put cultural icons in their proper place?
Steve Jobs surely was a seer or prophet. I believe he foresaw the changes coming and was a significant part of that change energy. Jobs was more of an artist than a businessman. He united beauty, power and simplicity. He saw the potential of the digital revolution and steered its direction. 

I remember the joy and anticipation of our family as we ripped open the Macintosh package under the Christmas tree in 1985, and the delight when I computerized the creative department of the ad agency I was working at in 1989. The intuitive human interface, the standardization and power made Google, Facebook and, (unfortunately), pornography possible, changed the way we communicate, enjoy music, do business and consume entertainment. 

Bill Gates was focused on building a business, capturing market share and creating products that were rich in features. Windows was a flawed response to the Macintosh interface. Microsoft created engineering driven products while Apple designed products that were rich in human benefits for "the rest of us". We read about what Gates did with his massive wealth, his awesome house, his philanthropy (certainly a more Christian response). Steve was unconcerned with his house, his food, his family, his wealth or philanthropy.  Business was secondary to him. Without Jobs vision computers would be difficult to use tools designed for technicians. Jobs was all about the human interface and while not originating the concept (that honor belongs to Xerox), he saw the potential. 

Jobs had me at the breath-taking beauty of the first Macintosh introduction TV spot that was all about destroying George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 prophecy. But, that put his company squarely in the camp of anti-authoritarian, utopian visionaries. His Zen Buddhist ethic influenced the minimalistic beauty of all his products. The apple with the bite taken out was the perfect symbol. Forbidden knowledge giving the user god-like power was what the digital revolution offered. All technology has been about recapturing that Tower of Babel consciousness that we enjoyed early on in our history. To speak one language, dwell in close proximity, to have unlimited imagination, to be god-like has been our long journey. 

I have no idea if Steve was redeemed in the final days of his life (I hope so), he came back around in the last few months to conjecturing about a Judeo-Christian personal God. This was driven in part by his own intuitive sense of immortality and a concern that his knowledge and consciousness should continue on. I view Steve Jobs as a significant agent of change in the direction of the human race, an artist, a seer. For that I would accord him the status of prophet.
"The structure: His work was great but isn’t it a shame he wasn't a professed Christian and now it was for nothing."
Is this what you see in my piece? 
Paul,  normally I really enjoy your commentary, but I can see Christian’s point. You have a narrow view of him as a philosopher, as a boomer guru who propounded nihilistic values. Calling him the “boomer JFK” is kind of dismissive and de-valuing of his contribution. He is probably more significant for generation X and he certainly provided a style template for people like Rob Bell and a lot of other skinny millenial hipsters dressed in black. I see him as an artist, a seer, who did not just design a few trivial tech products (“beautiful e-waste”), but changed the way we interact and express ourselves, sometimes for the worse. Apple’s “day may pass” as you say, but the changes he effected are permanent. That’s what artists and seers do. Without a doubt, in terms of values, Bill Gates is more of a humanitarian, concerned with the families he employs, the business and the welfare and health of the world. God’s prophets and judges were not always the nicest guys, witness Samson and King David. And I am not saying he was a prophet in a Biblical sense, but he certainly saw the future and implemented it. You ask, “How might his life arc have been different if resurrection had been part of his figuring?” I don’t know, would he have been less creative but a nicer father or given a better commencement address or not driven his employees as hard? Who knows. I suspect you may be a Windows user (insert a smiley emoticon here).
I guess you have a darker view of JFK than I do. :) 

The point isn't the man, it's what the man epitomizes. Why is Jobs fascinating to us? Why did JFK fascinate the nation in his time? These men embodied the ideals and their lives exemplified the ideals of the culture. These were the ones who "arrived" at a level that an entire generation strived to be and to do. In both cases their early death grabs our attention and the values they epitomize are frozen like a snapshot while they are still vibrant in the culture and alive. 

Jobs is Qohelet, the wiseman/king/assembler of the book of Ecclesiastes. (See the link. I think Enns is about the most helpful I've read with respect that what is probably the most difficult book in the Bible to understand.) He has tasted, excelled, embodied, all that is available to this generation in this place and time and what is his answer? 

Jobs is helpful here because through him a generation hears its own voice, sees what it can contribute, can make its dent in the universe, but is it enough? 

I'm not assigning Jobs to heaven or hell. That's pointless. I'm not saying Jobs was "a good person" or "a bad person", that's simply our cultural moralism. I'm asking what Jobs says about us. 

I'm sorry my piece itself didn't speak more clearly. pvk
I agree with you Paul, I thought JFK was a noble guy who deeply affected my boomer generation for the better! However, Jobs was notoriously uncommunicative, rarely speaking to personal issues or values (not a good candidate for a JFK like figure). He didn’t care about the car he drove, the food he ate, the house he lived in, or politics. By contrast Bill Gates’ life style has been written up extensively, we’ve toured his house, the design and technology has been expounded at length, we are constantly reading articles about his philanthropic activity, his wife is very public, Gates and his father comment frequently on politics and social concerns. But Steve Jobs has always been a black box. He is fascinating because we know so little about him except for his laser-like focus on the aesthetics of his revolutionary products. He is the zen monk, living only for his creations. In that sense I don’t think he represents his generation. Does he really “embody the ideals of his culture”? I think he represents his own extremely peculiar character. Although he echos some of the author of Ecclesiastes’ observations in this first revealing book appearing after his death, he really has not been Qohelet/wiseman/commenter on human life. I don’t think you realize how much one man’s fierce, focused aesthetic has changed society. That is why he is fascinating. For most of America they are reading for the first time about his personal life and opinions. A generation does not hear its own voice through Jobs. It watches an awesome zen monk advance into the great unknown. He is like a single-minded athlete who performed at super-human levels. If you were talking about Dylan or John Lennon or Bono or Gates I would agree that their lives embody the ideals of their culture. They commented volubly. I know you are not weighing in on whether he was “good or bad”. But you are making a value judgement about his life being empty and pointless (e-waste) and speculating on whether his acknowledgement of the resurrection would have altered his life. “If this is the best we can do, we need a better prophet.”
Let's face it, many of the planet's major cities are now overrun with iPhone (and Facebook) zombies. If you cherish your iPhone or iPad, you're already on track to be an eager, early adopter of the mark of the beast. (Unless it's here already.) So, I don't thank God for Steve Jobs. But neither do I blame Jobs personally. After all, anyone who doesn't have new life in Jesus Christ is, by default, a slave to this world's satanic 'operating system', often with a misplaced hope in technology and the human spirit.

The bible says nothing about the Five Apps of the Apocalypse. I looked it up on the bible app on my iPad just to be sure. The advances being made in Autism, Alzheimer's and Stroke recovery is incredible. I downloaded a handwriting App for $1.99 for my son with Autism and it is amazing how easily he takes to working on the iPad where pencil paper tasks are near to impossible him most days. 

iBooks and ePublishings will save forests and that is good stewardship. Ebook publishing will allow for more Christian titles to hit the market. With a lower sales potential they might not have found a print market otherwise. Same is true of indie Christian itunes.

Keeping kids connected to parents so they can check in when they are out late is a definite bonus for any parent. Personal safety is a definite bonus of the cell phone revolution. The "find my iPod/iPhone" app allows me to find my child any time I want. She appreciates the potential of this app as much as I do.


Leave a comment

A login account is required to leave a comment

See the latest in:


promo 1 promo 2
promo 3 promo 4

Donate Now