Radio guy Todd Wilken really ambushed me late this week when we hooked up to do the latest "Crossroads" podcast (click here to download or here to listen on your computer). The goal was to talk about the role that religion did or didn't play in the life and death of Steve Jobs, whose passing was marked with the kind of flood of digital and literal ink that is reserved for the most beloved members of the Baby Boom Generation.
Think about it. How many major editors and producers in this land of ours are 56 or close to it? This was the end of an era for legions of journalists.
Anyway, Wilken asked a question that rather shocked me. He recalled all of the key elements of the famous "Stevenote" addresses that Jobs so famously delivered at Macworld conferences and other media events announcing new products. You have the smooth and witty pitchman, the almost branded everyman clothing, the looming backdrop of iconic images and funny film clips, etc. A host of digital entrepreneurs have started copying this format, but no one pulled it off like Jobs.
But wait, there is another army of professionals who have mastered this method -- big-box, multimedia megachurch pastors. The similarities are striking, although it's clear that Jobs came first.
What is really going on in this scenario? Quite frankly, it's a rite built on a kind of sacramental theology. The goal is to consume the product in an attempt to become as cool and successful as the pitchman/preacher. The goal is to be changed, to merge with the image and become a new person -- purchase after purchase.
As the Jobs obituaries rolled out, I was fascinated by two major themes related to this. The first was the uncomfortable reality that Jobs was not, in the end, a very nice person or boss. He was so, so, so driven that he often crushed mortals in his path.
The headline on Religion News Service piece that ran in The Washington Post nailed this:
Epitaph for Steve Jobs: Too great to be good?
Here's a key passage in this piece by reporter David Gibson:
So was Steve Jobs a saint or a jerk? Maybe it’s not an either/or scenario. If greatness and goodness are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the history of actual saints (of the canonized variety) offers plenty of tales of holy men and women who were as hard-driving as Jobs and just as brusque.
St. Jerome, for example, the great fourth-century translator of the Bible, was notoriously testy. His disagreement with longtime friend Rufinus over certain points of theology prompted Jerome to say that Rufinus snorted like a pig and walked like a tortoise.
St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, could be withering in his criticism of the men under his command, and St. Catherine of Siena had no qualms about telling off the pope in the strongest terms.
Even Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the modern touchstone for sanctity, could be a sharp-tongued taskmaster. “Is this not a humiliation for you that I, at my age, can take a regular meal and do a full day’s work -- and you live with the name of the poor yet enjoy a lazy life?” she wrote to sisters whom she deemed insufficiently industrious.
“That’s like Steve Jobs telling someone the prototype you presented isn’t up to snuff,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “My Life with the Saints.”
The second subject that drove many of the Jobs hagiographies was the supposedly Zen-like quality that infused his work, which many journalists connected with the Apple czar's youthful turn toward the East and Zen Buddhism in particular. Once again, this is a man who narrated his life with quotes from The Beatles.
Thus, Jobs made the semi-Sixties pilgrimage to India and, many years later, a Zen master performed his wedding and served as the spiritual adviser to NeXT. That was the semi-successful computer company Jobs founded in between the Apple creation story and then his glorious second coming.
The problem, of course, is that no one knows the degree to which this supposed Buddhist influence played in this ultra-secretive man's life. We may have to wait for the biography (and the movie).
Then there was the actual philosophy that Jobs bluntly articulated as the Big Idea behind his life (cue the Stanford University commencement speech). Here's how I summed up this big question in a column for Scripps Howard:
Critics noted that Jobs was a relentless and abrasive perfectionist who left scores of battered psyches in his wake.
Whatever the doctrinal content of his faith, it seemed to have been a Buddhism that helped him find peace while walking barefoot through offices packed with wealthy, workaholic capitalists.
In his Stanford sermon, Jobs urged his young listeners to “trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
For Jobs, the bottom line was his own bottom line -- even when death loomed on the horizon. His ultimate hope was that he, alone, knew what was right.
”Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking,” he concluded. “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.”
Buddhist? Or radical all-American individualist?
Enjoy the podcast.