Steve Jobs, the most visionary technology maker of the digital era, died Wednesday at the age of 56.
His death represents the end of the first era of computing when, under his guidance, the computer went from a thing nerds built in their garage to a friend everyone carries in their pocket. Sometimes called the Leonardo Da Vinci of our times, he made the computer personal, the phone smart, and the mouse magical.
He was also famously guarded about his personal life. He kept his family, his illness, and his religious beliefs out of the spotlight in order to focus on the things he made. But as he neared the end of his life, he allowed Walter Isaacson to write a biography, which will be released later this month. But until it comes out is there anything that we might learn from this man’s life and work?
Life and Work
A natural starting point can be found in the details we do know about Jobs’s life and business decisions. Born to parents who didn’t want him and adopted by parents who never attended college, Jobs went on to drop out of the same college where Donald Miller made his famous confessions. He and his friend Steve Wozniak (“the Woz”) started Apple in a garage, but years later his own board pushed him out of the company he founded. Undeterred, he started a new computer company (NeXT), and a few years later was invited back to Apple as a kind of savior. Then over the past 14 years, he hit home run after home run—iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad—each of which shaped computing, the music industry, and even the consumer. Are there not lessons here about second chances, redemption, and what can come from a little, unwanted baby?
When he came back as CEO in 1997, Apple was making all kinds of superfluous products like digital cameras, printers, and PDAs. One of Steve’s first decisions was to drop the axe on most of those extraneous products and focus the entire company on a single idea: making better computers. Should pastors do the same with the programs at their churches, trimming the fat, and focusing on essentials like the gospel, worship, and community? We could also learn from his treatment of archrival Microsoft. After striking a deal with Bill Gates, Jobs warned Apple loyalists, “We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.” Could we not all learn from that in our congregations, ministries, and blogs?
But I think the significance of Steve Jobs’s life goes beyond these sorts of sermonettes. It is rather in his approach to technology and creativity that I think we can find a profound warning and hidden testimony of God’s grace.
Though Wozniak was clearly the brains of the operation, much of what made Apple successful was Jobs’s ability to market products in such a way that they didn’t feel like products, but rather a way of life, something you’re either in to or out of.
The company’s very name—Apple—is full of insider tradition. Is it is a reference to the Beatles’s Apple Corp.? Is it the apple that fell from Newton’s tree as depicted in their inaugural 1976 logo? Is the bite taken out of the current logo clever joke about “bytes” or a reference to the forbidden fruit from which Eve took that fateful first real bite? Perhaps a hint is found in the pricing of the “Apple I,” which Jobs and Woz sold for $666.66.
I take it that these little shenanigans were Jobs’s early attempts at creating a way for those who bought his products to feel like they in on a joke not everyone gets. Buying an Apple wasn’t just about specs and numbers, it was about joining in on something bigger and being one of the few who knew how to “Think Different.” This same ethos is present in today in the clean, happy feel of Apple stores and in the commercials that tell us, “If you don’t have an iPhone, you don’t have ______, and you can’t _______.”
And yet underneath this fun-loving insiders club is the strong but subtle message that the difficulties of life can be solved with technology, especially Apple technology. Whether the intention of Jobs or not, this idea is embodied in that famous logo, which Andy Crouch describes as, “a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and made it a sign of promise and progress.” Over the past two decades, come terrorism or economic failure, the one constant is that once or twice a year Apple will bequeath to us a beautiful new machine that will solve problems we didn’t know we had. This impulse is so strong that when Apple releases a device that is only somewhat better (like the recent iPhone 4S), we find ourselves strangely disappointed.
Savior or the City?
Of course, this temptation to treat technology as a kind of savior did not begin with Apple or Steve Jobs. It runs much deeper in our race and can be traced all the way back to the story of Cain and Abel. After killing his brother, Cain was sent eastward away from God, the Garden, and his community. Rather than respond to these sufferings with repentance, Cain chose to build the world’s first city. Theologian Jaques Ellul interprets the significance of Cain’s actions this way:
For when man is faced with a curse he answers, “I’ll take care of my problems.” And he puts everything to work to become powerful, to keep the curse from having its effects. He creates the arts and the sciences, he raises an army, he constructs chariots, he builds cities. The spirit of might is a response to the divine curse. (The Meaning of the City, 11)
For Ellul, “the city” comes to represent tools and technology that humans amass in an attempt to insulate themselves from the curse and reinforce the idea that they have no need for God. Technology became an idol for Cain, Ellul argues, not in the sense that he worshiped it in place of God, but that it offered him just enough relief from his physical needs that he was distracted from his deeper spiritual deficiencies.
If we go back further still, we see that Cain was not the first to do this. Adam and Eve’s first act as fallen human beings was to take something from God’s creation—a rough, scratchy fig leaf—and fashion it into a tool that could overcome the effects of the fall, both physical and spiritual. On the surface, those first undergarments protected them from the harsh, cursed world they were about to enter, yet as we all know, the clothing also represented Adam and Eve’s attempt to hide the sin they now knew without God’s help. And ready against the backdrop of Scripture’s storyline, it’s hard not to see the clothing—through the death of an animal—as beginning to point the way forward to our need to put on a new covering, this one purchasing by the sacrificial lamb.
It would be tempting, then, to think of tools and technology as something inherently flawed, a necessary evil in our sin-cursed world. Was Steve Jobs just the latest in a long line of idol makers? Are those—like me—who use his products just aligning ourselves with something opposed to God? If we return to Genesis 3, we notice that God doesn’t condemn Adam and Eve’s creative solution, but rather responds by giving them a free upgrade, updating their materials from leaves to leather.
We usually (and rightly) focus on the deep soteriological foreshadowing of this event, but in doing so we sometimes miss that God also appears to be affirming and encouraging human creativity. We are, after all, created in the image of a God whose first act in the Scriptures is to create (Gen. 1:1). Moreover, in the incarnation when the Son of God took on human flesh he also took on the occupation of a maker. The word used to describe the occupation of Jesus and his father Joseph, traditionally translated “carpenter” (Mark 6:3), is the Greek word tekton, which means something like “artisan” or “craftsman” and has the same root as our word technology. Surely Jesus’ human vocation as a craftsman reflected the creativity and excellence of his Father.
Returning again to the life of Steve Jobs, I think we can say that regardless of what he intended for his creations, his work as a craftsman reflected significant aspects of God’s image embedded in all humanity. The allure of technology is certainly real, and we must resist the temptation to let it distract us from our desperate dependence on the provision of God. At the same time, when humans engage in acts of creativity—whether it is Cain’s pagan descendants creating the first tools and instruments (Gen. 4:20-22) or Bezalel fashioning the temple and its elements (Ex. 31:1-6)—they cannot escape bringing honor to the creativity of God who molded them from dust.
So when we see creations of great skill, ingenuity, and beauty—all of which describe the collective works of Jobs—we are presented with an opportunity to praise the God of whose skill, ingenuity, and beauty they are but a dim reflection. Today, when we see one of those glowing Apple logos, let us take the moment to honor the greatness of our God and at the same time cultivate a longing for something that no human tool can ever do.