Steve Jobs and the false hope of our time

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs (Flickr, acaben).

Two events happened last Monday that stand juxtaposed for me: Steve Jobs announced that he was taking a medical leave absence from Apple, and a priest at our parish, Fr. Seraphim, died.

While journalists and pundits frantically asked and answered questions about the health of Jobs and the future of his company, writer Andy Crouch reframed the entire story around the unlikely subject of hope. “As remarkable as Steve Jobs is in countless ways,” he said, “his most singular quality has been his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope.”

That secular hope is a mix of progress and self-actualization, something evident from the rehearsal of Jobs’ achievements and his own public statements. Crouch quoted from his 2005 commencement address at Stanford:

[D]eath is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new…. 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, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.

Jobs is a brilliant businessman and innovator, but he makes a lousy philosopher and theologian. The John 3:16 of his secular gospel runs something like this: “The world—including you and your place in it—is what you make of it, and here at Apple we’ve made a lot of it.” It’s all very inspiring, for about a minute.

“You can be you,” it says. “I’m already me,” you reply. “Well, you can be your best you,” it says. “And then what?” Jobs gave the frankest possible answer at Stanford: “Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.” In the face of death, the best Steve Jobs could tell graduates was that they should live each day as if it were their last. Sadly, that’s not hope. That’s resignation. Veiled disappointment is the best-case scenario.

This view of progress and self-actualization is not isolated to Jobs. It’s the false hope of our time.

And then there’s Fr. Seraphim.

When an Orthodox priest dies, a vigil is held before his funeral. Over his resting body, all through the night, readers stand and read the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, one after another in succession. Over the resting body, the readers confess the truth that death does not prevail. Over the resting body, they recite account after account of the resurrection, that Christ has risen from the grave.

In the funeral service that follows the gathered church confesses that what is true for Christ is true for all who are in him, that death has been defeated, that Christ has trampled it down, and that we will experience our own resurrection. Now, every time the liturgy is celebrated, Fr. Seraphim will be remembered as one who “await[s] the hope of the resurrection.”

That is hope, that our lives will be finally and ultimately redeemed in the resurrection, that Christ will make all things new. Anything else is settling for loss and decay. Being your best you doesn’t matter unless there is ultimately a renewed you. Living every day as if it’s your last only matters if your life is lived in Christ. That is not the false hope of the secular gospel, but it is central hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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  • As much as I like Steve Jobs and wish him well, you are spot-on with this post. The saddest part, perhaps, is that too many contemporary Christians and TV preachers (I won’t mentioned names in order to protect the guilty) believe the exact same message that Jobs proclaims. The only difference is that they dress it up in religious language.

    Great post!

    • It’s definitely a prevailing view, and we tend to think like our contemporaries even if we say that we do not. I’ve written two previous posts about that tendency (one here and another here). It’s by seeing the truth proclaimed in the life and death of people like Fr. Seraphim that we can start to spot the differences.

  • Mr. Jobs’ philosophy basically represents the best a non-believer can hope for. As Wired magazine stated in their “Secular Afterlife Flowchart”, the five stages of an atheist’s after life are: corpse, putrefaction, butyric fermentation, dry decay, skeleton, and dust in the wind. The Bible would of course add eternal damnation to the list.

    As Christians we know that instead of focusing on achieving worldly success, we should be pulling away from this world in order to draw closer to the world beyond. Peter said in 1 Peter 2:2 that we should be “like newborn babies, long[ing] for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation”. Too often we like to think we are saved now and therefore the hard work of this life is over. Clearly Peter is telling us different. Salvation is something you grow in as you feed on the nourishing Word of the Lord.

    So Jobs is correct in suggestion we not waste time. He just doesn’t seem to understand how our time is best spent.

    • That image of growing in salvation is really important. Let’s not waste time in that pursuit. Thanks for sharing.

  • What a contrast of two great men – one a man of the world, the other a man of God. It has the flavor of a parable Jesus would tell in our modern times.

  • Robert Wolgemuth

    Thank you, Joel…your work in this post is not only dreadfully insightful but wonderfully written. Please let me know when you want to make a living of this kind of thing. And thanks for not telling your father-in-law that I made the offer.

  • And yet some of Apple’s evangelists (cult following of consumers) are far more vocal about their belief in Steve Job’s “gospel” than are believers who have the real Gospel.

    may God use your post to awaken some to the glories of the truth once delivered that the death and sin have been conquered by the sacrificed-risen-reigning-coming King.

  • Joel…many thanks for this reflection. Listening to it from a slightly different perspective (and being unsure of what Mr. Jobs’ spiritual commitments might be), I heard something slightly different:

    But this was helpful.

  • Well said, Joel. I especially love the line, “Being your best you doesn’t matter unless there is ultimately a renewed you.”

    Jobs’ views seem like a scary amalgamation of several world views, agree?

    Thanks so much!


    • His publicly expressed views seem as Crouch described them, a very articulate (if unsatisfactory) expression of secular hope. It’s the philosophy of the magazine racks and day-time television.

  • Jon

    Absolutely brilliant in juxtaposition.

  • I agree with you about how living your best life now happens by living in Christ. I also appreciate Steve Jobs’ reminder to live today because we never know what will happen tomorrow. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water here. So many followers of Christ live as if Christ’s sacrifice means nothing because they don’t understand life and the life that the Holy Spirit empowers us to live. So many people are lost in the routine and rules of religion. I hope and pray that Steve Jobs comes to know who God is and how amazing grace is.

    • I hope we don’t throw out the baby here, but let’s recognize that the child is in some foul water. And do I hope and pray for the same thing you do.

  • Beautiful comparision! All I can say is I will remember Fr. Seraphim and his life and his friendship and his name all my life… the other guy–I am not so sure–what was his name again? Ariane

  • It’s the tale of two cities- the city of God and the city of man. The vision of one is eternal and of the other, just the here and now. For Father Seraphim- memory eternal- our great hope in the living Christ. For Steve Jobs and all others who have set their anchor in this world, although you may live like it is, the fact is there is more than just this world. After this the judgment. Any yet, sadly, as has already been mentioned, many Christians are living this way today, as if everything was here and now. Thanks for sharing this post

  • glenn

    I agree with the conclusion that the only real salvation from death is in Christ. But that is not inconsistent with living life to the fullest. I don’t see a contradiction between Jobs’ approach and the approach of the Gospel at all — Jobs is right, though his message is incomplete.

    • You are right that it’s incomplete. But I think the added problem is that this gospel of self-actualization is fundamentally narcissistic. The Gospel of Christ requires that we live in community (particularly of faith) and for others. Jobs’ view is to reject the community if it doesn’t square with what you want to do with your life.

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t say that living in the moment, or dreaming for oneself, are items of despair. Rather, these seem to be ways to great fulfilment. I do not need nor want any kind of salvation from any of the thousands of religions in the world. My actions give me pride. My dreams give me purpose. My friends and family give me encouragement, company, and love. My love lifts up those around me. No deity, no liturgy, no dogma.

    Perhaps Steve Jobs was inarticulate, but he is not a philosopher. For my own part, I do not need a resurrection to be happy, to have pride, or to work hard to reach my dreams of a better tomorrow. With any luck, death will be a well-earned rest after a well-lived life.

    • Thanks for sharing. Many, and it seems increasingly many more, are in substantial agreement with you. But then, many also find it unsatisfactory.

      The message of Christianity is fundamentally about communion with God — that by becoming more like Christ, we move ever closer to our creator and share in his nature. That communion transcends death and ultimately redeems our death through the resurrection.

      That message may not float your boat, but it’s what’s on offer from the Christian faith (no matter how poorly we Christians sometimes communicate and practice it). God made each of us for friendship, and that relationship is one of love and grace and forgiveness.

  • Based on the section of Jobs quote you posted, I don’t see the same thing you do in it. I hear him saying that death is the great equalizer. Don’t worry about trying to live a life that is not yours to live in order to gain something you were not meant to be because you will loose it. I should not try to become Steve Jobs. I should be Jeremy. I need to develop what I have been given and expand that, but I can’t become someone else.

    I agree, though, that discussing this idea through the lens of the gospel is also important.