Steve Jobs, Beauty, and the Church

Earlier this week, before we learned of the death of Steve Jobs, someone I hadn’t seen for many years saw my laptop and said, “I remember when you used to brag about not using Apple products.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “Then I saw the light.

It’s true, I used to joke about how I was the only person in the emerging church movement who didn’t have a Mac.  I used Dells and Gateways, and I had a Verizon flip phone.  My standard line was, “A computer is a tool, not a piece of art.”  That always got laughs, and sometime even applause from the PC people in the crowd.

But then along came the iPhone.  It could do so, so much more than any other phone.  And it did it beautifully and easily.  It made what I did with it — business — enjoyable.

We Americans are pragmatic.  That’s one of the things that has made us an exceptional nation.  But sometimes, we sacrifice beauty in the face of efficiency.  Italians don’t have that problem.  Americans do.

For a while there, the church in America fell into that trap.  We built ugly churches for much of the second half of the 20th century.  I remember a conversation with Brian McLaren about Cedar Ridge Community Church, which he planted and pastored for two decades.  He told me that he regretted that the building that they built to house the church was unexceptional, and unbeautiful — little more than a prefab building.  But it sure is efficient.

Steve Jobs didn’t seem to fall into this quintessentially American trap.  He knew that beauty didn’t have to be sacrificed for efficiency.  He also knew that would cost more than ugly and efficient, but he made no apologies about that.

The church could learn a lesson from Steve Jobs, of blessed memory.

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  • So true! I visited Europe as an unbelieving teenager and even then stepping into those cathedrals made me aware of God. They are powerful. And beautiful. And remind us of just how small we are and how awe-inspiring He is.

    And here in American we worship in converted grocery stores.

    It’s just sad, but art and beauty are not valued as they should be – He is, after all, the creator of it…

    • Not to attack your line about converted grocery stores – I know what you meant by it – but I just wanted to point out a subtle difference between the heart behind these sorts of decisions.

      There’s nothing wrong with using a converted grocery store, per se. It may be an excellent way to utilize space, finances, and resources to repurpose such buildings. Excellent.

      What gets me is the heart behind choosing such buildings and not caring about creativity or beauty because, “it’s all gonna burn anyway.” so why bother? This attitude steps on my toes, as it were, because I am a very creative person. I love that, and I love how it resonates with the Spirit of the Living God as it moves in me, because God is creative! That is why, when I find that attitude surfacing in my own life, I rebuke it and look for a way to combine being a good steward of resources with being a good creator, after the spirit of the Great Creator.

      I hope it makes God smile.

  • Jason

    This is a tough issue, as a mainline pastor, many of our denomination’s churches were built with beauty in mind. However, these old, vaulted ceiling churches are expensive to maintain and often (especially in downtown areas) become landmarks and the congregations become not much more than maintainers of history. So my American Pragmatism says be careful. Make sure you don’t forget about efficiency! Especially given one of the cry’s of the Emergent and Missional movement is that we spend too many of our resources on ourselves. I don’t promote ugly worship spaces, but having direct experience of the cost of some of these buildings (both building them and maintaining them), I do think an ugly efficient space that allows more resources to go toward mission is the better choice. (full discloser, I still use PCs so I guess I’m more a pragmatist than many, I just can’t pay that much for a Mac Book).

  • Brian

    Just stopped laughing Tony. I do remember your comments about Macs and such. Nice that you did see the light. While I certainly understand and sympathize with the comments regarding costs and efficiency, one profound point not brought up is WHY beauty and aesthetics on at least equal par with efficiency. Yes, when you walk into a beautiful church as described by Sarah one can have an experience of awe and mystery…or not. Cultural baggage can determine the reaction. You can hear Bach and be brought to tears….or not. Same issue. I am more interested and concerned with WHY certain physical traits in spaces ‘seem’ to almost universally trigger awe and wonder. I want to know what exactly give the music of Bach the power to last 250+ years (and probably another 250) while current popular Christian artists come and go like tissue. (as a former college music professor, at least I have a headstart on this question) Steve Jobs understood instinctively that people had to have an emotional response to the product. They had to be drawn to it. (ever heard the phrase “I have to work on my PC” vs. “I get to work on my Mac.”? When theologians, pastors, and music ministers start truly thinking about this question, and not just for the above mentioned but also theology, then we have, IMO, started toward a 21st century faith.

  • len

    Theopoetics – the need to hold beauty and truth together – because in that union something new can be born, and what is holistic is more likely to reach the whole person. James K.A. Smith work in this direction has been helpful for me (Desiring the Kingdom) . Evangelicals have spent too much time ignoring eros and thinking that agape was the only love written on our hearts.

  • It seems the kind of beauty Jobs sought contained a kind of efficiency in it. It’s a clean, sleek kind of beauty, but it’s hard describe the kind in question in more particular terms. It’s easy enough to recognize. There’s a fresh new Apple store in New Haven, that I’ve had occasion to walk past, and it exudes the Apple aura.

    There’s no doubt some great aspects of the Apple world, and I trust it’s those that you’re tuned in to here, Tony, when you say the church can take a lesson here. I suspect I’m focusing on other aspects, because when I imagine that Apple store in all its Jobsishness, the thought that the church should be more like that strikes me as a bad one. But I tend to react negatively to sleekness. (And I may also be moved here in part by the worry that in the case of Apple, there’s a lot of ugliness behind the scenes in bringing that relentlessly sleek beauty to craving consumers: )

  • iPhone is definitely the gateway drug into Macaholism.

  • dj

    I go to CRCC, and I too have always bemoaned the unbeautifulness of our sanctuary. It’s the only thing on the property that doesn’t point you to God’s great care and beauty in making this universe. Which is why, when I got married, we chose to do the ceremony outside instead of in the sanctuary 🙂