I was on vacation last week, visiting some friends and family in Columbus. We decided to spend some time window shopping at Easton Town Center, one of those chic outdoor malls with every chain store you can imagine. Just a few hours earlier, the sidewalk in front of Easton’s Apple store had been completely impassable with customers nabbing the iPhone 4S that had come out that morning. But now, as we approached, it was cleared out enough to see a bunch of Post-It notes on the window. As we drew nearer, we realized it was a memorial: little notes written in gratitude to the late Steve Jobs, apples and flowers laid respectfully on the sidewalk. It shouldn’t have surprised me given all the news, magazine, and blog attention Jobs’ passing had received over the previous couple weeks.
Now, I’m kind of like that non-cutting-edge, nerdy PC guy in the Mac commercials, probably even worse (you should have seen the faces on the Verizon salespeople when I told them I wanted to see their options for phones that didn’t have internet). But I do recognize the impact Steve Jobs has had on our culture. If you want to start an interesting conversation at your next dinner party, let people opine on whether Jobs had a bigger impact on the technology industry or on the marketing industry. Point is, huge impact in two of our culture’s biggest arenas.
The question I like to ask about big news stories in this blog is: What made this such a big story? Or–more crassly–Why do we care? What makes Steve Jobs’ death different than millions of other people who die each day whom we’ve never personally met? The answer to this question gives us insight into the fabric of our culture, the culture that forms us and how we do life. And my answer, as I read others’ thoughts and did some of my own musing is this: Steve Jobs’ story was an extraordinarily rare intersection of many of our culture’s favorite stories. He was the perfect storm or cultural narratives. For instance:
1) The rags-to-riches story: Who hasn’t heard the story of Jobs and his buddies developing the first Apple computer in his garage? We love to tell and hear “Horatio Alger stories,” about poor people rising to success through hard work and a couple of breaks.
2) The successful orphan story: Jobs was born to unmarried biracial parents who met in grad school, and then was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs when he was 5 years old. It is a story of second chances and underdogs–two of our other favorite themes.
3) The “cool” story: Coolness is at the core of American culture. You probably didn’t even blink when I called myself a nerd because I don’t get too into technology. Read that again. But Jobs shirked the traditional CEO suit-and-tie for the way hipper black pants and long-sleeved black t-shirt when presenting his products. His informality endeared him to my formality-allergic generation. And his approach to technology transformed it from being something for geeks, to something that made you cool–and that’s what many of us are really after.
4) The non-conformist story: Yeah, we “value education.” But we really love when someone drops out of college only to exhibit genius in a non-traditional way. No one really likes the guy/gal who gets straight A’s, but who can resist the guy whose creative genius sticks it to our system of dry lectures and standardized testing?
5) The vindication story: Who roots for the wealthy CEO? We do…when that CEO has been pushed out of his own company only to continue his success with another company until his old company practically begs him to come back and save their (his) company.
6) The technological progress story: Will anyone argue if I simply state that our culture is obsessed with technology? Jobs and Apple didn’t just promise better products, but better ways of thinking, better lives, and better communities. He made products that at least made people feel like their lives were vastly better (more convenient?) because of them and that our messed up world had hope because someone like Jobs was working on it.
7) The battle-with-cancer story: I truly don’t mean this to be irreverent, but the enemy that brings our culture together like no other is cancer. His battle with cancer made Jobs a tragic hero and helped us to connect with him on a more personal level.
8 ) The fearless explorer story: Jobs may not have been discovering a new land or going to the moon, but he is depicted as an adventurer into the new horizons of communication and technology. For Americans of European descent, we are raised hearing the stories of the explorers and their courage “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
9) The long-lost family reunion story: Jobs even has this one down. After tracking down his birth mother, Jobs was reunited with his sister, Mona Simpson, an award-winning writer.
10) The privately spiritual, but not religious story (a side note): Jobs is attested to have had an affinity to principles of Buddhism/Zen Buddhism. This side of Jobs, however, was more a behind-the-scenes thing. These are the ingredients in the recipe for how Americans are supposed to do religion: a flare of Eastern philosophy, keep it private, and add a whole lot of words about human progress. Jobs embodied this “ideal.”
I hope you see what I mean when I say that Jobs was the perfect storm of American culture. This is why, in my opinion, the people who made Jobs one of the wealthiest men in America pay tribute to him. As Christians, we have a Story too. And it is important to understand where our Gospel Story intersects and diverges from our culture’s favorite stories. The stories our culture likes tend to have echoes of Gospel themes (ie. adoption and vindication), but also tend to be separated from the God who gives foundation, reality, and ultimacy to those themes. It’s our job to let the stories our culture tells point us back to the full Gospel Story, and tell that Gospel Story to our culture, both connecting it to their favorite stories and transcending them.
According to our cultural stories, Steve Jobs may have lived “the ultimate life.” As Christians, we can be thankful for ways God gifted and used Jobs for good and even the ways Jobs may have intentionally or unintentionally cooperated with those purposes. But we are to continue to hold up Jesus as our example of “the ultimate life.” We must acknowledge how different the life of Jesus looked from the life of Jobs, not just because they lived in different times and places, but because they lived out very different stories. The Gospel Story assures us that Jesus is the one who can actually deliver on his promises to help us not just “think different” but be different, give us a better life, and create a better world.
Online tributes to Jobs: http://www.apple.com/stevejobs/
Jobs’ famous Stanford commencement address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1R-jKKp3NA
Blogs on Jobs and his passing: