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Steve Jobs and the Secular Gospel

Steve Jobs and the Secular Gospel

Steve Jobs rarely appeared in public.  The main occasions were his inspirational speeches with video presentations to the shareholders of Apple.  With his black turtle-necks and jeans and his close-cropped hair and beard, Jobs looked like the senior pastor of a mega-church.

Surely it is mere coincidence that he looked like a modern evangelical preacher.  However, he did seem to be a kind of preacher proclaiming a secular gospel.   One of the few speeches he gave outside of Apple was his commencement address at Stanford University.  To the graduating class he said:

       No one wants to die.  Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there.

       And yet death is the destination we all share.  No one has ever escaped it.  And that is as it

       should be, because death 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.  Right now, the new is you.  But someday,

       not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.  Sorry to be so

       dramatic, but it's quite true.  Your time is limited, 'so don't waste 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 other people's opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intutition.  They

       somehow already know what you truly want to become.

In a very perceptive article on Saturday, October 8, 2011 in The Wall Street Journal, "The Secular Prophet," Andy Crouch says that Jobs succeeded in articulating a secular form of hope.  He says that the early logo of Apple, which had a rainbow over a bitten apple, turned the biblical symbol of human falleness into a sign of promise and progress.  The message was that technology can reverse the curse of the fall and ease the burden of our creaturely existence.  Regarding the celebrated speech that Jobs gave at Stanford, Crouch wrote, "This is the gospel of a secular age.  It has the great virtue of being based only on what we can all perceive--it requires neither revelation nor dogma.  And it promises nothing it cannot deliver--since all that is promised is the opportunity to live your own unique life, a hope that is manifestly realizable since it is offered by one who has so spectacularly succeeded by following his own 'inner voice, heart and intuition.'"  Crouch added, "Upon close inspection, this gospel offers no hope that you cannot generate yourself and only the comfort of having been true to yourself.  In the face of tragedy and evil--the kind of tragedy that cuts off lives not just at 56 years old but at 5 or 6, the kind of evil bent on eradicating whole tribes and nations from the earth--it is strangely inert.  Perhaps every human system of meaning fails or at least falls silent in the face of these harsh realities, but the gospel of self-fulfillment does require an extra helping of stability and privilege to be plausible.  Death is 'life's change agent'?  For most human beings, that would sound like cold comfort indeed."

It is not only the realities of tragedy and evil which stand as an affront to this middle class American secular gospel of hope, but it is also life itself.  Is the joy of life nothing more than marvelous toys which inform and entertain?  Is technology all we need to live an abundant life?  Apparently, there are many Americans whose vision of life does not transcend the promises of a secular gospel.

There is another gospel--the original one.  It does not offer a comfortable way.  It offers  the way of the cross, which involves learning to overcome selfishness, suffering to make way for justice, and living in community with others who are different from us. Its joys are not to be found on a screen, but under the open sky and in the human heart.  It faces death with its own kind of courage, not the courage of a modern day Stoic, but the courage of hope that there is more beyond this finite life.  It calls us, as physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne put it in The God of Hope and the End of the World, "to live our lives not in the spirit of carpe diem [sieze the day], but sub speci aeternitatis (in the light of eternity)."