Steve Jobs' Finite Genius

by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery
October 17, 2011

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I am a convinced Mac user. I also make use of the PC, but only for primitive activities like video games. For anything really serious, such as programming, it’s an Apple Mac. I kid my Patrick Henry College students that if they want to put problems in perspective they have only to wrestle with the miseries of Windows operating systems -- which have become tolerable only by shamelessly imitating the Mac OS.

Italian polymath Umberto Eco, in a celebrated article in the Italian weekly news magazine, Espresso, way back on September 30, 1994, argued that:

"… the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation. DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment."

I strongly disagree. Eco has never understood the Reformation message that we are saved by grace through faith apart from the works of the law. It is the PC (and not merely in its horrific DOS manifestation) that has required of the user conformity with an immense number of arcane rules and has promised early arrival in computer heaven only to those who have somehow reduced their time in purgatory by penitential acts of recovery after crashes due to viral attacks that cannot touch the Mac. True Christian faith in the Reformation spirit is the easiest religion in the world, since Christ has done everything for our salvation -- but it is at the same time the hardest, since one must admit that, not being able to save itself, a fallen race needed Christ that much. The intuitive Mac user interface requires only trust that its Unix-based OS will deliver the goods; and that faith is so eminently justified that computer bookracks now feature a wide variety of change-over titles for those in process of conversion to the Mac from the woes of the PC.

The danger, however, is to turn a technical triumph into a religious phenomenon. Ten years ago, a religious sociologist published a trenchant article entitled, “May the Force of the Operating System Be with You: Macintosh Devotion As Implicit Religion” (Pui-Yan Lam, in 62/2 Sociology of Religion). Lam surveyed the Mac literature and conducted interviews with Mac users. He noted, inter alia, that the Mac movement, like a religious denomination, had its “devil” (Bill Gates and Microsoft); regarded its minority position as a badge not dissimilar to countercultural “election”; suffered perceived humiliation and persecution at the hands of the larger and more influential PC, especially business, community; and had a vision of “thinking differently” in an ethical quest “for an utopian future -- a future about the harmonious co-existence of humans and technology.”

With the death by pancreatic cancer of Apple’s founder and guru Steve Jobs at the early age of 56 on October 5, the religious side of the Mac phenomenon has became particularly acute. Across the world, cards and messages such as the following were to be found at the Apple stores: “Thank you for changing the world for the better.” “You changed my life.” “You made me a believer.” “See you in the ‘Cloud’ [a play on Scripture and on Apple’s soon-to-be-released version of cloud computing].”

In spite of the staggering accomplishments and success of Steve Jobs’ Apple, one must face certain facts and, at all costs, refuse to fall into idolatry when viewing the Mac phenomenon.

  1. Salvation does not come by technology, for a computer is still but a tool and can never rise above that level -- as philosopher John Searle has so definitively shown in the restatement of his “Chinese Room Argument” (Minds, Brains, and Science, 1984).
  2. True, Steve Jobs has rightly been described as one who, instead of relying on “Darwinian evolution” to change our computing habits, engaged in “intelligent design” to advance the field beyond all imaginings (Farhad Manjoo in the Washington Post, 9 October 2011). But Jobs left much to be desired in the religious realm. He dabbled in Buddhism and stayed away from all organized religion. There is no reason to think that he ever understood that his personal gifts and talents derived from a beneficent Creator -- or that he needed salvation from self-centeredness.
  3. Utopias, whether technological, political, or religious, have been one of modern man’s most dangerous dreams, leading to scientism, totalitarianism, and the loss -- not the gain -- of the truly human. The computer geek, no matter how capable in his sphere, has no qualifications to usher in the millennium. Only with the return of the perfect Man, the Second Adam, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, will the world be made right.

A former President of Apple Products -- a Frenchman, no less -- Jean-Louis Gassée, declared (The Third Apple, trans. I. A. Leonard, 1987):

"In the Old Testament there was the first apple, the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which with one taste sent Adam, Eve, and all mankind into the great current of History. The second Apple was Isaac Newton’s, the symbol of our entry into the age of modern science. The Apple Computer symbol . . . represents the third Apple, the one that widens the paths of knowledge leading toward the future."

May we hypothesize that Mac computers, owing to their quality, could well be destined for use during the Eschaton? But, if so, it will be by grace and not because of human intelligence or cleverness, and those invited to the delicacies at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb will still need to be clothed in Christ’s righteousness, not in the rags of human accomplishment.

One of contemporary Christianity’s leading apologetics experts, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery holds eleven earned degrees and has authored more than fifty books in four languages on the issues of human rights and biblical apologetics. He is currently residing in Strasbourg, France, where he spends the spring and summer and manages the summer International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights. Read full bio.

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