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Death Of A Salesman: Some Christian Reflections On Steve Jobs

Here is my text, and it is taken from a friend’s Facebook profile. She said she

does not feel the need to either beatify or demonize Steve Jobs. I acknowledge that his presence on earth had a significant effect on human history.

I  only own one Apple product: an iPod. Why don’t I own an iMac, a MacBook, an iPhone or an iPad? Firstly, because I can’t afford them. Secondly, because there are certain diplomacies in our family, when a close relative works for Microsoft. Yes, Windows frustrates me at times, and perhaps it would be nice to have a product that allegedly ‘just works’, but that also means re-educating the entire family to a new operating system. Besides, like a car mechanic who doesn’t mind owning a lesser car because he can fix the problems, I can often work out (at least with the help of Google) what to do when we have a problem, and I learn as a result.

Ultimately, finance and functionality are the reasons I don’t buy Apple. It would be nice to have the aesthetically pleasing designs, but on a limited budget the bang to buck equation is about getting the specifications I need. Apple aesthetics are a luxury I can’t afford. But certainly I have to acknowledge that was one innovation Steve Jobs brought into computing. Not for him the world of beige boxes, the man who studied calligraphy wanted products to beautiful as well as simple and workable. Might it be that especially in the free churches, we so concentrate on function at the expense of beauty that we are utilitarian Christians?
I bear Steve Jobs’ family and friends no ill. But in the days since his death, a lot of twaddle has been written, and a lot of Diana-style hysteria has been expressed. Cult Of Mac seems exactly the right title.  The secular website Gawker got it right, I think: Steve Jobs was not God. We have heard that Jobs ‘gave’ us various things. No, he didn’t: he sold us things. (And dreams, too.) Or that he ‘invented’ things. No, the inventors were Steve Wozniak and his successors. Jobs was a salesman and a showman. That isn’t necessarily wrong, either: it just depends how you exercise it.
The genius of Jobs (if genius is not an overused word) was not as an originator, but as one who took products that were failing to reach the mass market and transforming them into propositions that did. The Apple II was not the first personal computer, the Altair 8800 had beaten it, but arguably the Apple created the market. There were MP3 players before the iPod, but he popularised it. Likewise, there were tablet computers before the iPad, but he bossed the market and made it attractive. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Jobs was the technological John Wesley? Wesley mostly took existing theological ideas and made them explode with power (the one exception, perhaps being his doctrine of Christian perfection).

If Jobs had an area of originality, I would suggest it was iTunes: he took all the sanctimonious moaning of the recording industry about pirating, and forced them into a fairly reasonable pricing model. Other download sites have since, in my opinion, rushed through the open gate created to provide a better and often cheaper service.

Then, although selling is a dirty concept in Christianity, I have to admire the man’s enthusiasm in his product unveilings. Having famously taken such detailed interest in the precise design of products, I take the excitement he projected when unveiling a new toy as utterly genuine. For those of us in the church who have got tired, jaded and cynical, a dose of Jobs’ passion for what he introduced – even though we do not sell the Gospel – could be good for us.
Jobs has been compared to various people in the last few days, from Thomas Edison to Walt Disney. Whatever the merits, I suggest two British comparisons: Richard Branson and Felix Dennis. Like Jobs, they were ex-hippies who made vast fortunes in business. Dennis, perhaps, is the most striking, as the editor of Oz magazine who was imprisoned, but who now heads up the Dennis Publishing empire. Compare that to Jobs, who dropped out, travelled to India, took LSD and took up Buddhism – although where his Buddhism influenced his business is far from certain. At least his arch-rival Bill Gates set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Perhaps nowhere is Jobs’ post-hippie business philosophy better seen than in his famous Stanford University Commencement Address of 2005. While it also contains powerful statements such as those on how the certainty of death should focus everyone’s life (he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before), some of it is a shallow, individualist, follow your own road creed. If you don’t have time to watch the entire fifteen minutes below, the text with annotated commentary can be found here.

And he finesses the story in places. Is it true that ‘Windows just copied the Mac’? More likely it’s true that both copied the GUI (Graphical User Interface) they saw at the Xerox PARC Research Center.
I have no desire to be cruel about Jobs. I leave that to the nasty words of people like Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, whose comments at the time of Jobs’ death were so foul I shall not even link to them here. But I do wish there was a sense of realism. Jobs was the visionary and extremely clever CEO of a consumer products company. Yes, a massively influential one. But just as Princess Diana’s funeral overshadowed the death of Mother Teresa the day before, so on the same day as Steve Jobs died, a hero of the American Civil Rights Movement also passed away, the Revd Fred Shuttlesworth (as the Gawker article I linked to above notes). Which one contributed more to the kingdom of God? That has to be a Christian question. Because for God, it is less about the feted celebrities and more about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Rest in peace, Mr Jobs. May your loved ones find comfort in your passing. But may the rest of us stop getting carried away.

Sermon: Doubting Thomas, Growing Faith

John 20:19-31
Doubting Thomas: if ever anyone got a bad press from a pithy nickname, it’s Thomas. Today I want to join his rehabilitation campaign, and suggest to you that we might see some positive approaches to faith in the story of him coming to believe in the Risen Christ.

Firstly, we need to remember his context. There are a couple of previous references to him in John’s Gospel. In chapter 11, he shows himself to be a disciple who is doggedly committed to following Jesus. He encourages all of them to go along with Jesus to Jerusalem, if necessary to die with him. This is not a coward or an unbeliever: this is a courageous disciple. Let’s remember that when he is cheaply vilified.

Not only that, he was a disciple with honest question, as we see in chapter 14. Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for his friends, and Thomas honestly says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Lord, if you don’t give me the destination, how can I sort out a route? I need the address, Lord! I think you have to applaud a man like Thomas who has the honesty and integrity to ask Jesus the question that perhaps was in other disciples’ minds, but which they didn’t have the courage to voice.

And we should be glad he did, because it leads to Jesus’ famous reply, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” Would we have heard those words, but for the honest, questioning faith of Thomas?

As well as these two previous references to Thomas in John’s Gospel, one other piece of context is to compare him with the other disciples. It’s all very well that the others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” (verse 25), but it isn’t that long since they too doubted. When the women returned from the tomb, the male disciples didn’t initially cover themselves in glory. Why believe a woman? But they had had a personal encounter with the Risen Christ, just as Mary had in the garden, and just as Thomas is about to have.

So setting everyone else’s faith against Thomas’ doubts is unfair. He simply hasn’t had the experience of meeting his risen Lord yet that they have had. Perhaps today we can appreciate a dogged, honest disciple. It isn’t enough to say to some people, ‘Be quiet and just believe’. God is big enough to cope with our questions. We have a Bible filled with books like Job, and with plenty of Psalms where ancient Israel sang her painful questions in worship. If Thomas is an example to us, it is about church being a safe place for people with their questions, not one where they are shouted down.
In suggesting this, I’m not advocating unbelief, because unbelief is very different from doubt. Unbelief is a refusal to believe at all, but Jesus says Thomas was ‘doubting’ (verse 27). Os Guinness has a helpful definition of doubt: he calls it ‘faith in two minds’. Doubt isn’t the absence of faith that unbelief is, it’s faith in two minds.

There’s one other context to Thomas that I haven’t mentioned, and it’s not in the Bible. There is a strong early tradition that Thomas is the apostle who took the Gospel as far as India. There is even a Christian denomination in India called the Mar Thoma Church, which claims to trace its founding to him. If that is the case, then is it not a good thing to give someone the space to wrestle with their questions? If like Thomas they come through to a deeper faith, who knows what they might achieve in the name of the Risen Christ?

Secondly, then, I invite us to remember his questions.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (Verse 25)

What is Thomas’ problem, apart from the fact that – unlike the others – he hasn’t yet met the Risen Christ? As I said, he isn’t an unbeliever. He is far from being a sceptic. In fact, you could say that he was deeply biblical. Like most pious working class Jews (but unlike the wealthy Sadducees) he believed the ancient prophecies that one day, at the Last Judgement, God would raise all people from the dead – some to the reward of eternal life, and some to judgement. He would likely quote Daniel chapter 12 in support of this view.

What they didn’t expect was that God would interrupt the middle of history with a resurrection. You get a flavour of that in John 11, where Jesus turns up at the tomb of Lazarus, four days after the death, and speaks with Mary and Martha. They say they are waiting for the great resurrection at the end of time.

However, Thomas’ willingness to state his question baldly sets the stage for another appearance by Jesus, this time for his benefit. John sees this next appearance, a week later, as a follow-up by Jesus. Again it is in the midst of locked doors because the disciples who are so full of enthusiasm about the Resurrection are still nevertheless afraid, so this isn’t just for Thomas. This is to bless them all.
But in Thomas’ case, his devout biblical faith is now stretched and expanded by meeting the risen Christ. And often, that is what God wants to do through an experience of doubt. It’s not there to destroy our faith, but to expand it. In a profound talk he gave last year on the place of doubt in Christian faith, an American Old Testament scholar called Peter Enns said this:

When you go out into the world and say “it’s not working,” maybe that is a signal. It’s not God who no longer works, it’s your idea of God that needs work. Maybe you are for the first time being called, as C. S. Lewis put it so well in the Narnia books, to go “further up and further in.” That’s where doubt plays a powerful role.

But where does Thomas have his doubts expanded into greater faith? It’s in a context of fellowship. He is with the other disciples this time, and I think that makes a difference. Classically, one of the ways Christians have defended the truth of the resurrection against charges that the disciples experienced hallucinations is to point out that hallucinations are rarely group experiences. They are more commonly solitary in their nature. So by Thomas having his experience of the Risen Christ in the presence of the other disciples there is an assurance here that this is real and true, not a fantasy.

And in doing so, I believe it points up the importance of fellowship when we have our doubts. What do we do when we face a crisis? Some of us, like me, restore our energy from within ourselves. Others gain energy from being with others. However, much as I renew my energy from within and generally alone, if I spend too much time just on my own at a time of doubt, it can all become morbid and increasingly negative. It becomes a downward spiral.  I have seen people facing a crisis of faith take a major step away from church and fellowship for a period of time, and all that really happens is that the negative thoughts are reinforced.

Now, granted, the other disciples may not be the most helpful to Thomas in his doubt, but the fact that they had met the risen Jesus and that he appears to them in that context, is a sign, I believe, that it is worth persevering with Christian fellowship when we have our doubts. Our faith is not solitary. It involves being part of God’s people. Even if at times all our brother and sister Christians give us is a set of trite answers to our questions, nevertheless that is a major arena where we experience Christ.

So I would counsel people facing doubts to stay within the fellowship of the church, to find it a safe place to ask the hard questions, and to be encouraged that in that very place God may well expand and deepen your faith as a result.

Thirdly, I invite you to remember his confession. The other disciples had to see Jesus alive before believing in the resurrection. Thomas wanted that, and more: to touch the wounds. And Jesus offers Thomas what he says he wants. I think he just wants to know for sure, and he expresses it in this black and white manner.

But when the risen Lord stands in front of him, I’m not sure Thomas takes him up on the invitation to touch his hands and his side. Just meeting Jesus is enough, and he says to him, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28)

‘My Lord and my God.’ That’s the point to which Jesus wants to get Thomas, and us. And yes, this is one of those Bible verses the Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t explain, because Thomas clearly attributes full divine status to Jesus.
But it probably also had huge implications for the first readers of John’s Gospel. If, as most scholars think, John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century AD, then it is quite possible that the emperor ruling the Roman Empire was Domitian. He wasn’t the nicest of chaps. He may well have been responsible for the persecution of Christians that is reflected in the Book of Revelation. And what did he require of his subjects? That they worship him as ‘Lord and God’[1].

The confession of the risen Lord at which Thomas arrives through his doubts is not just intellectual. It is one that has practical consequences for daily living and, indeed, dying. Later followers of Jesus who read these words will be those who have sufficiently come through their doubts that they are prepared to make a confession that puts them in opposition to the prevailing values of the society in which they live.

And perhaps this is a major reason why Jesus wants to meet us with our doubts and expand our faith – to make us strong in faith to stand against some of the major forces at work in our world today.
Last week we sang Stuart Townend’s Resurrection Hymn, ‘See what a morning’. It contains the lines,

One with the Father, Ancient of Days
Through the Spirit
Who clothes faith with certainty

Do we have certainty – a certainty with which to face the world? We have a certainty that Christ is risen. We have an assurance of God’s love. To quote U2 for a second consecutive week,

It’s not if I believe in love
But if love believes in me
(from Moment Of Surrender)

Whatever our doubts may be, the Resurrection means that love believes in us. And in the light of that, our confession of faith in our risen Lord and God can be a rock to stand firm in the face of a world that is devoted to values vastly different from his.
Perhaps one of the most notable Christians for steadfastly not bowing down to the values of the world in the last century was Mother Teresa. Her care for the poor and those generally thought not worth bothering with and her freedom from wealth and acquisition made her admired by many, as we well know. After her death in 1997, reports emerged about the severe doubts she expressed in her personal journal. In the lecture on doubt by Peter Enns that I mentioned earlier, he quotes this story about her:

There is a wonderful story of Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh. In 1975 he went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer about how best to spend the remaining years of his life. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. And he answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

Jesus brings us to a confession that may or may not have clarity. But at its heart is trust. That, it seems, took Thomas to India, and the effects of his faith are still felt today.

What if we had trust – deep trust – in our risen Lord? Would he take us ‘further up and further in’? Where might the effects of our faith be felt?