A Most Curious Hero

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, August 29, 2011

A Most Curious Hero

His father’s name is Abdulfattah Jandali, a Syrian Muslim.

He denied the paternity of his first child, claiming he was sterile, leaving the mother to raise his daughter on welfare checks.

He doesn’t give any money to charity, and when he became CEO of his company, he stopped all of their philanthropic programs as well.

He lied to the co-founder of his company about the amount of money they were to receive for a project, as it was to be split fifty-fifty, in order to increase his own financial gain.

\He’s a Zen Buddhist.  His guru, a Zen monk, married him and his wife.

He went to college for one semester, and then dropped out.

He used LSD, and even called it “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.”

His name? 

Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, whose resignation this past week garnered reactions that bordered on eulogies.

I’ve shared some startling facts, but in truth, I have no intent of disparaging him or his life.  I stand in awe of his creative genius as much as anyone.  And I am saddened by his many health challenges.

But my point is simple:  what a curious hero.

As I’ve sorted through the various reactions to this resignation, what seems to come through is our cultural fascination – even, yes, worship – of technology.  Steve Jobs is heralded as a person because he invented the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.  We so cherish those technological achievements that we award honor and even moral stature to their creator.

No doubt, the technology from Jobs has been amazing.  No creator has shaped culture as much through invention since Edison; no CEO has shaped culture as much through production since Henry Ford and his Model T. 

And with it has come rock-star status.  

Perhaps something even more.

One of the more telling cultural shifts of the last seventy-five years has been what some have called the “celebrification” of culture – an awkward term, perhaps, but like “industrialization” and “bureaucratization,” it speaks to a broad and historical trend: the increasing centrality of celebrities to the culture. 

Movie and television stars, professional athletes and musicians, business moguls and journalists, have captured our attention as never before. 

Daniel J. Boorstin, in his seminal study The Image, suggested that the celebrity is a person who is “well-known for his well-knownness” (or as his quip is often paraphrased, “a celebrity is someone famous for being famous.”).  The celebrity is, writes Boorstin, the “human pseudo-event” (think Paris Hilton). 

This is vastly different than the “hero,” who used to fill the role of the modern celebrity.  “The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark,” writes Boorstin.  “The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.  The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.” 

Yet now the celebrity is the hero. 

Joseph Epstein writes that “a received opinion about America in the early twenty-first century is that our culture values only two things:  money and celebrity.”  From this, celebrities have become our cultural commentators, charity spokespersons, role models, and political candidates.  They have become the arbiters of taste, morality and public opinion. 

We live in the “Age of Celebrity,” notes Darrell West of Brown University, where “Movie stars run for elective office and win.  Politicians play fictional characters on television shows.  Rock stars raise money for political parties.  Musicians, athletes, and artists speak out on issues of hunger, stem cell research, and foreign policy.” 

Perhaps John Lennon was more prescient than we knew when he remarked that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ.  To be sure, the new role of celebrity is not without its religious implications.  There can be little doubt that many are turning to celebrities to fill a spiritual void. 

Murray Milner, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Virginia, observes the following parallels:  Celebrities, like religious leaders, are usually very charismatic; religious language and concepts are often invoked by fans who say they “worship” or “idolize” celebrities who they describe as “gods” or “goddesses”; tourists attending a celebrity event in Hollywood are in many ways similar to religious pilgrims at a holy site; and the responses of fans at, say, a rock concert are in many ways comparable to devotee’s behaviors at “spirit-filled” religious events. 

Having said all this, is Jobs a pseudo-event?  Hardly.  He is certainly no Kardashian.  He is a creative genius, and deserves appropriate recognition.  He can be called a hero in the sense that he is a hero in the world of technology.  But Jobs has seemed to transcend that level of heroism, and become a cultural icon.

Or perhaps the embodiment of “hip.”  Apple, after all, is more than a brand.  As has often been quipped, you buy a Dell.  You are a Mac.

So is Jobs a hero for our day?  Clearly.

But a curious one;

...and one who thoroughly reflects our times.

James Emery White

Sources     

10 Things I Didn’t Know About Steve Jobs, James Altucher, August 23, 2011. Read online.

“Celebrity Culture,” The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture, Spring 2005, Volume Seven, Number One.  Articles referenced include:  “Celebrity Culture” by Joseph Epstein; “Get a Life: Illusions of Self-Invention” by Wendy Kaminer; “American Politics in the Age of Celebrity” by Darrell M. West; “Celebrity Culture as a Status System” by Murray Milner, Jr.; and “An Interview with Richard Schickel” by Jennifer L. Geddes.

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

Editor’s Note

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