Exploring the mysteries of Christmas in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI asked his flock to ponder what this season might mean to people living in the Internet age.
"Is a Savior needed," he asked, "by a humanity which has invented interactive communication, which navigates in the virtual ocean of the Internet and, thanks to the most advanced modern communications technologies, has now made the earth, our great common home, a global village?"
What the world really needed, quipped Gizmodo writer Brian Lam, responding to the pope, was a new spiritual tool. Thus, digital believers were waiting for a John the Baptist -- Apple's Steve Jobs -- to "unveil Apple-Cellphone-Thingy, the true Jesus Phone" during the rites of the 2007 Macworld Conference.
That online exchange preceded an Apple advertisement that offered a stained-glass image moment revealing the mysterious, almost sacramental role that digital devices now play in the daily lives of millions of users, according to University of Notre Dame business professor Brett Robinson, author of "Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs."
In the ad, a man's finger surrounded by darkness is shown moving toward rows of icons on the glowing iconostasis of the iPhone screen, above this incantation: "Touching is Believing." For Robinson, there's no way to avoid a connection with the biblical image of Jesus telling the doubting St. Thomas to put his finger into the wounds on his resurrected body and, thus, "be not faithless but believing."
"It's all about the metaphors," said Robinson, reached by telephone. "You cannot explain what cannot be explained without metaphors. Technology needs metaphors to explain itself to the world and the same is true for religion."
Thus, he said, it's significant that the fervor surrounding Apple products has produced what scholars have long called the "Apple cult." It's also clear that Jobs -- drawing on his '60s-driven devotion to Eastern religions -- set out to combine art, technology and philosophy into a belief brand that urged consumers to, as stated by another classic ad, rebel and "think differently."
"It's easy to get into arguments about what is a religion and what is not," said Robinson. "But there's no question that the giant glass cube of the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue" in New York City serves as "a cathedral and that people travel there on pilgrimages and that local Apple Stores are like their local parishes. ...
"The goal is to consume something bigger than themselves, then they draw a sense of identity from those products."
Jobs knew all of that. After fleeing the Missouri Synod Lutheranism of his youth, he went out of his way to rattle traditional cages throughout his career. This was, after all, the man whose company logo was a rainbow apple -- minus one Edenic bite. He tested an early product with a prank call to the Vatican, pinned a $666.66 price tag on the Apple I and dressed as Jesus at his company's first Halloween party.
In his famous 2005 Stanford University address, Jobs told the graduates to "trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. ... Don't be trapped by dogma. ... Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."
At the heart of the Apple mythos, stressed Robinson, is an amazing paradox, a yin-yang collision around the fact that Jobs believed he was selling consumers good computers in order to help them escape a world dominated by bad computers. He sold his graceful devices by using images of enlightenment and community, while the reality was that many users were spending untold solitary hours staring at these digital mirrors in their hands or on their desks.
The bottom line: Have products inspired by the "Jesus Phone" turned into rosaries for narcissists?
The omnipresent iPhone "provides some of the comforts and a sense of security that religious faith provides," said Robinson. "It promises to connect you to the world and to be transcendent. ... Yet most people spend most of their time looking at the same five or six sites online -- like Facebook -- that primarily are about themselves.
"They spend hours and hours in this intimate ritual of touching those phones, clicking and clicking their way through their own interests, their own desires, their own lives. The emphasis ends up being on the 'i,' not on the other."
(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)
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