Liturgy and the Internet: Remembering Steve Jobs

A joint article between Joshua Case and Michael Sullivan of Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church, Atlanta, Georgia 

Joshua Case

On Wednesday evening, an ancient rhythm began to beat.  At first, it seemed faint, merely the sound of a computer or smartphone heralding another message or text.  But within minutes, simple sounds echoed across the globe as the world heard “Steve Jobs dead at 56.”

We, cohorts in the same church office, immediately texted one another.  In our souls we knew that something important had just happened, but despite our theological training and work with the Emergent Church, nothing really prepared us for the profundity of what would unfold before our eyes.  What we witnessed in the moments and hours following Steve Jobs death was not information in the technological age.  It was not merely a piece of news.  No, what happened before our eyes, and we say even in our hearts, was the gathering of a community.  facebook and twitter became virtual churches, places where “earth’s sorrows were such kindly judgment given.” 

Thousands if not millions of people eulogized Jobs in their own way. For many who had been Mac users for years, Jobs represented an icon, a father of everything that is inventive and good about the digital age. For others, he was both the old man clad with black sweater and jeans who released cool new iPhones and the guy who could see the future of things in ways that we couldn’t.

Regardless of how anyone viewed him, one thing is for certain: the world that Jobs left to those who would come after him is one with a new capacity for not only communicating and communing together, but also one that is, in his death, redefining what it means to grieve and mourn the loss of those that we know virtually and those that we know digitally.

By and large, most of those tweeting and facebooking eulogies never met Steve Jobs in the flesh. Yet, there is something in the way that the technologies of the 21st century bridge the gap between the digital and the physical that make us feel or experience knowing another in a completely new way.  That is to say, via the technologies of the digital age, ones pioneered and accelerated by Jobs, we not only know people we would never know, but we also have the capacity to celebrate and mourn with them, in our own ways, with everyone else, in an instant.

Jobs didn’t just reinvent the way we communicate and understand what it means to be human in community, he also played a huge role in the way we communicate the things we most value. Many forget that Jobs also founded Pixar, a company most well known for its animation films and emerging 3-D technology. The way in which Jobs and his merry band of digitalizers were able to take the idea behind the cartoonography of Walt Disney and turn it into a contemporary vehicle for shaping the moral imaginations of children and adults is not to be missed. Movies like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Up are modern day examples of how creatively Pixar has been able to communicate unbelievable truths about life, journey, and loss to every generation.

What is most striking about the experience of people mourning and eulogizing Jobs in real time via social networks is not how important of a man or how great of a thinker he was, but rather how paradoxically the tools he created are vesting culture with a way to say and do the things that Christians (and the Church) have been about saying and embodying for over 2000 years.  The Christian church has always wanted to say that death and dying is both a literal passing of physical life and a continuum of one’s life and contribution to the world of the future.   Our experience of participating in the online funeral liturgies of Steve Jobs (and later Fred Shuttlesworth, icon of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s) made incarnate for us what it means to be surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.”  Knowing this very present reality, we must ask: if twitter and facebook are presenting the voices of grief, suffering, and loss with authenticity, what is the role people of faith play in that forum, in that place devoid of our normal ecclesiastical assumptions and realities?

Indeed, when Jobs died, the ancient rhythms started.  The beat began.  People mourned, cried, and sang songs.  They posted in the new town center a call to eulogize, and the masses came. But they arrived without stained glass, quarried stone, and a pulpit.   Instead, they simply communed in a community beyond physicality.    That has always been our calling.  May we accept Jobs’ gifts to be a Church of radical hospitality and ever-expanding resurrection.