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On Religion

August 26, 2013

Apple and the i-Sacraments age

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."

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