Steve Jobs and Joseph Smith: Masters at Reality Distortion

May 14, 2012

Joseph Smith and Steve Jobs are alike in two remarkable ways. So I have concluded as a result of reading biographies of these two men during the past few weeks.

Of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Fawn McKay Brodie writes: “The source of his power lay not in his doctrine but in his person, and the rare quality of his genius was due not to his reason but to his imagination. He was a mythmaker of prodigious talent” (p. ix).

Not only Brodie, with her skepticism, but more sympathetic biographers such as Jan Shipps and Richard L. Bushman describe Smith’s uncanny ability to captivate people and energize them to do things they could never have imagined doing. He was a prophet whose mesmerizing ability puts him in the ranks of only a few religious leaders who have transformed reality for all who came within his spell.

Describing Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer Company, biographer Walter Isaacson uses the phrase “reality distortion field” to explain his ability to motivate people to accomplish design and engineering tasks they claimed were impossible. Issacson quotes Andy Hertzfeld’s description of Jobs’ power. “The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand” (p. 118).

The impression I receive from Isaacson’s account is that this aspect of Jobs’ character was partly a studied and practiced form of dealing with people in order to bend them to his will. But there was another aspect, a vision, a sense of purpose that transcended ordinary activities, which drove him and everyone around him to make reality conform to their purposes.

Of course, Smith and Jobs lived in eras that differed widely and there was virtually nothing about their life stories that is common to both. It is hard even to think of Smith’s religion and Jobs’ business world at the same time. One was a prophet to adopt the word that Brodie and Shipps use to describe Smith, and the other, to use the word that Isaacson settles upon in his chapter on Jobs’ legacy, was a genius.

Jobs and Smith are alike in a second way: each one created an institution that embodies the spirit and major characteristics of its founder and moves these qualities forward in time. “The continuation of the incarnation” is a phrase sometimes used in theological literature to describe the Church that emerged during the latter part of the first century.

Jesus was gone. The people of the way, who were first called Christians at Antioch, maintained a vivid embodiment of what he had said and done.

Joseph Smith was martyred long before his Mormon experiment had been finished, but the church, the religious movement, that he had sired and inspired, continued on and continues to offer his vision and system to the world.

And Jobs? Although he was driven by powerful design principles to create remarkable products, a closely parallel passion was to create a great company. Some of his heroes were business leaders who had done just that, and he ardently desired that his company would sustain the electronic revolution that he had willed into being.

We know, of course, that Smith’s church, designed and perpetuated by Brigham Young, continues as a worldwide movement. Whether Jobs’ company will continue remains to be seen.

Reading the biography of Steve Jobs is helping me understand the achievement of Joseph Smith, while reading biographies of Smith assists me in my efforts to understand the computer genius of Cupertino.

Again Isaacson quotes Hertzfield who gives this assessment of Steve Jobs: “He thinks there are a few people who are special—people like Einstein and Gandhi and the gurus he met in India—and he’s one of them.” Isaacson continues by saying that although Jobs had never studied Nietzsche, “the philosopher’s concept of the will to power and the special nature of the Überman came naturally to him: ‘The spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers the world’” (119). Much the same, it seems to me, can be said of the prophet from Nauvoo.

I readily acknowledge that there were serious flaws in the character and life that each of these men lived. Many aspects of Mormon historiography, theology, and ecclesial ethics are troublesome to me and I continue to live outside of the LDS orbit. Although I do use Mac computers and appreciate their skilled blending of art and technology, I find Jobs, as Isaacson describes him, to be a deeply flawed human being. There are aspects of Apple’s passion to control that frustrate me greatly.

Even so the prophet and the genius stand side by side as dramatic exemplars of muses with unusual power. With these muses, they have changed the world.

Learning about the Latter Day Saints

December 31, 2011

One of my goals for 2012 is to develop a basic knowledge of Mormon history, faith, and culture. One reason is to be able to participate more intelligently in current political discourse since prominent figures in public life are Mormon, including Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Harry Reid. A second reason is to provide a religious focus to a journey by bicycle through the desert southwest, a part of the country where Mormons long ago learned how to flourish.

My previous knowledge of this rapidly growing religious movement has been marginal at best. During family travels long ago, we toured sites in downtown Salt Lake City and in later years my wife and I have visited Nauvoo in western Illinois and St. George in southern Utah. The only academic interpretation of Mormon history that I received was one lecture in graduate school in which the professor stated that Joseph Smith stole the manuscript of the Book of Mormon from a print shop where it was being prepared for publication and made up the story of the golden plates.

My guide as I begin my personal study of Mormon history is Jan Shipps, an emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. Although a life-long and active United Methodist, Shipps has specialized in studies of Mormonism and has received high honors from Mormon scholars and from her colleagues in the academic disciplines of American history and religious studies.

Although I met Professor Shipps years ago, when I was teaching at Christian Theological Seminary, also in Indianapolis, I have only recently begun reading her books and essays. My starting point is Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons, which is a collection of her essays and addresses on Mormonism. Shipps has written brief autobiographical introductions to each section of the book. Thus the volume serves as a chronicle of her academic career and a report of how her understanding of religion and life have developed over time.

Each of the seventeen essays in the book includes extended notes, which provide a guide to a broader range of literature and opinion. I’m using this volume to help me select other articles and books to read so that I can be confident that the information is reliable and the interpretations are reasonable and defensible.

Perhaps the most important realization that has come from my initial exploration on this topic is that there are approximately 10 million Mormons worldwide, and the number is growing rapidly. Shipps freely talks about Mormonism as a new faith tradition that is related to Christianity in a way that is similar to how the early Christian movement was related to the Judaism from which it came.

Shipps demonstrates that the essential character of this new faith was well established during the early years when Joseph Smith was the controlling figure. Shipps delineates three distinct layers of theology and doctrine that have developed during Mormon history, and she describes this theology as complex and comprehensive.

During the first century of Mormon history, there was a strong emphasis upon the formation of a tightly knit community in which all aspects of life were integrated according to Mormon ideas. During this period, most Mormons lived “beyond the mountain curtain” where they “turned the desert into a suitable place of habitation.” It is this aspect of Mormon history that will be especially interesting to me as a bicyclist through sunny, arid parts of the Southwest later in the year.

Shipps frequently suggests that Mormons developed an ethic identity, a deeply ingrained culture for life that persists even among people who no longer are observant with respect to Mormon religious practice. She shows how in more recent generations Mormons have learned how to create dispersed versions of their intense communitarian way of life so that it can flourish in little communities around the world, thus permitting Mormonism to become a world faith.

This aspect of Mormon life has been so impressive to Shipps that it has affected her own religious practice as a United Methodist. “Yet the idea of a calling proved to be catching, and I soon found myself thinking of the responsibility I was asked to assume at the First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, as a calling—even though my assignment was chairing the ‘Conversation and Coffee’ program committee, a pretty un-Mormon assignment” (p. 279).

I don’t know where this study of Mormon life and lore will take me. The next two books, however, will be Jan Shipps’ Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition and Fawn McKay Brodie’s controversial No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet.

Note: A 28-page, fully annotated review essay of “Sojourner in the Promised Land,” was written by KLAUS J. HANSEN, a member of the history department of Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, where he has taught the history of American thought and culture since 1968.