New Age

Steve Jobs, saint of the '60s

It was in 1994 that author Umberto Eco, drawing on his studies in symbols and philosophy, looked at the evolution of personal computers and saw theology, doctrine, spirituality and, yes, icons. The modern world, he argued in the Italian magazine Espresso, was divided between Macintosh believers and those using the Microsoft disk operating system. The DOS world was "Protestant, or even Calvinistic" since it demanded "difficult personal decisions" and forced users to master complicated codes and rules.

"The Macintosh is Catholic," wrote Eco. "It tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons."

Nearly two decades later, the hagiographers producing eulogies for Steve Jobs produced evidence that Eco was close -- but that he needed to soar past Rome and around the globe to India and Japan. In essay after essay, journalists have argued that the so-called "cult of Mac" was driven by the Apple leader's "Zen-like" state of mind.

It seems those iMacs, iPods, iPhones, iPads and MacBooks really were religious objects after all, with their gleaming surfaces of glass, aluminum and white or black plastic. There must have been a grand scheme behind that yin-yang minimalism.

"The Zen of Steve Jobs," proclaimed CNN. added: "Steve Job's Mantra Rooted in Buddhism: Focus and Simplicity."

HBO's "Real Time" provocateur complained that too many normal people -- even conservatives -- were rushing to claim Jobs. "Please don't do it, right-wingers," said Bill Maher. "He was not one of you. ... He was an Obama voting, pot-smoking Buddhist."

One image of Jobs dominated the media barrage. In 2005, the prophet from Cupertino visited one of California's most exclusive pulpits, giving the commencement address at Stanford University. It was one year after doctors discovered the rare form of pancreatic cancer that took his life at the age of 56.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life," he said. "Almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

A quick summary of Jobs' spiritual life is that he followed his heart right out of a traditional Christian background and into the spiritual maelstrom of the 1960s. Raised as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, the young Jobs was already breaking bread with the Hare Krishnas near Reed College in Portland, Oregon, when he dropped out and headed to India seeking enlightenment.

It's hard to know how much the secretive Jobs practiced Buddhism during his often-stormy life, which included an out-of-wedlock daughter (he denied paternity for years) and his legendary rise and fall and triumphant rebirth as Apple's visionary. Buddhist monk Kobun Chino Otogawa did perform the 1991 wedding of Jobs and Laurene Powell and the Zen master served as a spiritual advisor for NeXT, the computer company Jobs founded in between his two Apple eras.

Critics noted that Jobs was a relentless and abrasive perfectionist who left scores of battered psyches in his wake. Whatever the doctrinal content of his faith, it seemed to have been a Buddhism that helped him find peace while walking barefoot through offices packed with wealthy, workaholic capitalists.

In his Stanford sermon, Jobs urged his young listeners to "trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

For Jobs, the bottom line was his own bottom line -- even when death loomed on the horizon. His ultimate hope was that he, alone, knew what was right.

"Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking," he concluded. "Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition -- they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Oprah's liberal prosperity gospel

There was only one way the Oprah Winfrey Show could end after 25 years, 4,561 shows and 30,000 guests -- with a sermon. "Here's what I learned," explained Winfrey, in a monologue now circulating as an online "love letter" to viewers. "Nobody but you is responsible for your life. It doesn't matter what your mama did. It doesn't matter what your daddy didn't do. ...

"You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you're responsible for the energy that you bring to others. ... All life is energy and we are transmitting it at every moment. We are all little beaming little signals like radio frequencies, and the world is responding in kind."

God is in there, somewhere, along with love, grace, kindness, tears, empathy, consolation, compassion, and, above all, self-acceptance. Put it all together and you have a non-threatening faith that many Americans call "spirituality," as opposed to religion.

Knowing this issue was sure to arise, Winfrey frequently played the God card during her farewell show and even used the oh-so-controversial J-word -- Jesus.

All her success, she stressed, has been built on, "My team, and Jesus. Because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me."

Was this any particular God? After all, Oprah's only orthodoxy has long been her conviction that there can be no one, true orthodoxy. What God was she talking about?

"I'm talking about the same one you're talking about," she told her global flock, thus combining many cultures and religions. "I'm talking about alpha and omega, the omniscient, the omnipresent, the ultimate consciousness, the source, the force, the all of everything there is, the one and only G-O-D. ...

"God is love, and God is life, and your life is always speaking to you."

The key is that Oprah has empowered her followers to have a good cry, forgive themselves and move on, urging them to evolve beyond old-fashioned religions built on doctrines linking forgiveness to the repentance of sins, according to Sally Quinn of the Washington Post, a Beltway society maven for several decades.

Americans should celebrate this trend and Oprah's role in it, she wrote, at the newspaper's "On Faith" website.

"Gone were the fire and brimstone, you're-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior, the judgment, the fear, the punishment. ... People don't want to be lectured to and made to feel guilty for common human failings. People want to feel hopeful, as though they matter. They want to feel empowered. Oprah led the way," argued Quinn.

Many traditional religious leaders are not so sure and some, in particular, have linked Oprah's work to trends spotted by sociologists in the lives of young Americans and their parents. Crucial to these sobering discussions is "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," a belief system articulated by researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Denton. Core beliefs include:

* A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over it.

* God wants people to be good, nice and fair to one another, as taught in most religions.

* The goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

* God gets involved when we have problems we need solved.

* Good people go to heaven.

Winfrey's approach fits nicely inside the borders of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, while also combining emotional elements of megachurch evangelicalism with the modernized doctrines of liberal Protestantism, noted church historian Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. Meanwhile, the non-ordained host guided her guests through on-air confessions, taught her own version of tolerance and, literally, sent her most devoted followers on mission trips to help others.

All of this, he stressed, was part of a commercial enterprise, not a religious ministry. Thus, it's possible that Oprah preached a liberalized form of the "prosperity gospel" seen in some churches. In the end, viewers were supposed to heal themselves, and grow spiritually, by consuming products -- especially books -- endorsed by Winfrey & Co.

"In the end, it's all God stuff," said Kidd. "Her whole world is infused with religious themes and images and theories that are all her own. ... I'm not sure how people are supposed to practice this religion, because to do that you would have to figure out what it all means. Oprah offered a form of faith that may only work at shopping malls."

'Lost' in the eternal lite

When describing the mysterious concept called purgatory, the Catechism of the Catholic Church starts with the basics. "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," the text states. "The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification. ... The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire."

Alas, any distressed "Lost" viewers who rushed to the Vatican website after the show's finale found no insights about the smoke monster, the Dharma Initiative, that mysterious "4 8 15 16 23 42" sequence or why the fate of the world depended on a pool of light on one very strange island.

At least one member of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has owned up to being tuned into the "Lost" phenomenon from the beginning. At the end, all Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark could do was understate the obvious.

"I've enjoyed the series, considering it to be akin to science fiction," he noted, reacting to the raging debates about the religious symbols and language that dominated the final moments. "While the Catholic Church does believe in Purgatory, I'm not sure that the series presents an accurate understanding of our beliefs."

Before the finale, the scribes who had been running "Lost" -- Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse -- said their creation would end by focusing on how the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors answered ultimate questions about the wounds, conflicts and sins in their pasts. The key word, they agreed, was "redemption." All of that pain and suffering had a purpose.

The final episode blended together lots of vague theology, philosophy, pop psychology, religious symbols and references to popular books and movies. Think of it as "Our Town" meets "The Sixth Sense," with dashes of "Ghost," "Field of Dreams," "It's a Wonderful Life" and, at the last minute, a comforting nod to "All Dogs Go to Heaven."

After years of flashing back and forth in time, the final year's action centered on events in two parallel time sequences -- the climactic battle to determine the island's fate and a purgatorial "sideways" timeline in which the characters gained insights into their troubled lives, before and after the fateful crash.

At the end, the castaways gathered in a church sanctuary for one last group hug before entering eternity -- an ocean of bright light outside the exit doors. The big chat explaining these final events -- reuniting the show's Christ figure, Jack Shephard, with his father, Christian Shephard -- was lit by a stained-glass window containing symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

But was the show, as some had theorized all along, actually built on the concept of purgatory? Hadn't Lindelof told the New York Times in 2006: "People who believe that they're in purgatory or that they're subjects of an experiment are going to start reassessing those theories. ..." The creator of "Lost," J.J. Abrams, had denied the purgatory theory, too.

The finale's spirituality shocked many critics, including one or two who were so upset that they retroactively (flash backward) dismissed "Lost" as a whole. But veteran Washington Post writer Hank Stuever, drawing on his Catholic school past, said it's time to admit the obvious.

In the final five minutes, "I realized that the purgatory camp had been right all along, that Occam’s razor (the simplest solution is usually the correct one) had worked," he argued. "Oceanic 815 crashed. Some of its souls awoke in a realm that is neither heaven nor hell. It's limbo. ... Jack Shephard and his fellow travelers were brought there to resolve a number of problems between heaven and hell."

But some Catholic viewers struggled to reconcile their church's teachings with the limitations of a product created in Hollywood, a place that has its own definitions of terms such as "sin," "repentance," "redemption" and "savior."

Now, the creators of "Lost" have offered a glimpse of purgatory -- lite.

"From a theological point of view -- well, you can't have 'purgatory' per se without God, without Christ," said Amy Welborn, a popular online Catholic commentator. "But given a vague, non-specific Christ-less spirituality, I really don't see an argument that the sideways realities in the final episode, at least, weren't meant to be purgatory."

A spiritual year at the multiplex

In one of Hinduism's most sacred poems, the lord and sustainer of the universe chooses to be incarnated in human form -- the ancient term is "avatar" -- to help the Pandava people fight evil invaders and defend what is right. In director James Cameron's blockbuster "Avatar," a U.S. marine is transformed by technology into a blue-skinned warrior on a planet called Pandora, where he helps the Na'vi people fight evil corporate invaders and defend their sacred lands and traditions.

There seem to be some similarities in these epics.

"The ancient Hindu scriptures have forever reiterated that whenever the world would be on the brink of disaster and mankind faces extinction, whenever the vessel of sin is about to spill over to create death and destruction, the divine Lord Vishnu would ... manifest himself in mortal, palpable form to save mankind from the impeding doomsday," noted the Bengali director Sudipto Chattopadhyay, at the Passion and Cinema weblog.

When evaluating Cameron's movie, he added, one thing is clear. "The use of the word Avatar hence could never be an accident. ... The Avatar is meant to be the savior, the messiah of his own race and people."

It was that kind of year at the multiplex, with a parade of films rolling through theaters containing obvious religious images, messages, themes and characters. This made it both easy and hard for the team to select nominees for its annual Best Spiritual Film award.

"It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what a spiritual film is, since people have their own ideas as to what spirituality is," said Dena Ross, the website's entertainment editor. "We define it as a film which makes a serious attempt to grapple with the big questions in life: Why are we here? Why is there evil and suffering? Is there a God? Why do bad things happen to good people?"

This year, she said, made a conscious decision to nominate "more overtly religious films" for the Best Spiritual Film prize. A second category -- Best Inspirational Film -- focused on movies with uplifting messages, but few specific religious elements.

"We had so many amazing movies this time with strong references to religion," said Ross. "I mean, 'A Serious Man' is about a devout Jewish man. 'The Stoning of Soraya M' deals with serious Muslim issues. 'The Blind Side' is about an evangelical family that is practicing its faith."

Due to the historic success of "Avatar" -- $700 million-plus at the domestic box office -- there was a chance that Cameron's 3D myth would get the Best Spiritual Film nod from both the judges and the website's readers.

Instead, the judges selected "The Road," a bleak drama based on Cormac McCarthy's novel. It told the story of a father who teaches his son to remain "one of the good guys" while "carrying the fire" -- a metaphor for hope and faith -- in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by murderers and cannibals. The boy is shown praying for God's help, and keeps striving to help the people they meet.

To the surprise of the team, their readers then picked "The Blind Side" as the year's top spiritual film. In fact, 62 percent of the votes went to the real-life story of football star Michael Oher's journey from a Memphis ghetto into the home of a rich Christian family that, literally, adopted him as a son. "Avatar" got 18 percent.

Meanwhile, Pixar's "Up" was chosen as the Best Inspirational Film. It told the story of a crotchety old man who soars away on an adventure inspired by devotion to his recently deceased wife. Along the way, he forms a strong bond with a young boy who reminds him that his life still has purpose.

"Up" was another hit for Pixar, earning nearly $300 million at the box office, while "The Blind Side" shocked Hollywood with a total gross of nearly $250 million, with most of those tickets selling in the American heartland.

"In past years, we've gone back and forth trying to find films that fit our definitions. But this time it was much easier with all of these big, successful films that dealt with spiritual issues," said Ross. "Maybe it's a sign of the times. In hard times, people may be looking for these kinds of uplifting stories. It seems they went to movie theaters looking for something to inspire them."

Oprah and her American faith

Faithful members of Oprah Winfrey's TV flock know what's happening when guests start talking and their leader keeps saying "Amen," "Preach it" or even, "Sister, I understand the whole God connection!"

The host wants the guest to start "testifying," a confessional process in which believers look for God's healing hand in life's hard lessons. Winfrey learned all about "testifying" as a girl back in the Faith United Mississippi Baptist Church, where jealous peers often called her "Miss Jesus."

But here's the irony, noted journalist Marcia Nelson, author of "The Gospel According to Oprah." Winfrey has become a billionaire and one of world's most powerful women by baring her soul and urging millions of others to follow her example, resulting in what some critics call the "Oprahfication" of America. However, it's almost impossible to answer this simple question: What does Oprah believe?

"She sounds like a person who was raised in a Baptist church," said Nelson, who spent months digging into Winfrey's beliefs on suffering, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness and other spiritual topics.

"Still, it's hard to put a label on Oprah because she refuses to let people do that to her. ... You'd have to say that she looks a lot more like a Protestant than she does a Catholic, but what does that mean? It's hard to say what a person needs to believe these days to be called a 'Protestant.' "

Winfrey retains the ability to slip smoothly into the "mother tongue" she learned as a child in black churches, noted Nelson. For a few years as an adult, she attended the Trinity United Church of Christ, a progressive congregation in Chicago known as Sen. Barack Obama's home church. Then, during her "Remember Your Spirit" period in the 1990s, conservatives criticized her ties to Marianne Williamson ("A Return to Love") and other "New Age" writers who blurred the lines between Christianity and other faiths.

The key is that Winfrey has been a trailblazer who symbolizes many contemporary religious trends.

* Many Americans, said Nelson, are drawn to a "practical, how-to, self-help, just-do-it" approach to faith and personal growth that meshes smoothly with the parade of counselors, doctors, writers and ministers -- of every conceivable faith -- featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." It's crucial that the host looks straight into the camera and says: "This works."

Thus, noted Nelson, Winfrey has "been roundly criticized for making the spiritual too psychological, too therapeutic, too soft, too easy, too self-centered. The gospel according to Oprah doesn't appear to require some kind of doctrinal commitment or a community to ensure that the life-changing 'Aha!' moment of decision is more than a new year's resolution that is quickly made in isolation and broken two weeks later."

* The public loves complex, conflicted celebrities and Winfrey is the spiritual superstar. She quietly supports humble projects near home, yet courts publicity by flying off to start gigantic projects around the world -- such as the new $40-million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy near Johannesburg.

She tells women to love themselves the way they are, but keeps offering weight-loss tips. She urges viewers to give to others, but also pamper themselves. Winfrey says women should embrace their maturity, but shows them how to look 10 years younger. She advises women on private moral dilemmas, but fiercely guards her own privacy.

* One of the fastest growing segments of the population consists of people who call themselves "spiritual," but not "religious," noted Nelson. Winfrey clicks with media-driven, postmodern believers who stress the importance of personal experience and storytelling over the authority of religious institutions and doctrines. Meanwhile, many churches are trying to shed old names and labels, calling themselves "community churches" and adopting other post-denominational names.

The bottom line, said Nelson, is that for generations Americans were able to rally around a kind of tame, "nominal" Judeo-Christian faith that let them affirm a few common traditions and many old-fashioned values. But this has become harder after waves of immigration from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

American is becoming more pluralistic on faith issues and that has always been just fine with Winfrey. She is all about spirituality, not doctrine. If she has a creed she keeps it hidden.

"Oprah's clothes may bear labels, but her faith does not," noted Nelson. "I don't know what her personal beliefs are."

Why eulogies have changed

Seconds after American Airlines Flight 11 passed overhead, another Franciscan brother ran to Father Mychal Judge's room in the friary to let him know the World Trade Center was on fire.

The veteran chaplain quickly changed out of his simple brown habit and into his fire-department uniform -- pausing only to comb and spray his hair. Judge was heading into danger, but he was also ready to face the cameras. Soon, a photographer captured unforgettable images of firefighters carrying the priest's body out of the rubble and his name was on the first Ground Zero death certificate.

"While he was ministering to dying firemen, administering the Sacrament of the Sick and Last Rites, Mychal Judge died," said Father Michael Duffy, at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in New York City.

"... Look how that man died. He was right where the action was, where he always wanted to be. He was praying, because in the ritual for anointing we're always saying, 'Jesus come,' 'Jesus forgive,' 'Jesus save.' He was talking to God and he was helping someone. Can you honestly think of a better way to die? I think it was beautiful."

Anyone who wants to know how to deliver a eulogy should study this poignant section of Duffy's remarks at the funeral of his close friend, said Cyrus Copeland, a former advertising executive who edited "Farewell, Godspeed" and the recent "A Wonderful Life," two collections of famous eulogies. The new book includes a chapter focusing on Judge and three other men who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

This one anecdote reveals two sides of the same man, mixing humor -- the final ritual of comb and hairspray -- with a vision of a faithful priest's willingness to risk his own life to provide comfort to his unique flock.

These days, said Copeland, the loved ones who gather at a funeral want to hear a celebratory toast to a life well lived, just as much or more than they want to face spiritual issues involved in their loss.

"People want honesty," he said. "They don't want to hear about the saint that nobody knew. They want to hear about the real Father Mychal, a man who loved the human soul, but also knew a good photo opportunity when he saw one. ? They want to hear about life, more than they want to hear about eternal life. Eulogies today are more human and they are becoming less religious."

Copeland is convinced there are several reasons that the art of the eulogy has changed so radically in recent decades.

For starters, most people alive today have grown up in a video age, surrounded by celebrity news and, more recently, the tightly edited rush of "reality television." They have seen their share of high-profile funerals. Millions wept as Lord Edward John Spencer spoke at the funeral of his sister, Lady Diana. Many watched as superstar Cher laughed and cried her way through a eulogy for her former husband, Sonny Bono.

Clergy rarely command the spotlight during these rites.

"It's important to remember that the celebrity memorial service was the first kind to be secularized," said Copeland. "So you expect to hear about heaven in a eulogy for Father Mychal Judge, with a priest in the pulpit. But eulogies for celebrities like Marilyn Monroe may not mention heaven at all. That's just the age we live in."

There's another practical reason that eulogies have changed so much. Friends and relatives are taking control of the microphone.

In the past, loved ones asked the family's pastor, rabbi or priest to deliver the eulogy. Today, it would be hard for most people to name such a person. Most modern families are scattered across the nation, divided by career choices and, far too often, broken relationships. Family members may not even share a common faith and they certainly have not spent most of their lives in the same neighborhood in the same city.

Clergy used to deliver about 90 percent of all eulogies. Today, "that number is about 50 percent and it's falling," said Copeland.

"So for many people a memorial service simply isn't a religious event anymore. It offers us a chance to say our good-byes to the dearly departed, but many people no longer think of this event as a bridge between this life and the next."

Trust your feelings, Darth?

No wonder Anakin Skywalker seems so confused.

Every time the Jedi apprentice turns around, a spiritual master tells him to trust his feelings, search his feelings or follow his feelings. Trouble is, the young super-warrior in "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones" is a tornado of feelings. He feels love. He feels hate, ambition, desire, frustration, fear and fury.

Yet when he follows his heart, the Jedi tell him to set aside his desires and do his duty.

Well, do feelings trump duty or is it the other way around?

"I don't know what it says in the Jedi handbook, but it's obvious that George Lucas hasn't answered this question," says Catholic writer Roberto Rivera, who is best known for his pop-culture research for evangelical leader Chuck Colson.

"It's especially interesting that the characters that represent the good side of the Force -- like Obi-Wan Kenobi -- stress the importance of following your feelings. But the characters that represent the dark side -- like Chancellor Palpatine -- are also telling Anakin he must learn to trust his feelings. Why do the good guys and the bad guys agree with each other?"

This may sound like the geeky Star Wars nit-picking that thrives in cyberspace, where legions of Lucas acolytes circulate catechisms detailing how many Jedi can twirl on the point of a light saber. But these are not meaningless questions for the generations baptized in images from the original trilogy and its sequels. The grand finale looms ahead on May 25, 2005.

Like it or not, what Lucas says about God and man is important.

"Star Wars is the closest thing many Americans have to a myth -- by which I mean the stories that help us make sense of our lives and the world around us, and the traditional means by which cultures transmit their values and beliefs," argues Rivera, in a essay called "Love, Sacrifice and Free Will in Star Wars."

Thus, it matters if Lucas has created a myth that makes any sense, even on its own terms. It matters if the Force provides a coherent framework for the actions of his characters. It matters if Lucas is stuck somewhere between karma and Calvinism, spinning morality tales in a universe ruled by an impersonal "energy field created by all living things" that somehow has a will and a plan for the souls it controls.

After all, notes Rivera, it "was Lucas who called Star Wars the story of a man's fall from grace and his subsequent redemption. These are terms with moral, if not religious, significance."

The key is that Lucas created a pop faith the same way he created his monsters. He took the head of one creature, attached it to the body of another, stuck on the tail of something else and enlarged the result to awesome size.

"I didn't want to invent a religion," Lucas once told journalist Bill Moyers. "I wanted to try to explain in a different way the religions that already existed. ... I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people -- more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system."

The bottom line: "The conclusion I have come to is that all the religions are true."

Yet Lucas wanted an epic story of good and evil, darkness and light. His films center on the life of an anointed one who "will bring balance" between the yin and the yang of the Force, yet Lucas never defines his terms. He never says what is good and what is evil and why. Heroes and villains alike have to follow their feelings.

"There is zero evidence in the Star Wars films that anyone is ever taught anything about what is right and what is wrong," notes Rivera. "We don't even know why the dark side is dark. It's a mystery. It's a concept with no meaning. ...

"Everybody is supposed to do the right thing, but nobody wants to stop and give any serious thought as to how a person is supposed to know what is the right thing to do. That is a rather important question to leave unanswered, if you stop and think about it."