On the train ride to and from the theatre where I watched Steve Jobs, the new biopic from director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, I also took in another story about a genius inventor, albeit one of a very different kind of product: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, assigned for our local book club’s October meeting. I don’t want to reach too far to draw connections between the two works. Even Jobs’ biggest business flop (which the film identifies as the 1990 NeXTcube computer, at least in terms of its functionality) doesn’t deserve the label “monster”; and whereas Frankenstein’s creation offers an eloquent monologue covering multiple chapters of the book, the first act of Jobs finds the Apple co-founder’s team racing against the clock to make the first Macintosh computer merely say “Hello” at the famed 1984 shareholders’ meeting. Nevertheless, both stories raise similar questions about human nature as it relates to our existence as creatures endowed with the capacity to create.
As with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s exceptional 2010 film The Social Network, I’m not concerned with how accurately the film depicts the personalities or character of the people it depicts. (To be honest, I have strong doubts about its accuracy, and not without good reason; if we’re talking about inventors, we might include Sorkin on the list). I am intensely interested, though, in the fictional Jobs that Sorkin creates here. Sorkin paints Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender, who’s reliably outstanding) as a man of extremes, almost as if to ask whether the admirable—namely, his brilliance and undeniable influence on the future of technology—somehow justifies the shameful—namely, his cutthroat severity as a leader and his strained relationship with his daughter, Lisa, and her mother. (If the movie offers an answer, it comes in the voice of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak: “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.”)
Along those lines, the film (and, at times, even Jobs) seems curious about our capacity as humans to do both profound good and unspeakable evil—whether, we might ask, the products Apple creates are better designed than the ones God creates. Across the decades the film chronicles, Jobs continually exasperates his coworkers through his fastidious attention to detail and obsession with perfection in design. Sorkin not-so-subtly suggests Jobs’ ambition and desire for control may be motivated to some degree by insecurity, including both residual shame about the fact of his adoption and ongoing guilt about his relationship with Lisa, whom he long publicly denies as his offspring. In his moments of greatest honesty and self-reflection, Jobs himself seems to recognize the connection: “I’m poorly made,” he tells Lisa, in the kind of clever, poignant wordplay for which Sorkin is known. Jobs is a master of learning from his mistakes and treating potentially crushing failures as mere setbacks, but he gradually seems to learn that his mistakes as Lisa’s father have done much greater, more lasting harm than any of his mistakes at Apple (or NeXT). Indeed, as Apple’s products grow in their technical capacities and sheer beauty and stand poised to change the world, we get the sense Lisa is the one unplanned variable in his life Jobs can’t control, an ongoing area of brokenness he can’t remedy with the next software update.
In his enthralling, sharp book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford cheekily describes our sin inclination as the “human propensity to [mess] things up.” He describes this propensity further: “It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as”—and here, I can’t help but think about the glass on my iPhone screen—“material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.” This has undoubtedly been my experience: any good I may endeavor to do is often motivated by equal parts compassion and selfishness or pride, or moments of genuine kindness toward the people I love most are interspersed between moments of hasty unkindness or slower, subtler mistreatment. On countless occasions I have found myself mentally reciting Paul’s angst in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
The good news followers of Jesus are called to demonstrate to the world is, of course, that the harm the human species has perpetrated and continues to perpetrate will not overcome the love and power of God, who will have the final word in the story in which we find ourselves. (“Far more can be mended than you know,” Jesus tells his listeners in Spufford’s creative retelling of the gospel narrative.) Paul eventually finds relief for the angst he expresses in Romans 7: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-5). If we want to know something about God’s nature, we ought to contemplate the qualities that the book of Galatians describes as indicators of the presence of God’s Spirit, like love, patience, and kindness (5:22-3)—not our greed, our selfishness, or our “propensity to [mess] things up.”
As Frankenstein’s creation observes a human family and reads history, he reflects on the apparent paradox he perceives in human nature: “Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.” The paradox of human nature—our impulse to do harm and break stuff, as well our desire to do good and create stuff—is on full display in the version of Jobs that Sorkin, Boyle, and Fassbender have put on screen. As Jobs wrestles with his failures in the midst of his massive, world-changing successes, it might not have been surprising to hear him utter, “I do not understand my own actions.”