Passing the Torch in New Media: The Example of St. Dominic

Across the world right now, people are focused on the Olympic Games taking place in London.  Estimates released this morning by the BBC indicate that around 4 billion people worldwide have seen at least some coverage of the Games thus far, as a result of digital media and increased international coverage.  Hearing that figure made me wonder what it will be like in Rio, four years from now, when we may assume that technology will allow us to reach even more people than even that astonishing number.

Yet just as the Olympics are bookended by the lighting and extinguishing of a torch, so too the life of one of my personal heroes and patrons was marked by a torch also.  And the juxtaposition of these advances in technology along with the example of his life gives me pause, as I consider what exactly new media ought to be doing for the Church and for the world. We need to be asking ourselves whether new media is something being handed to us, like a burning torch to bring light into darkness: are we taking this seriously, as a way to enter into people’s hearts and homes, and to change minds corrupted by an all-too-prevalent, selfish materialism?

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to this story showing how churches are using new media to keep in touch with their members, as well as to draw potential new members to their services.  The story does not list the types of churches that were surveyed, so the results are slightly misleading.  For example, how many of these churches were Catholic? How many were Mainline? How many were Nondenominational?

The fact that the article refers to “knocking on doors” as being a “traditional” method of reaching followers ought to make the Catholics among my readers suspicious about these numbers.  Generally speaking, we just don’t go door to door trying to persuade people to come to church on Sunday.  Perhaps we ought to, but it seems so alien to our experience that I doubt there will be a great movement among Catholics to go out into the streets and convince others that Rome is the way to go.

And yet today, the Church honors a great man who did just that.

Today is the feast of St. Dominic, or more properly in his native Castile San Domingo de Guzmán (1170-1221), founder of the Order of Preachers, i.e. The Dominicans.  St. Dominic has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I can remember; I even selected him as my confirmation saint.  As the name of the Order implies, one of the key charisms of being a Dominican friar is preaching, following in the example of the Order’s founder.

Although he had been studying and working in religious life for some years, St. Dominic’s apostolate really began in the early 1200’s as a result of encountering the Albigensian heresy in southern France, in trying to refute their arguments and persuade them to come back to orthodoxy. In fact the very first night he arrived in the region, which he was meant to pass through on his way to Denmark, he ended up staying up all night trying to convince the heretical innkeeper with whom he was staying to come back to the Church.  By dawn he had succeeded, and his ministry was born, with the Dominicans eventually spreading all over the planet, preaching, teaching, and praying, thus bearing the light of truth.

In iconography, St. Dominic is often represented along with a dog bearing a torch in its mouth.  This is because before he was born his mother, Blessed Juana de Aza, had a dream that she would give birth to a dog bearing a torch, whose zeal would set the world on fire.  In Latin the name of the order, the “Dominicanus”, can be translated as a pun for “Dog of the Lord” – “Domini” and “Canis”.

For those of us not called to enter into the religious life of the Dominicans, but who are active in new and social media, the example of this torch-bearing “Dog of the Lord” is something we ought to consider thoughtfully. What are bearing a torch for in our own lives? Are we trying to set the world of new and social media on fire with good content, encouraging people while at the same time refuting what is wrong? Or are we simply creating a lot of acrid, choking smoke with no light? Do we burn with zeal, or do we simply smolder, at best, and never catch fire?

If 4 billion people can be persuaded to watch an international entertainment event, such as the Olympics, even if we cannot reach those numbers, still: imagine how many could be reached through digital media, by those who can lead others to truth, just as St. Dominic did!

Detail of “St. Dominic” by Claudio Coello (c. 1685)
The Prado, Madrid


London’s New Orbit Tower: An Olympian Failure

While watching news coverage of the lead-up to the London Olympic Games over the past few days, I became aware of the existence of the Orbit Tower, more formally the “ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower”, which is without question one of the ugliest public monstrosities that Britain has built to date, at least since the “Cool Britania”-era Millenium Dome – now known as the O2 Dome –  was plopped down like a rusting metallic jellyfish impaled on a sea urchin made out of Tinkertoys along the south bank of The Thames in Greenwich.  The difference between the two, of course, is that we are told that the Orbit Tower is in fact a work of sculpture in the form of a building, whereas the Millenium Dome is simply a building.  This means that we can be force-fed different ways of looking at the issue by the press, by Olympic organizers, and by those whose goal is to advance their own social-climbing, as is the case here.

The line between sculpture and building can of course become blurred. The famous Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York City’s harbor is both a sculpture and a building. Lady Liberty has stairs, rooms, and so on inside of her, but appears to be a giant sculpture from the outside, because she is clad in her iconic copper skin, gone verdigris from time and the elements.  The Eiffel Tower on the other hand, was not intended to be a sculpture but a building, designed to be an entrance gate to and an observation platform for the World’s Fair – or more properly, the Exposition Universelle – held in Paris for the centenary of the French Revolution. Over time, some critics have called it more akin to a work of sculpture since it serves no practical purpose, and has sculptural qualities.

In fact the Eiffel Tower is a good point of comparison for the Orbit Tower, for despite the fact that the former was considered a building and the latter considers itself a sculpture, both serve the same purpose, which is no real purpose at all. Neither tower was particularly popular at the time it was built, either. However what has changed in the century or so since the construction of the former has been the gradual deterioration of all sensible debate over the question of whether a work of art or architecture is actually any good.

Back in Eiffel’s day, a who’s-who of the French art and literary establishment tried to get his tower stopped, complaining that the construction of what would become, and still is, the tallest building in Paris would ruin the skyline. “To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.” Guy de Maupassant, quite possibly the greatest short story writer in France, supposedly ate lunch in the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant every day in protest, saying it was the one place in Paris where you could not see the Eiffel Tower. Nowadays, of course, most people (though not this writer) love the Eiffel Tower for its lacy symmetry, and cannot imagine Paris without it.

Will people one day say the same of the Orbit Tower? The answer is almost certainly no, though I am prepared to revisit this blog post in 20 years’ time and see whether public reaction to it has changed. It is an asymmetrical, twisted mess, demonstrating no talent or ability other than that of wasting other people’s money, and then daring anyone to question whether it is any good by bringing out the black turtleneck brigade to attempt to insult those with common sense.  It looks for all the world as though someone forgot to do their class art project until the night before it was due, and then rapidly scrunched together a bunch of odds and ends from around the house, and said, “Here: this is art.”  Art it may be, but bad art it certainly is.

In fact the designer of this structure, the untalented but inexplicably popular sculptor Anish Kapoor, has said that he was inspired by – brace yourself – the Tower of Babel. “There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It’s a long winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it.” However the Tower of Babel, lest you forget your Genesis, was a story about human ego and pretension, hubris and failure: about how man sought to make himself equal to God, and how he failed miserably.

That whopper of a quote aside, quite possibly the most head-scratching statement I have read thus far on the Orbit Tower comes from Lakshmi Mittal, often listed as the richest man in Britain, and the man without whose deep pockets, bad taste, and need to climb the social ladder the project might never have come to be.  Mittal apparently told the Associated Press that people just need to get used to the building – er, sculpture.  “People are still trying to criticize the Mona Lisa,” he says.  That is true, except there is one major difference: if you don’t like the Mona Lisa, you don’t actually have to go to The Louvre and look at it.  Londoners who live within sight of this utter waste of materials, manpower, and money are going to have to look at this doomed-to-demolition monstrosity every day for the next several decades, until a more sensible generation has the sense to knock it down.

So, enjoy your broken roller coaster wrapped around the Seattle Space Needle for as long as it stands, London. My guess is that about 24 hours after the games end, petitions for this tower to be demolished will begin finding their way to Boris Johnson’s office.

The Orbit Tower, London