The Smartphone and the Virgin

Document Type


Publication Title

First Things - Web Exclusives

Publication Date




Take a look at the photo on the left. It’s a famous church in Rome, the seventeenth-century Santa Maria dei Miracoli, on the Piazza del Popolo. You might not immediately recognize it as a church because its front is almost entirely obscured by a giant billboard. Santa Maria is under renovation, and I assume the church, or perhaps the city, has rented out advertising space on the scaffolding to defray costs. Santa Maria remains a functioning place of Christian worship. The miraculous icon of the Virgin, for whom the church is named, still hangs above the altar. But the giant advertisement outside for Samsung’s new Galaxy S7 Edge—which, the billboard assures us, is “Molto più di uno Smartphone”—makes that fact hard to discern.

I took this photo on a trip to Rome earlier this year. It’s not a great photo, I know; my camera, unfortunately, was not Much More than a Smartphone. I share it, nonetheless, because I think the sight of a giant advertisement for a Smartphone on an iconic church in Rome captures something important about the state of Western culture at the start of the twenty-first century, and because it reminds me of a famous essay a more talented American traveler in Europe wrote at the start of the twentieth. In “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” Henry Adams described how a new force, represented by an electric generator he saw at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, had replaced Christianity as the prime mover of Western civilization. What I saw in Rome makes me think his essay needs an update.