by Mary Harrington
Monday, 7
December 2020
Spotted
15:09

Deck the halls! Ironic hipster Christianity may save us all

by Mary Harrington
Minimal Nativity Set made of plain wooden blocks by Emilie Voirin

Today, what you buy is who you are. For those who’ve travelled so far beyond God that Advent is just drinking and tinsel, there’s no shortage of faith-free seasonal tat to splurge on in December. But for design-conscious types with a vestigial relationship to Christianity — a kind of religious coccyx, if you like — how to shop the ironically pre-post-Christian vibe presents more of a challenge.

Industrial designer Sebastian Bergne has one solution: expensive Christian minimalism. His online shop charges £200 for a set of eight rectangles of painted beech in an untreated wooden box, with each block representing one of the figures in the Nativity. (The 2020 edition is now sold out, though you can pre-order for next year). The idea, presumably, is that we’re so familiar with the elements of a traditional Nativity scene, whether on Christmas cards or in innumerable other representations, that these rectangular placeholders are instantly recognisable simply by their colour. Emilie Voirin’s even more brutally abstract Nativity takes this a step further again, rejecting even the colour-coding in favour of plain wooden blocks with text printed on them.

Can you tell what it is yet? Credit: Sebastian Bergne

Looking at these, I find myself wondering about a world populated by adults grown up in households with a Nativity represented only by painted oblongs. I doubt theirs would be a culture with a shared recognition of the elements of the archetypal Nativity as our relatively recently post-Christian one. In this sense, the minimalist Nativity adds nothing: it treats the collective Christian cultural memory less like something held in trust than like a non-renewable resource that can be mined.

The more figurative Nativities of religious iconography can be schmaltzy at times, but who can find any kind of schmaltzy emotional resonance in painted oblongs? Instead, Bergne’s and Voirin’s sets operate purely at the level of abstraction, conceding nothing to piety or emotion. The implication is that this is the plainest possible placeholder: whatever you’re going to feel about the Nativity is your business alone.

On one reading, then, minimalist Nativities are characteristically 21st century, capering ironically over millennia of mouldering traditions while shying violently away from the responsibility of adding anything new and sincere to the pile. But perhaps there’s a more optimistic take.

It’s just possible that minimalist Nativity sets represent the stubborn refusal, even among hipsters, to permit a total extinguishing of Christian observance. As someone who’s tried both, I can attest to the fact that at least in mainstream secular society, outing oneself as even mildly Christian carries considerably greater risk of social penalty than coming out as LGBT. Other faiths generally get more of a pass but being Christian is really, really uncool.

In defence of minimalist Nativities, then, despite the heavy ironic throat-clearing, at least they do reference religious tradition. And after all, iconoclasm has a long Christian history too. It may be a faint hope but it’s just possible that for some, ironic hipster Christianity might be a staging-post not toward but away from a bleak secular Christmas composed solely of Santa and Amazon. Deck the halls, indeed.

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  • Just a thought. Would a block of wood with the name Mohamed on it be blasphemous? I am sure it would find someone ready to be outraged. However, being completely empty of respect for Christian symbols and pandering to those of another faith seems par for the course.

  • “As someone who’s tried both, I can attest to the fact that at least in mainstream secular society, outing oneself as even mildly Christian carries considerably greater risk of social penalty than coming out as LGBT. Other faiths generally get more of a pass but being Christian is really, really uncool.”

    This is a sadly spot on paragraph….

  • This is also totally Frankfurt school in action. The way to wreck religious belief is to make it uncool, to ridicule it in a way which is taken up by the very people who once benefited by it. Us in the West are a product of the amazingly intellectual Priests of the Monasteries of the Dark/Middle ages. Tens of thousands of monks hand copying classic books, educated priests to cover the lands and teach the leaders literacy and more. The roads kept open by the need for the Church business, which entailed much moving about. Most of the world’s top philosophers were Christian. Laws were tempered by the Ten Commandments. The scientist Priests and Monks invented the ‘Scientific method’ its self. The universities all began as places to educate the Priests, and later noble youth.

    Of all the World’s societies the Christian one gave us almost all we think good. Instead of history being taught to show the great and good things our Christian heritage produced, we teach its every negative and discard its positive. But this goes hand in hand with Liberalism which is the philosophy of ‘Self Loathing’. These current times are all to get the people to admire that which is degenerate and despise that which is decent. Pure Frankfurt 11 point plan.

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