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

Deck the halls! Ironic hipster Christianity may save us all

Perhaps the new 'Minimalist Nativity' sets represent a staging post back to faith
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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Alastair Herd
Alastair Herd
1 year ago

“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….

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
1 year ago
Reply to  Alastair Herd

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.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
1 year ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

What wonderful nonsense. In view some of your other erudite posts I am truly astonished you could believe/live in such a wonderland!

Nearly everything of value in today’s Western World was the product of the Classical World, the World of Greece and Rome, and all worked out centuries before Christianity reared its ugly head. For the past two millennia, parvenu Christianity has done its very best to eradicate this truth, but fortunately failed, although I must sadly admit, not in your particular case.

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
1 year ago
Reply to  Alastair Herd

Ditto. Come out at work as a Christian, even in passing, and it’s like you’ve just addmitted to some saucy perversion. Coming as a homo to the parents in the teenage years, a walk in the park.

Stainy
Stainy
1 year ago

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.

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
1 year ago
Reply to  Stainy

Only one way to find out 😉

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
1 year ago

Tracie Emin’s (unmade) bed, last sold for 2.5 million Pounds. Odd how it really was art, the provenance coupled with the Artist’s history of art were in fact the art of it, which means the actual art is totally uncoupled from the physical thing its self, and her unmade bed is art merely because it is recognized as an artistic creation.

These ironic blocks fail that test.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

Nah – its just recognised as a good investment that can be sold for a profit to a mug.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 year ago

I see the blocks of wood another way: either consciously or unconsciously a two finger salute to the Christian understanding of Christmas.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Well I suppose that nativity scenes that don’t look like nativity scenes are less likely to be attacked or defaced.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

“Fools and their money are easily parted”

Steve Weeks
Steve Weeks
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

That’s a very negative thing to say. Do you have a good method of valuing art that you’re ready to share?

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Weeks

Fair question- if it was just one set of these made , then I can sort of understand.

I’m assuming he’ll sell as many as are ordered, which feels more commercial industry than arts maybe ….

William Murphy
William Murphy
1 year ago

As an appropriate response to the plain block Nativity, acquire a Catalonia style set with an extra irreverent character, the Caganer or Crapper, squatting in a corner of the stable as he empties his bowels. Huge traditional fun – and he can be depicted as a hate figure. Donald Trump or Sir Jimmy Savile would be obvious models.

If you want an insight into how different a Nativity set can be, I recommend the Bavarian State Museum in Munich. They claim to have the largest collection in the world and it is drawn from all over the world.

Their most extravagant examples are the sets created by wealthy families in Naples. The Three Kings naturally made their long journey to the manger with a full entourage of servants, musicians and soldiers. And the faces of the humans and animals are all superbly animated and individual.

Teo
Teo
1 year ago

A post-progressive Christian minimalism, definitely! 🙂

Dave H
Dave H
1 year ago

These blocks appear to be a good wheeze for whoever is charging that much for them.

FYI secular christmasses are not bleak, they’re all about family and togetherness. No need to detract from that with religious flim-flammery…

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago

What you describe as a .’bleak, secular Christmas’ can, as David H writes below, be fun. It is analogopus to a game of rugby or soccer without the ball. The fact that detractors think it is flim-flammery is no reason to deny it; they are as entitled to their opinion as those of us with an opposite view.

Steve Weeks
Steve Weeks
1 year ago

I like the blocks! They’re elegant and clever; and actually I’m painting a watercolour now for a commission at £100 that is about half as clever in concept and craft, so I’m even hard put to complain about the price.

(Can I say; a lot of these comments look like they come from Facebook users.)

The book by NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, was life changing for me. One of the important points for me as a modern Christian (with a distrust of nearly all religious expression) is how religious expression can affect Christian faith, hope, and charity to be realised in tangible physical outcomes, or in some intangible ‘spiritual’ outcome such as going to ‘heaven’.

Christmas is difficult for evangelical Christians who only celebrate Easter all year round. Their popular imbalanced narrative is that God dies and rises again so that individuals can have a religious experience until they die and go to heaven.

If only the three wise men had been evangelicals, Herod would not not have killed the babies. He could just appoint himself head of the church, and let them get on with it.

Actually Christmas is the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, who will Take Back Control, and replace oppression with justice. So Herod was on the money; his throne was under threat.

So do we want a Nativity scene that’s all about concepts, icons that represent something in an invisible spiritual space? Or does that portray a disembodied Messiah, when the real point of Christmas is incarnation. Embodiment. Physicality. Flesh.

Christianity is NOT about escaping to heaven. It’s about heaven invading earth and taking over. This very place, this physical place is our destination. What happens here matters because of that.

I still love the iconic blocks because they make the family universally accessible in line with the Holy Family being a metaphor for the acceptance of the ‘Divine Invader’. He comes as a weak guest, to become the Almighty King.

But there are two sides to Christology. Some of us find it hard to accept that Jesus is really God. And some of us find it hard to accept that Jesus is really a man.

The coloured blocks help me to contemplate that mystery.

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
1 year ago

Your a block of wood