Last evening on Twitter I had a discussion with a friend about a popular contemporary comedian and television personality, whose snarky, mean-spirited form of humor I do not care for. This then led to further discussion on the question of whether I liked anything contemporary at all, in humor, music, or the like. The short answer to that question is that, unlike Nick Smith in Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”, I do not long for a return of the days of detachable shirt collars. What we need to practice, it seems to me, is a bit of discernment and taste-training about how we look at things, and particularly when it comes to how we look at Christmas.
Take, for instance, a poster that has just been put out by a British ecumenical organization to encourage people to remember that the point of Christmas is Christ. The (rather fetching) Virgin Mary, styled like a blonde Duchess of Cambridge, is wearing a short frock from Zara. St. Joseph and the Three Kings – the latter bearing luxury “gifts”, including the infamous diamond-encrusted skull created by the utterly untalented and anti-Catholic British artist Damian Hirst – are all hipsters of various sorts.
The Shepherds in the poster, who apparently herd bicycles rather than sheep, look as though they just dropped in from an Occupy Wall Street rally. The Star of Bethlehem is actually a pricey chandelier, rather than a star, and it appears as though the Holy Family got bored waiting for the Three Kings and the Shepherds to arrive, so they skinned their faithful donkey and made him into a floor rug. How they will get to Egypt to outrun the forces of King Herod, who knows.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the image, however, is what it lacks: The Christ Child. The figures are all gathered around a bassinet – made from “reclaimed materials”, no doubt – which is emitting some sort of light. Other than the shape of the crib, which of course is not a manger but something out of “Rosemary’s Baby” minus the upholstery, there is nothing to say “Infant” in this image. The group could just as easily be watching an episode of “X-Factor” on a laptop. It is perhaps all too telling that contemporary society would produce a hipster image of the Nativity to try to get people to go to church for Christmas, and then forget to put Jesus in it.
That being said, the image itself is not necessarily offensive, even if it is demonstrably stupid. We have all seen worse – Nativity sets where the figures are teddy bears dressed up as people, for example. One could almost take the presentation of the Hirst skull as a memento mori anticipating the Crucifixion, as indeed was the gift of Myrrh. Though having said that, interpreting a non-Scriptural addition thusly would probably be giving more credit to the iconographic understanding of Christianity by the designers of this photo shoot than they possess. Nor are we necessarily to lambast the creators of this campaign for dressing the players in the scene in contemporary dress, for as it happens I suspect most of my readers have mental images of the Nativity that have little or nothing to do with contemporary Judea in the 1st century.
Today the Church marks the Feast of St. Lucy, and in Barcelona as indeed throughout Catalonia, today marks the beginning of the Fira de Santa Llúcia or “St Lucy’s Fair”. Stalls will be set up in front of the Cathedral and the major churches, where among other products vendors will sell all sorts of figures for the traditional, very elaborate, Catalan Nativity scenes. One can pick up everything from the Holy Family to attendants for the Three Kings, King Herod’s palace to farmhouses, sheep and goats, ducks and geese, camels and donkeys – if you can imagine it, someone probably makes it to scale.
One thing that is noticeable about all of the figures, buildings, and so on produced for these Catalan Nativity scenes is that they are simply the products of a mixture of tradition and imagination. It is highly doubtful, for example, that the Blessed Mother wore a pink gown with a teal mantle and a white lace veil to Bethlehem. It is also unlikely that the Shepherds would be dressed in the traditional Catalan costume consisting in part of black knee britches tied with ribbons and sporting a red stocking cap.
We may look at these local traditions and think, “Isn’t that quaint,” until we realize that we are probably doing the exact same thing when we think about the Nativity. In the West, our mental images of the events surrounding Christ’s birth are formed by countless reproductions of works of art from the Middle Ages, the Old Masters, and 19th century artists, as well as poor imitations of these by contemporary artists, which appear on Christmas cards, ornaments and other decorations, or on television and in print. Chances are, the way that you imagine the Nativity of Jesus, or even the way you might draw it if you were asked to create an illustration of a Nativity scene, is a jumble of pure imagination and contemporary culture circa 1500, from places like Tuscany and Flanders.
The idea of what is “old-fashioned” and what is “contemporary” has more to do with an aesthetic judgement than anything else. Putting the Blessed Mother in a mini-dress is going to seem very old-fashioned, for example, ten years now when women are wearing something completely different, for fashions change, as they inevitably do. What does not change, at least for Christians, is the Mystery of the Incarnation, and how we are to live out our lives in imitation of the Man whose Birth we are shortly to celebrate.
Trying to get people to consider or reconsider Christianity at Christmastime is of course a good thing, so far as it goes, because one of the things that marks contemporary culture is its embrace of secular humanism and rejection of religion. Yet one of the reasons why I suspect that Christianity continues to decline in influence in places like Britain is the fact that it is not really trying to differentiate itself from the stream of contemporary culture, but rather to go along with it as much as possible. It is one thing to be aware of and implement modern styles, technologies, and so on, in the interest of evangelization, and provided that such efforts do not simultaneously try – intentionally or no – to undermine the very values that Christianity is built upon. Yet in the race to try to appear relevant to contemporary audiences, it seems that many Christians are forgetting that some things are more important than trying to appear current.