The “Hipster Nativity Set” is (sadly) back in the news. A year or so ago, some enterprising entrepreneurs created this Nativity set, which includes the traditional figures, but all in a distinctly hipster form. Joseph has a man-bun and is taking a selfie. Mary is holding a Starbucks latte in one hand, making a peace sign with the other, and is making a duck-face. (The selfie, when she sees it, will reveal that her sweater has slipped off one shoulder.) The Magi are arriving on Segways with Amazon gift boxes under their arms. The shepherd is working his iPad. Even the cow and sheep (edged out of the tiny manger-stall) are doing their bit: the sheep is wearing a hand-knitted sweater and the cow, eating gluten-free feed, bears a “100% organic” seal. This Nativity Set is again in the news because the Roman Catholic Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal decided to include it along with other Nativity sets inside Canada’s largest church. It is an early Christmas gift to journalists looking for some “Christmas angle” for their reports at this time of year, as well as of course for the makers of the Nativity Set themselves.
Given all this provokes the question, “What exactly is a hipster anyway?” Help from the oracles at Google reveal that “Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20s and 30s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter…. ‘hipsterism’ is really a state of mind, also often intertwined with distinct fashion sensibilities.” Note please the last bit: “fashion sensibilities.” That about says it all. I would suggest that hipsterism is all about self-absorption and a desperate desire to appear cooler-than-thou. Like all fashions, it is fleeting and quickly dated. History textbooks will one day refer to them, if at all, in the same footnote as the Hippies. But while they last, they provide a large and easy target for satire—which is of course the whole point of the Hipster Nativity Set. Nervous Christians should not imagine that the Hipster Nativity Set is targeting them or their faith. The real targets are the hipsters and hipster Christians. If it has any theological point to make (which is doubtful) it is that hipsterism does not easily combine with Christianity and that a Hipster Christian might even be a contradiction in terms.
Does the Hipster Nativity Set offer any lessons to the Orthodox and to Christians of a more traditional mindset? I think there is one lesson to be learned from this odd faddish gift before it passes into history—namely that holy things should not a co-opted for purposes of satire. I appreciate the desire to satirize the hipsters, and to generally let the air out of anything too over-inflated with a sense of pretentious self-importance. But Christian symbols should not be dragooned for this task, for the symbol is more significant and holier than the task it is called to perform. Using a Nativity Set to satirize a social movement would be like using a Bible as a door-stop, a priestly vestment as an oil-rag, or an icon as a drink coaster. Door-stops, oil-rags and drink coasters are perfectly wonderful and necessary, but holy things should be spared such tasks and not put to uses which violate their holiness. The seasonal Nativity Set, though perhaps humbler and less holy than the pages of Scripture and the colors of an icon, are still nonetheless symbols of the Faith. To an outsider at least, a Nativity Set represents the Christian Christmas; it is a kind of three-dimensional icon. As such, it possesses its own kind of holiness, and ought not to do service for something as ephemeral as social satire.
For that is the problem with the Hipster Nativity Set—what is satirized is ephemeral and passing (as is therefore the purpose of the satire), while Christian symbols refer to things transcendent and everlasting. Those symbols cannot be used for lesser purposes without diminishing them and offending their sanctity. Piety will instinctively recoil from the Hipster Nativity Set, just as it will from the use of icons in political memes, and for the same reason— something holy is being high-jacked in the service of something secular. It is perfectly acceptable to satirize the hipsters, or to poke fun at politicians, or at any group badly needing a healthy dose of reality. But Christian symbols should be above such uses. They refer and transport us to another realm altogether, a place beyond passing fashions and passing politics. They speak to us of a timeless Kingdom, and take us into a land where things requiring satirization cannot enter. A Nativity Set brings us from our world to Bethlehem, and from there gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. And with that vision to nurture and inspire us, who needs satire?