Nativity scenes and tinkeritis

There’s tinkeritis with liturgy and tinkeritis with creches.  They seem to be symptoms of the same mental, spiritual malady.   Is it hubris?

What is it with the desire to tinker with Nativity scenes?

I fully understand the desire and attempts of true artists to portray the mysteries of the Lord’s life in paint and sculpture.  Our museums are full of these, some good, some great, some magnificent.  And then there’s the gimicky and the unworthy.

From Church Militant and St Louis Post Dispatch:


Church Militant says:

An Illinois Catholic diocese is displaying a “Hipster Nativity” scene showing a skimpily clad Mary, with Joseph taking a selfie with the Baby Jesus.

The Nativity is one of about 60 on view in the “Nativities From Around the World” display in the Catholic Cathedral of St. Peter. The créches come to the Cathedral from the University of Dayton’s Marian Library, a Catholic college, which has collected more than 3,500 nativities from over 100 countries since 1998. The Hipster Nativity was built in 2016 and, in addition, showing the Holy Family as millennial caricatures, it also depicts the Three Wise Men on Segways holding Amazon Prime boxes and a “100 percent organic” cow eating gluten-free feed.

Church Militant spoke with Msgr. John Myler, rector of the Cathedral, about the modern créche, who justified it by insisting that “most nativities will have the flavor and or the costume or the culture of the people.”

Bob Baker, a parishioner, spoke to Church Militant, mentioning his “conversations with the Chancery office and the statements from Msgr. Myler,” who explained that the purpose of the Nativity “was to make it relevant to the school children.”

What makes that “relevant”?

And there’s the really strange nativity scene this year in St. Peter’s Square.

Apart from the controversy about the naked guy at the right side, who thought that this composition was in any way coherent?   First… find the Holy Family.   Okay… got them yet?  The other figures are suppose to portray corporal works of mercy.  Got it?  Merrrrrrrcy.    The addition of “bury the dead” was especially appropriate for the Nativity scene.

Clever, right?  It’s soooo profound.

And relevant!

However, I don’t believe that the spiritual works of mercy were included.

You remember, those, right?

  • admonish the sinner
  • instruct the ignorant
  • counsel the doubtful
  • comfort the sorrowful
  • to bear wrongs patiently
  • to forgive all injuries
  • pray for the living and the dead

I am not sure that all of these are in vogue any more.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. L. says:

    Father, your report has made me think about the “tinkeritis” problem and how it has resulted in our liturgy and church buildings being wrecked, renovated, and ruined, and “hubris” is a good explanation for it. I think “hubris” in loosely translated as “Non serviam” in Latin.

  2. Aquinas Gal says:

    Fr Longenecker had a good column about the Vatican Nativity scene. He said at bottom it’s a theological problem, because it focuses on our human works, not the saving grace of the Incarnation–in other words, it’s Pelagianism.

  3. VP says:

    The Nativity scene in Rome is coherent in its ugliness, probably planned to disturb the viewer. The designers had to know that the multiple vignettes would take the viewer’s ficus away from Mary, Joseph, and the Child.

    Rather than anticipate with joy the coming of Jesus as man, we come upon the horror of physical death in the mourner’s face and in the gruesome arm hanging off the corpse. What better way to clothe the naked, and to “accompany” the institution of the Holy Family, than to show a naked man, closer to the viewer than the obstructed Joseph, physically strong yet lying almost subserviently before a rich man? And why have a humble stable when a nihilistic urban decay is available?

  4. Aquinas Gal says:

    Also, I don’t think the hipster creche is representative of the Marian Library collection, which is quite extraordinary and has very fine and beautiful examples.

  5. Ave Maria says:

    And all of these “tinkered nativity” scenes overshadow the Baby Jesus and the Holy Family and the awesomeness of God taking on a human nature. You see, it is all about US; and not about ‘Them’. And to have an immodest Mary is a blasphemy for which we make reparation in our Five First Saturdays.

  6. Multinucleate says:

    I have many sins of my own, but I cannot stand blasphemy.

    Really msgr? There was really *no* way to depict the Immaculate Virgin in a more modest way?

    I almost wish I can return to being Protestant for just 5 minutes so he can hear a piece of my mind. As a Catholic layperson, my hands are tied.

  7. Titus says:

    Attempts to justify or explain a thing that has been taken out of context are often unintentionally hilarious. This is a case in point. The “Hipster Nativity” is patent satire. It’s not an attempt to make the creche relevant; it’s a thinly veiled attack on the self-importance of contemporary young adults caught up in mistaking the choice of what to buy at the grocery store for virtue. I very much doubt the person who made the Hipster Nativity scene (which has floated around the web for several years) intended to communicate anything in particular about the nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

    So, profane? Probably so. Profane in the same banal manner as claimed by the interviewees? I think not.

  8. kurtmasur says:

    I would just like to add that ironically (and sadly), the hipster nativity is much more coherent and clear than the Vatican’s own nativity scene…..who would have thought such a thing would have ever been possible? Ha!

    And no, after long examining the photos on the Internet of the Vatican’s nativity scene, I am still unable to identify the Holy Family :-/ To reiterate what I said in my above comment, it is clear that this papacy has its priorities in the wrong place…..sadly, the Baby Jesus, along with Mary and Joseph don’t seem to be one of them :-/

  9. Ipsitilla says:

    All this stuff makes the humble, earthy proto-tinkeritis of the caganer seem fairly benign.

  10. iamlucky13 says:

    I can’t imagine anyone ever thought the hipster Nativity scene was an attempt to make Christmas “relevant.” I saw it last year, and never thought it anything more than a cheesy attempt at anachronistic humor, almost certainly designed by a non-Christian artist who I wouldn’t expect much substance from in the first place.

    Except the rector apparently didn’t get the joke.

  11. Mariana2 says:

    “find the Holy Family. Okay… got them yet?”

    No, but maybe the person in pink is Mary?

    The ‘bury the dead’ is really unpleasant, a bit like in Avatar (the film).

  12. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Our long-term and palliative care institute (where in my apostolate I assist the chaplain) is gradually becoming more and more secularized . . . The “Pastoral Department” (now called in French the equivalent of “Spiritual Care”) used to have a minimum of 2 nice nativity scenes but roughly 2 years ago someone threw one of them out, and now the other has disappeared. I was asked to try and find one for our chapel and my home parish responded generously. But in all of the above, we are speaking of coherent nativity scenes.

    In the case of the hipster nativity, I might go so far as to substitute the term a disconnect for tinkeritis:
    Msgr Myler’s statement “most nativities will have the flavor and or the costume or the culture of the people.” could only ring true in the respect that this scene has so badly squashed God into the background that it accurately reflects the attitude of modern society towards God. It scores on the irony chart – but nowhere else !
    As others, I take offence at having a representation of our Blessed Mother thus clad (perhaps unclad is a better fit), but what struck me even more is how the supernatural is being drained out of it.
    There are no holy Angels – how could there be ? The moment the cell phone comes out for selfies, the angelic element has to be pushed to the side. Angels are messengers. And that particular truth gets undermined. How do you help schoolchildren with this kind of misguided crud ? Wouldn’t children then logically believe that our Blessed Mother could previously have simply received a call or text from her cousin Elizabeth concerning her being pregnant and carrying John the Baptist in her womb . . . rather than hearing it from the Archangel St Gabriel ?
    FAIL .
    What a waste of good porcelain – it could’ve been used to build a good sturdy toilet bowl.

  13. Peter Stuart says:

    “Apart from the controversy about the naked guy at the right side…” Yeah, that image is just what struggling SSA’s like me needed to see, to remind us of all the other stunts the Vatican and the Jesuits are pulling.

  14. jaykay says:

    Ipsitilla”: “All this stuff makes the humble, earthy proto-tinkeritis of the caganer seem fairly benign.”

    I think the cagoner would be making a very good point about either of those “nativities”.

    But really, whoever approved that rubbish for St. Peter’s, of all places, ought to be taken out behind the woodshed. It has enough artistic skill in the actual figures, but the overall conception is horrible – an intended distortion of real praesepe? A disturbed mind seems to be behind it. Can you imagine taking kids to see it? That awful “bury the dead” bit is so stupid, with the arm hanging down. Who ever buried anyone like that? Art, schmart. Looks like a body being shoved into an oven in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

    I hope the populus romanus revolt, or are revolted, or both, and express their opinion in traditional fashion, because it is an insult to them. And not to them alone.

    “A, France, dovè sta la tua misericordia” indeed.

  15. albinus1 says:

    I suppose many of you have seen the Tweet that made the rounds on social media showing a “Nativity scene” that otherwise looked fairly traditional — except that instead of Joseph and Mary, it had two Josephs. The person who tweeted the picture of it said that it was in her neighbors’ yard and that she “couldn’t be prouder.”

    Some of the comments partially restored my faith in humanity: One person remarked, “Leave it to
    ‘progressives’ to eliminate the woman from the story.” Another noted, “The people who put this up have clearly misgendered Mary. I thought it was a crime to “misgender” people.”

    And it occurred to me that the people who put this up are probably not Christian (at least in any meaningful sense), which means that by putting up even a parody of a Nativity scene they are engaged in “cultural appropriation,” which is another of the Left’s cardinal sins these days.

  16. WVC says:

    I remember some time ago walking into a Catholic store (run by Pauline Sisters) and seeing a toy nativity scene for sale. However, every character was replaced with a vegetable (including, I think, a carrot in the place of the Infant Christ). This was part of the VeggieTales program. I submit that here is part of the problem. We have been desacralizing the concept of Nativity Scenes (and of Christ and the Saints) for years. There are “conservative” Catholics who have had no problem replacing Christ or King David or St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin with vegetables. We’ve had no problem showing our kids stories where David just fights a Giant Pickle, or Daniel gets in trouble because of a giant Chocolate Bunny Rabbit, or at the siege of Jericho there were just a bunch of slurpees thrown around . . . .etc. On what grounds, then, can one who tacitly accepts or even promotes a “VeggieTales” Christmas argue against a “Hipster” Christmas or other such variations?

    It’s like Christians who support contraceptives arguing against abortion. Or Christians who make excuses for Divorce complain that same-sex “marriage” is an attack on marriage.

    We continue to rail against late stage symptoms. At some point, folks really need to do some serious reflection on the root causes and address those, first.

    That being said, I of course agree with everyone who has pointed out what abominations these two Nativity Scenes are. That one is sitting in the Vatican is truly a disgusting embarrassment. Would but that were the worst of our current troubles.

  17. Lindy says:

    I waver being disgust and amazement at the stupidity of this ‘nativity’. One wonders if whoever approved this monstrosity asked for input? Or is everyone that far off the rails at the Vatican???

  18. teachermom24 says:

    Just yesterday, my sons and I returned to the USA from Rome. I have pictures of the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, and the Christmas tree. Both seemed innocuous Italian decorations to us. EVERY church in Rome has a nativity scene, with most making a very big deal out of them, but I seriously doubt any of them were there to make a political or social statement. We saw them as cultural expressions, and that’s all.

    Why do we have to hyper-analyze and criticize everything that comes out of the Vatican, as though we, from such a distance of time, space and culture, can understand what is in the minds of those who act there? Had I done this during our precious and all-too-short eight days in Rome, I would have missed the goodness of all that was present: Confession available at all hours in nearly all the churches we visited; Holy Mass (unfortunately always in Italian–what the Church has lost by abandoning Latin!) offered every hour at many churches, but always several times daily wherever we went; perpetual Adoration in many, many churches; the opportunity to pray before relics and tombs of uncountable saints.

    What grieved me most during our time in Rome was the masses of Italians, and tourists to be sure, who, in the midst of such holy opportunities, in the very place where the blood of the martyrs flowed to build the Church, completely ignore and remain oblivious to all this. It is so sad. Pray for them and quit worrying about what the Vatican does or does not do.

  19. Semper Gumby says:

    Great point Fr. Z, including the spiritual works of mercy would have been a welcome improvement. Great comments too.

    teachermom24: I agree with most of your comment, but at one point you painted with a broad brush without providing one specific example of the “we” who “hyper-analyze.” Then, you capped it off by issuing an edict to “…quit worrying about what the Vatican does or does not do.”

    It’s not that simple. Luke 12: “…read the signs of the times.” Also, “Tinkeritis” is a problem these days. This kind of stunt, and it’s not the first one, in St. Peter’s Square encourages the “Two Joseph” stunt noted in the helpful comment of albinus1. For what it’s worth, and one need not fully agree, here is another perspective on this and its ties to a certain abbey in Italy:

  20. Over-emphasis on the wrong ideas. Isn’t that what progressives do? And when we complain, we are ‘corrected’ with “how can you object to [name something good, like the corporal works of mercy]…??!?. You are rigid and heartless [or something].”
    In the 50s they started with emphasizing the meal aspect of the Mass, and downplaying the sacrifice. Welllll, yeah, it IS a meal, yeah but…and there’s the trajectory set to ignore what is really important.

    There is nothing wrong with depicting the corporal works of mercy – but not to the exclusion of Jesus there on the sidelines.

    Oh its just more of the same, just getting closer and closer to the Objective. Are we at ‘seat of the anti-christ’ yet?

  21. jaykay says:

    SemperGumby and Tina:

    Yes, both. It’s why I thought that the thing was “disturbed”. It’s in the manner of traditional Italian cribs, but too much is shoved into too small a space. Yes, traditional and very elaborate cribs are often huge, with things happening on very many levels, literally, but the focus is always on the main event, the Nativity. In this “thing”, that’s all I’ll call it, the focus is anywhere but that – it’s difficult to find it, in fact. Why? Lack of space? Don’t think so.

    So it “looks right”, from a distance, and the figures and surround are beautifully executed in the traditional manner, but up close it’s “wrong”, confusing. There is nothing wrong with depicting the Works of Mercy, but not to the virtual exclusion of the Founder thereof, which this production does.

    I believe the Christmas tree they put up has decorations with yins and yangs and so on but nothing specifically Christian? Jesse tree it ain’t, apparently.

  22. Semper Gumby says:

    jaykay and Tina: Your comments remind me of a scene in Michael O’Brien’s novel The Father’s Tale.

    The protagonist Alex is looking into the whereabouts of his son, who he hasn’t heard from in a while. Alex eventually finds yet another clue and visits the office of a medical doctor who is also a New Age “metaphysician.” There, Alex sees an unusual painting on the wall of a ruined city with an over-sized warrior with a bow and arrow sitting (or kneeling) atop several crushed buildings. From a distance it seemed to Alex it was some sort of typical protest against the industrialization of modern life. But when Alex walked up to the painting for a close look, he found in the details that the painter was depicting an androgynous warrior as the savior of humanity by destroying society and, in one key detail, by also destroying the Church.

    I’m not saying that a Michael O’Brien novel has come to life in St. Peter’s Square, just thought I’d mention an interesting scene from a good novel (the book is long, but there is a happy ending).

  23. jaykay says:

    Semper Gumby: that book is very good, I agree, and I would venture to say that the theme of things appearing normal on the surface but being dysfunctional up-close, (sometimes lethally so for those who question) is strong in his writing. Similarly with this object. There’s an agenda, and that seems to be how wonderful we are with our Works of Mercy, as though they’re all we need to do, with the incomprehensible mystery of the Incarnation thrust into the background – somewhere or other. I’d like to hope it’s just misguided. I’d like to hope…

    Meanwhile, I happened to be singing carols at Dublin Airport arrivals area this evening. Lovely atmosphere, beautiful appreciation when we sang “O Holy Night”, our soloist excelling herself. And outside, prominently displayed, was a beautiful Crib. There is yet hope.

  24. Semper Gumby says:

    jaykay: Singing carols and a Crib at Dublin Airport? Excellent. St. Patrick would heartily approve. Then again, so would St. Brendan.

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