Concreteness and the Gospel of Christmas

Toward the end of the semester in a Writing from Faith course that I regularly teach at my Christian university, a first year student voiced a revelation.

Manger, Meggido, 850 BCE, photo: Darko Tepert Donatus

Manger, Meggido, 850 BCE, photo: D. T. Donatus

“Until now,” she told us, “I’ve always thought, when teachers said ‘Be concrete,’ that I should use more adjectives. Now I see that it means I need to make people see what I saw and hear what I heard and smell what I smelled. Using your senses to reconstruct an experience helps people believe and care about what you’re saying.”

She was responding to a fellow student’s personal psalm about her fear that, her missionary family being in far off Costa Rica, she wouldn’t get to go home for the holidays. In the poem, the student-psalmist stares at the computer screen while, just beyond the thin walls, her dormmates’ are goofing around and chattering about their holiday plans. The poet recounts the family traditions she’ll be missing: getting ornaments out of dusty boxes, drinking hot chocolate with her siblings while Dad reads them all Christmas stories, holding hands to pray over the traditional dinner of arroz con pollo.

We all teared up as she read, and, when she finished, the whole class started scheming about collectively raising the money for her plane ticket. Within minutes of hearing that psalm, they were organizing a new ministry to do the same for every needy MK—as missionary kids are called—on campus.

It was a big moment for me, pedagogically speaking. Not only had one of their writings spurred them to action, but they were finally starting to understand the importance of concreteness instead of just thinking it another feat of dubious value that their teachers and now I demanded of them in lieu of explaining. The power of sensory data to persuade was a creative strategy I’d been trying to convince them all of from day one. I lectured about it, pointed out concreteness in whatever we were reading, and highlighted in yellow and commended instances of concreteness in their own writing. It’s a simple concept, but somehow even advanced creative writing students struggle to grasp it.

“But it’s so easy,” I coaxed. “All you have to do is appeal to our senses!”

Jesus, St. Martin-in-the-Fields portico, photographer Richard Croft

Jesus, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, photo: R. Croft

Christmas is such a sensory holiday. Carols. Pine smells. Fruitcakes and sugar cookies. Snow. The sheer concreteness of Christmas crystallizes the joy-inspiring gospel it celebrates: that our invisible Creator sent us concrete evidence, in the form of his newborn Son, so that we might believe and have eternal life.If we can get, in our minds, to that baby in that feed-trough out in that barn—if we can really believe that good news—we have accomplished what Jesus will later say is the only work of God expected of us: to believe in the one he has sent.

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About patty kirk

Patty Kirk is the author of The Easy Burden of Pleasing God (IVP 2013), two spiritual memoirs, a food memoir, and a collection of essays entitled The Gospel of Christmas. Raised in California and Connecticut, she lives on a farm in Oklahoma and teaches writing just across the Arkansas state-line at John Brown University, where she is Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of English. She and her husband, Kris, have two college-aged daughters, Charlotte and Lulu. In addition to writing and teaching writing, Patty's passions are cooking, gardening, watching birds, and running on the back roads.

2 thoughts on “Concreteness and the Gospel of Christmas

  1. Great article, Patty! I love those moments in the classroom, when the students teach each other (and even the teacher), don’t you? What a blessing to be able to teach “Writing from Faith” at a Christian University and in Arkansas!!!! You reminded me how much I miss my writing students at UALR. [Btw, I hope your MK made it home for Christmas! Great ministry idea for your campus!]

    • Yes, I learn so much from my students—much more, I’m sure, than I manage to teach them. The MK made it home—one of those stories of money appearing out of nowhere, making our contributions unnecessary, and I have left the campus ministry idea to my students, who created a Facebook on which to pursue the matter.

      Apropos learning from students, I was rereading the beginning of the first chapter of John this morning—about how “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and then this Word turns into “life” and then “the light of mankind” and so on (John 1:1-9 NIV)—hoping to resee the mystifying string of metaphors not as the philosophic conundrum it usually is for me but as a former student of mine recently did in a very moving Facebook post: as yet another nativity story.

      I became convinced of her reading—that, in essence, the light is the baby Jesus—when I got to this line: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18 NIV). The line also resonated with my own post on the connection between Jesus’ concreteness and my own faith: That Jesus had not only seen God the Father but that that he himself was seeable gave “those who believed in his name . . . the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 NIV). I like that!

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