Lesley-Anne Dyer Williams on Why Images of the Nativity Are Worth a Thousand Words

Every night since she was two, my three-year-old daughter has proclaimed, “I want to be a shepherd girl.” The towel goes over her head, and she gathers her sheep. She then sets them out to pasture—“Here, little sheep, eat”—or seeks for them because they are lost. After the game is over and we finish her bedtime routine, my husband or I tuck her into bed with “lambie,” her most precious possession.

As a parent, I see this imagery of sheep and shepherd as the first way that Christ is revealing himself to my daughter. But as a scholar of medieval theology and literature, I see it more broadly as an example of how images help convey an ancient gospel in the present moment. In other words, our understanding of Scripture often hinges on verbal and visual pictures, not merely exegetical prose. This is especially true in the Advent season, with its rich and diverse imagery—plywood nativity scenes in front yards, bulletin covers showing shepherds and angels, Christmas pageants with crying babies and crawling sheep.

When we disciple our kids in this season and every other, we teach them general principles for everyday life: “Jesus loves you,” “God made you,” “God is good.” As we should. But we often forget that images and the imagination are central to religious education. This idea holds true not just for teaching Scripture to small people but to big ones, too. The beauty of verbal and visual images is that they can stick with us even when we don’t have the ability to appreciate their significance, because they are “goods” in themselves that point us to higher truths.

Think of it this way: There is a difference between cracking a nut to eat it and planting that same kernel to let it grow. When we think about images as nuts that need cracking, we can discard the shell because we’ve gotten to the meat. We don’t need the story anymore because we have the moral: God is love. If a story is a seed, however, its significance develops over time and cannot be fully grasped at first go.

Under this paradigm, a Bible story—whether historical or parabolic—needs first to be enjoyed and understood as a story, because the meaning cannot be reduced to a simplistic moral. Rather, as the story or image is understood over time, its meaning unfolds.

By way of illustration, my daughter can delight in the images and stories of the Bible without always appreciating their full significance for her life, but when the time is right, as long as the seed has been properly buried and “watered,” its meaning will unfold as she grows older. For now, she plays the “shepherd girl” game and listens to Bible stories about shepherds and lost sheep. Over time, these theologically rich images are kernels that have the power to grow and be nourished.

The image of the shepherd and sheep is what Augustine would have called a “metaphorical sign.” A rhetorician can be very technical about different kinds of metaphorical signs; allegory, metaphor, typology, and symbolism are different kinds of metaphorical signs. When Augustine speaks about metaphorical signs, however, he’s talking about something more basic that affects the way an interpreter needs to approach reading. “As far as metaphorical signs … are concerned,” writes Augustine, “wherever readers find themselves stuck because of their unfamiliarity, they need to investigate them partly by a knowledge of languages, partly by a knowledge of things.”

If we apply this principle to shepherding and sheep metaphors in Scripture, then interpreting these passages requires learning about actual shepherds, actual sheep, and the historical circumstances surrounding shepherding. Even the best reader of Hebrew and Greek cannot understand passages concerning sheep and shepherds without knowing something about actual sheep and shepherds.

For example, all of us, scholars and laypeople alike, need to know that shepherding was not a respected job in the ancient world and was often relegated to a younger sibling. We need to know that it was common, dull work. David tended sheep. Moses. Jacob and his sons. Isaac. Rachel. Abraham. Abel. As readers who know the end of the story, it is easy to think they were occupied in a respected profession in the ancient world, but that is because Scripture has cultivated our cultural imagination. Now we need to see how this biblical insight was and is countercultural.

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Source: Christianity Today