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 ...

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