Using Great Literature in Preaching

A friend of mine, Nick Cady, mentioned reading great literature as an aid to illustration in his sermons recently in a blog. He did it through a highly creative and interesting way by suggesting how Ernest Hemingway might answer the proverbial joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” in some of his books.That is something I’ve enjoyed doing quite a bit over the last few years as well which stimulated some thought about why using great literature has such value.

There is a reason why great literature is considered “great”. It’s because multiple people over many years have identified with something in it that was important, not only in what was said but how. All great communication stimulates not only thoughts but feelings that help to give clarification, understanding, and perhaps most, emotional connection. A while back I used a reference to Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A good man is hard to find”, for a sermon on the book of Galatians, chapter two that I entitled with the same name. In the story a vain, self-righteous, and more than a little racist Grandmother is confronted with a criminal who’s known as “The Misfit”.  Faced with her impending death the Grandmother becomes compassionate and understanding with the Misfit who just before killing her states, “…she would have been a good woman, if somebody had been there to shoot her every day of her life.” The episode fit perfectly to illustrate the problem Paul points out in Galatians, that religion can lead us to have a different outward appearance to suit our needs. But it’s in the drama of real crisis that we can see ours and others real reflection and the flaws that reflection reveal.

Some people insist that Jesus gave us perfectly good examples of this kind of reflection in the parables and I would agree. They are and will remain great illustrations, but I believe the reason Jesus used parables, and I think he essentially tells his disciples this, is because when we become overly familiar with the image in a reflection, it’s easy to overlook the flaws. Great literature helps us to see a different part of our reflection in a way that connects with our emotions in a way to inspire real change. This is one of the key aspects of a sermon. Certainly we want to convey information, but discipleship is learning in order to produce change which is why teachers and preachers convey the information.

Finding appropriate passages in literature isn’t always easy, it takes a lot of reading to mine nuggets that will fit the passage in the scripture. It’s also important that we have a good understanding of the Biblical passage in order to know what piece of literature will produce the response for which we are looking. But as I said, Great literature is considered “Great” for a reason, and is one of the best tools a preacher or teacher of the scriptures can have in his tool box.

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