Great Literature can be a huge aid in sermon illustrations, helping to produce a emotional connection in unique and powerful ways…..if we use it right. It is important that we must not only understand the passage of scripture well enough to use the right quote or passage of literature, but also to know the literature in order to use it properly. Getting shiny new tools can be a great temptation to use them whether they are appropriate or not, but new tools can only help if they are right ones to use. Deep emotional connections can only be made if the passage or quote of literature fits the point we are using the literature to support. This means we need to take time not only to read the literature, but also digest the idea the writer of the piece was trying to convey. It doesn’t necessarily even need to be the same, and in fact can be in opposition, as long as you are comparing (or contrasting) it properly.
A couple of years ago I used the soliloquy from Act 3 of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in which he asks the famous question, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. It is a quote that has been repeated in modern popular works so often that even those people who would not darken the door of a theatre are familiar with it. The problem is that even though the quote is famous, and even the soliloquy itself, unfamiliarity with older English makes the point of the question rarely understood. This makes the question tempting to use, but if I don’t understand what the question means or why Hamlet is asking it, it essentially becomes ineffective as a tool since it’s not likely I will use it correctly.Hamlet is asking whether he should continue living or die because life is so hard and unfair. It is a question that many, if not most people have asked in various levels of intensity at some point in their lives. Because of the nature of the question, and the depth of emotion behind it, it can be a very powerful passage to use, especially for those who might not already be Christians. Using it with the right Biblical passage is important though because of the depth and intensity of the question. Using it with the wrong subject or a the right subject with the wrong level of intensity, can produce a dissonance that can actually work against our purposes of using it.
Much of the greatest of English Literature has Biblical themes imbedded in it, because the culture that produced it was steeped in the scriptures. Because of that writers wouldn’t make the Biblical application obvious in many cases, this is why it is important to understand the passage. This is actually helpful because it can allow students to pull multiple themes from the same passage. In a future post we’ll look at those ideas.