A well-known sermon illustration recalls French philospher Voltaire. During the Enlightenment, Voltaire, a deist, declared that within 25 years the Bible would be forgotten and Christianity would be obsolete. Of course, it did not turn out that way. In fact, following Voltaire’s death, a Bible society began printing Bibles in his former home!
I love that story; however, it has one problem. Apparently, none of it happened. Writer David Ross did thorough research and concluded: “the entire story probably arose from a misunderstanding of the 1849 Annual Report of the American Bible Society.”
Preparing sermons is a hard and often frustrating task. Part of the struggle includes finding an illustration that will bring my point home to the audience. So, when I finally discover a good illustration, I face the strong temptation to run with it without a second thought. By doing so, I risk the terrible contradiction of using a falsehood to communicate God’s truth. We need to be careful and be sure to use truth to illuminate truth. In order to ensure our illustrations are true, the first step is to Find the Source.
While searching for a quote on science’s limitations, I came across these words regarding the Internet from physicist Richard Feynman: “Nobody understands quantum theory.” Wanting to make sure it was right, I checked another site and found it phrased, “No one understands quantum mechanics.” Although both have the same meaning, I decided to track down the source, because by definition a quote should be exact. It turned out both were incorrect. The actual words were: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” The first two versions were close, but apparently some peoples’ memories were not quite right.
Whether a quote or a story, I often discover my memory doesn’t always get it quite right either. Therefore, no matter how well I think I know the illustration, I stop and find the source to make sure. My seminary degree is in church history, and my professors insisted on documentation. Any work that did not check the sources would be shoddy and unexceptable. When I became a senior pastor, it occurred to me that my sermons should be held to the same standards. Tracking down the source of an illustration can be time consuming, but it is always worth it.
Through the years, I have found a couple of tricks for making it easier to find my sources. When I read a book, I use an index card as my bookmark. Then, when I discover an interesting anecdote, I write the page number and a brief description on the card. Later when I need an illustration, I can pick up my notecard and see if anything is a good fit. It takes more time up front but can save hours of searching. A second trick is Google Books. Although not every book can be found there, many can be found. With Google Books, you can search the content of a book and look for key words. This has been helpful for books that I read a long time ago and only have a vague recollection of the illustration.
After finding the source, the next step to ensure the truthfulness of my illustrations is Following the Trail. Recently, I came across a book about odd occurrences from the Civil War. One such occurrence was about Thomas Corbett, the man who shot John Wilkes Booth. The book suggested Corbett had not shot Booth, but lied in order to get the reward money. Having never heard that before, I looked into the matter further. Every source I found indicated Corbett had shot Booth. Upon searching the book for a citation, I discovered nothing was documented.
Following the trail means to track an illustration until obtaining solid documentation. Most of the stories I use in sermons I do not find in the original. In many of these cases, following the trail simply means checking the back of the book for a clear citation of where the author found an anecdote. However, a citation does not always mean the end of the trail. Occassionally, the referenced source is another secondary source, such as a book of sermon illustrations. If I am unfamiliar with the source, I follow the trail until I can verify the accuracy of the story or at least find a credible reference. When I need to confirm an illustration, I typically start with Wikipedia. Generally, I can find a quick overview of a topic and some citations for further exploration. One additional warning here: Be particularly careful of Christian legends such as the one about Voltaire and the Bible Society. You may be able to find a reference, but I would advise you to follow the trail a little further.
Having followed the trail, the final step to ensure the truthfulness of my illustrations is to Cite the Source or Offer a Disclaimer. After verifying my illustration, I always make the choice to cite the source in my sermon. “In the book The Grand Weaver, Ravi Zacharias recounts a short story by F.W. Boreham, titled ‘A Baby’s Funeral.'” This honors the truth in two ways. First, I am lending credibility to the illustration (and to myself as the speaker) by verbally documenting where I found it. Second, I am acknowledging the person who actually found the story and not misleading anyone into believing it was me. What about the stories that lack the proper citation—do I always discard them? No, not always.
In a book I read recently, I came across the story of a man walking in downtown Los Angeles. As he passed a courthouse, he saw what appeared to be a homeless man lying face down on the courthouse steps. The pedestrian approached the man and asked if he needed any help. To his great surprise, he discovered not a homeless man, but Billy Graham praying for an upcoming revival meeting in the city. Great story. Unfortunately, the author’s only source was a secondhand account from a friend.
While the story lacks the proper documentation, everything about it could be truth. Put another way, if it did not really happened, Billy Graham is the type of man who would have done it. In such cases, I do not discard the illustration. Instead, I make a disclaimer. For instance, I might say, “A few days ago, I read of an unconfirmed story about a man walking in downtown Los Angeles.” This way, I still illustrate my point but acknowledge the account may be fictitious. So as long as the story rings of truth, I still use it, provided I communicate the uncertain nature of the account.
In the opening, I mentioned David Ross’ thorough research debunking the famous illustration about Voltaire. Ross’ article appeared in the August 2004 edition of a magazine called The Open Society. I mention this not only to cite my source but to make a very sad point. The Open Society is a journal by the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists. (Another article in the same edition is titled “The Rewards of Being an Atheist.”) Our illustrations matter. If they are done well, they can illuminate the truth and draw people to Jesus. If they are done poorly, they can detract from the truth and push people further from Jesus. Therefore, because we are speaking the truth, let us illustrate it with the truth.