Perfect Illustrations that aren’t quite … True

"To my chagrin, I found indisputably that the illustration could never have happened. Sometimes when we research illustrations, they are at least plausible, if not absolutely verifiable. This particular story could not have happened and simply never did happen." - Don Johnson

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G. N. Barkman's picture

Excellent article, Don.  Thanks for making us think.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

I've got a number of bad illustrations that would seem to fit Don's description.  We need to turn our nonsense detectors on more consistently.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I've never searched in books or online for illustrations (e.g. "there once was a lady who ..."). Do a lot of people do this?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

TylerR wrote:

I've never searched in books or online for illustrations (e.g. "there once was a lady who ..."). Do a lot of people do this?

I'm sorry, Tyler, but that first line sounds like the start of a limerick....and for various reasons, I'd heartily discourage looking too hard.  :^)

Seriously, if you've not heard sermon illustrations of dubious authenticity often, count yourself blessed.  It's very common among pastors who aren't terribly keen on actually doing the hard work of exegesis.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

ScottS's picture

In the article, Don states:

The problem is that when we use unverifiable stories (or out and out false stories) we harm our credibility as gospel witnesses. 

I agree that is the case if one is presenting the story as a true story. I also agree if one is presenting a story that can never happen as if it could have (which seems to be the case with the researched story in the article). But if a preacher presents a fictional story as an illustration, or even presents a story as likely fiction (but unverifiable), then credibility is maintained.

The parables are a good example of Jesus doing such. For example, while the places the seed fell for the sower and the results thereof are typical (i.e. generally true, Mat 13:3-7), was there actually ever an instance where such yielded a crop of exactly "some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold" (Mat 13:8)? Certainly unverifiable, and likely the numbers are given by Jesus to make a point.

Others that seem less likely "true," and more likely fictional in order to illustrate a truth, are some of those where the kingdom of heaven "is like" the illustration given. Did a merchant ever really sell "all that he had" to buy a single "pearl of great price" (Mat 13:46)? How would he then eat (or conduct business)? More likely, Christ is simply illustrating by a fictional account how valuable the kingdom of heaven is to obtain, that it is worth giving up everything for to obtain it. Could the circumstances of the marriage feast parable (Mat 22:2-14) have actually occurred? Not impossible, but highly improbably that such a story is of an actual occurrence. Rather, it seems to be a fictional story built with details that match the reality of the kingdom that Christ is trying to convey.

As long as one makes it clear that an illustration is exactly that, something to parallel something else to be "like" it, then the illustration itself need not be true itself, because the readers/hearers have already been told it is an "illustration" for a purpose of demonstrating a truth. This is the essence of all figurative language as well. Trees really don't clap their hands (since they have none, nor a will to do so; Isa 55:12), but people can understand that without any pre-warning of it being fiction for illustration.

A story that could be true, but isn't, needs to be stated as a story (not as fact). And a story that could never be true, but might still illustrate a point, could be used if the preacher is upfront in stating such (though even such a statement may not be needed if the people realize it could never be true, such as an illustration taken from a fantasy or sci-fi story where things that are not real are common, but a truth can be gleaned from it).

I appreciated the article. I do believe too many "stories" are used by preachers and not verified as true, but then also not presented as fiction for purposes of an illustration. Such does indeed damage credibility if you make your audience to believe the story itself is true when it is not.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Larry Nelson's picture

I've personally heard these (among many others) used as illustrations in IFB sermons over the years: 

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/father-sacrifice-son-train-bridge/

https://www.truthorfiction.com/beastofbelgium/

---------------------

My current pastor is very careful to avoid any illustrations of a dubious nature.  I can't say that I've ever heard him use one that I haven't been able to verify (or conversely been able to disprove).  Why would a pastor risk using a sermon illustration that is demonstrably false?  Particularly when virtually everyone in a congregation has the means available with them (i.e. a smartphone) to fact-check (on-the-spot) any given illustration, "pastoral embellishment" should be non-existent.

TylerR's picture

Editor

The only time I've heard silly illustrations used in sermons ("there was a man who went to the doctor ...") were in IFB churches. I always thought they sounded foolish. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

Bert wrote:
Seriously, if you've not heard sermon illustrations of dubious authenticity often, count yourself blessed.  It's very common among pastors who aren't terribly keen on actually doing the hard work of exegesis.

I find that my time during preaching is too valuable to waste it on stories, anecdotes, and illustrations. If one comes to mind while preparing my sermon, I write it in my notes; but, I usually don't go looking to add them in.

Don Johnson's picture

I am also perturbed about things that preacher friends share on Facebook, as if it is real news. Don't miss that point.

I agree with 99% of the comments in this thread (trying to cover myself in case there is a smidgen here or there I forgot about). I generally don't go searching out illustrations lately. spent too many fruitless hours searching for them when I was younger.

The main thing is to be sure of your sources and don't repeat things as true without verifying them.

 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

GregH's picture

I suspect that what Don is trying to say between the lines (and rightly so) is that Christian leaders should be smarter than to believe (much less share) some of the outright nonsense from right-wing fake news sites on social media. I am appalled by the gullibility I see.

I read an article about one of the fake news business people (yes it is a business because fake news is all about advertising dollars). I remember him saying that when he was writing fake news, he wrote more for the right because they were more gullible than the left. I believe it.

Lee's picture

TylerR wrote:

The only time I've heard silly illustrations used in sermons ("there was a man who went to the doctor ...") were in IFB churches. I always thought they sounded foolish. 

You need to get out more.  I have heard MANY messages non-IFB that not only incorporated silly illustrations, but the silly illustration was the sermon.

OTOH, I'm one who doesn't give a rat's rear if the illustration is made up as long as it is beneficial to the communication of the message and not presented as a true story.  If it illustrates the point in a clear, appropriate way use it.

Preferably, however, is a point I heard Jack Greene state many years ago--illustrate from Scripture; scripture truth is best illustrated by scripture narrative.  Hard to find a better illustration about Scripture than that which is recorded in scripture, "..,.things [given as]...our examples..." I Cor. 10:6

Lee

TylerR's picture

Editor

Lee, it's hard to get out to other churches if you're a pastor! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Robert Byers's picture

What was the perfect but untrue story Don rejected?

Don Johnson's picture

Robert Byers wrote:

What was the perfect but untrue story Don rejected?

It's the one about the depressed diver who is on the 10 meter board at night, lights out, but enough light from the skylights to see what he is doing. Gets ready to dive, see's his silhouette below in the shape of a cross, is convicted and gets right. The janitor comes along and turns on the lights and he realizes the pool is empty... something like that. the story I read had a name, a date, a location, etc. Turns out that it never happened.

I'm just giving bare outline from memory, don't have access to the story at the moment.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Dave White's picture

The famous "drawbridge over crevasse illustration"

The drawbridge operation must permit his son to be crushed in the gears of the drawbridge so the train can pass safely ...

Else all will careen to their deaths ...

The father pulls the switch ... the son is crushed.

I've heard this dozens of times.

Problem: why would there be a drawbridge over crevasse?!

Larry's picture

Moderator

I find that my time during preaching is too valuable to waste it on stories, anecdotes, and illustrations. If one comes to mind while preparing my sermon, I write it in my notes; but, I usually don't go looking to add them in.

I wonder about the idea that illustrations are "wasting time." Perhaps people would find their time during our preaching more valuable if we illustrated the Scriptures in ways that show how it applies to the lives we live. Illustrations are to help people see, to help them put the abstract into the concrete. To avoid them or consider them time wasted seems strange to me.

Larry's picture

Moderator

The famous "drawbridge over crevasse illustration"

This is actually a very common ethical dilemma that is posed in ethics classes and ethics discussions. It is not uncommon at all. And there would be a drawbridge over a crevasse in order to cross it at times and to prevent crossing at other times (for various reasons).

Larry Nelson's picture

Larry wrote:

The famous "drawbridge over crevasse illustration"

This is actually a very common ethical dilemma that is posed in ethics classes and ethics discussions. It is not uncommon at all. And there would be a drawbridge over a crevasse in order to cross it at times and to prevent crossing at other times (for various reasons).

.....it utterly fails, however. 

The son in the bridge illustration is an unknowing, unwilling participant, who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The father has not pre-ordained the son's death as a sacrifice; the son becomes a victim of circumstances as they unfold.

The Son of the Gospel is a willing participant in a pre-ordained event, who knowingly offered Himself as a sacrifice.  He was/is not an unknowing, unwilling participant, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Addendum: Moreover, there's an element of universalism inherent in the bridge illustration, in that EVERYONE on the train is saved by the father's sacrificing of his son..... 

Larry's picture

Moderator

.it utterly fails, however.

Utterly is a really strong word which would likely prevent the use of any illustration. No illustration of anything is ever going to be completely and fully analogous. And I wouldn't use that particular illustration because I don't think it makes any point that can't be better made in some other way. My point was that it was not an uncommon illustration used frequently in ethical discussions.

To the broader point, illustrations are usually intended (or at least should be intended) to highlight one particular point of facet of a point. They should not be intended to be replicas. 

To your addendum, perhaps it's actually an element of particular redemption that everyone on the train was chosen for that train and all the rest were stuck in traffic jams.

Or perhaps it's an element of belief. That some people didn't believe the son was crushed and they jumped over the edge of the bridge into the crevasse below and dashed themselves on the rocks. 

Or perhaps ... or perhaps we should use that in talking about ethics and not the gospel ... 

Bert Perry's picture

I heard it as a railroad bridge over a river--gave a name, train's name, approximate location, all that.  A good picture of the problem can be drawn by listing out the objections to the story, which is far more extensive than what Snopes used.  If you think about it, refusing to think about the truthfulness, or even "truthiness", of the story is a very bad sign for a preacher, because it means he's also not going to be thinking critically about the text he's using.  

(side note; good fiction generally has a lot of "truthiness", since readers--at least outside science fiction--will only tolerate so much that violates their sense of what can be)

But to the story, here is a partial list of things that are wrong with the story:

  • No contemporary news reports about events that would be sensational
  • No lift bridges in that region of the Mississippi.  (usually they avoid lift bridges if you can because you can raise the tracks enough in the flood plain to clear barges without a lift bridge)
  • Since the 1800s, lift bridges have been constructed to keep the machinery from being played with by outsiders for obvious reasons--kids, sabotage, etc..
  • The first thing the bridge operator does, 5-10 minutes before opening or closing the bridge, is to telegraph the signals so the train engineer knows the bridge is open or closed.  So no way would the engineer not know he was approaching an open bridge.
  • Most bridge approaches over rivers involve 2 sharp turns that trains can't take at high speed; this shortens the bridge (big cost savings) while keeping the route otherwise as short as possible.
  • Lift bridges take 5-10 minutes to open, so no chance to close it if a train was ignoring signals

The word to the wise, again, is that if a pastor can't be bothered to "google" stories like this and go beyond what Snopes says about the matter, he's also likely to simply believe whatever his favorite commentaries say about a passage and go with that uncritically as well.  It's a big deal.  Again, well done, Don.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dave White's picture

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/father-sacrifice-son-train-bridge/

Note how the LDS used it (in article)

There was once a bridge that spanned a large river. During most of the day the bridge sat with its length running up and down the river paralleled with the banks, allowing ships to pass through freely on both sides of the bridge. But at certain times each day, a train would come along and the bridge would be turned sideways across the river, allowing the train to cross it.

A switchman sat in a shack on one side of the river where he operated the controls to turn the bridge and lock it into place as the train crossed.

One evening as the switchman was waiting for the last train of the day to come, he looked off into the distance through the dimming twilight and caught sight of the train lights. He stepped onto the control and waited until the train was within a prescribed distance. Then he was to turn the bridge. He turned the bridge into position, but, to his horror, he found the locking control did not work. If the bridge was not securely in position, it would cause the train to jump the track and go crashing into the river. This would be a passenger train with MANY people aboard.

He left the bridge turned across the river and hurried across the bridge to the other side of the river, where there was a lever switch he could hold to operate the lock manually.

He would have to hold the lever back firmly as the train crossed. He could hear the rumble of the train now, and he took hold of the lever and leaned backward to apply his weight to it, locking the bridge. He kept applying the pressure to keep the mechanism locked. Many lives depended on this man’s strength.

Then, coming across the bridge from the direction of his control shack, he heard a sound that made his blood run cold.

“Daddy, where are you?” His four-year-old son was crossing the bridge to look for him. His first impulse was to cry out to the child, “Run! Run!” But the train was too close; the tiny legs would never make it across the bridge in time..

The man almost left his lever to snatch up his son and carry him to safety. But he realized that he could not get back to the lever in time if he saved his son.

Either many people on the train or his own son – must die.

He took but a moment to make his decision. The train sped safely and swiftly on its way, and no one aboard was even aware of the tiny broken body thrown mercilessly into the river by the on rushing train. Nor were they aware of the pitiful figure of the sobbing man, still clinging to the locking lever long after the train had passed. They did not see him walking home more slowly than he had ever walked; to tell his wife how their son had brutally died.

Now, if you comprehend the emotions that went through this man’s heart, you can begin to understand the feelings of Our Father in Heaven when He sacrificed His Son to bridge the gap between us and eternal life.

Can there be any wonder that He caused the earth to tremble and the skies to darken when His Son died? How does He feel when we speed along through life without giving a thought to what was done for us through Jesus Christ?

Jeff Howell's picture

guess I'll take that "drawbridge" story out of my Easter message! Wink Now what ???

Don Johnson's picture

TylerR wrote:

The only time I've heard silly illustrations used in sermons ("there was a man who went to the doctor ...") were in IFB churches. I always thought they sounded foolish. 

I went back to my database and found the illustration, did the following search on Google:

university of cincinnati charles murray diver

If you go there you will find many links. First up on my search today are a couple of fact-checking sites:

First, from the University of Cinicinnati magazine, a page describing many UC urban legends, scroll to the bottom

Snopes

Then come sites where the illustration is used

Sermon Central

Bible.org (a site I generally like)

Something called the AllNurses breakroom

A devotional by Jim Grassi

A Presbyterian site, devotional article

I think there is at least one more Christian site using the story, but you can do the search yourself

My point: NONE of these people are Independent Baptists. Let's not throw stones just because.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Larry's picture

Moderator

The illustration of the bridge as given is a bad one for salvation, as I said.

Yet to the bigger point, I think it permissible to use a story that's not true so long as you don't present it as true. Fictional stories to illustrate things have a long history in all cultures, including the Bible itself. In fact, there is a story or two in the Bible that we don't know if it is true or not, and the Bible doesn't tell us whether it is true, yet it is used to make a point. 

If you use an illustration as a true story, then it should be true. If you say, "This happened to me" or "This happened on such a date or time," then make sure it did. If it isn't true, then feel free to use it but don't say it's true. 

The key thing here, I think, is in how we present it.

And outlandish stories that outshine the text probably should not be used. Illustrations are supportive of points; they are not points in themselves.The goal with an illustration is for someone to see, "I see what the text means" or "I see what the text wants us to believe or do."

RajeshG's picture

James Stalker insightfully brings out some key reasons why Jesus used illustrations so much in His preaching:

But the discourses of Jesus had a still more popular quality: they were plentifully adorned with illustrations. This is the most attractive quality of human speech. The same God being the Author of both the world of mind and the world of matter, He has so fashioned them that the objects of nature, if presented in a certain way, become mirrors in which are reflected the truths of the spirit; and we are so constituted that we never relish truth so well as when it is presented in this way. Nature contains thousands of these mirrors for exhibiting spiritual truth which have never yet been used but await the hands of the masters of speech who are yet to be born.

Christ used this method of illustrating truth so constantly that the common objects of the country in which He resided are seen more perfectly in His words than in all the historians of the time. . . .

It was because Jesus had exquisite love and consideration for His hearers that He thus sought out acceptable words to win their minds. But there was a reason in Himself besides. It is when the mind of a preacher is acting on the truth with intense energy and delight that it coruscates in such gleams of illustration. When the mental energy is only smouldering in a lukewarm way inside the subject, then you have the commonplace, prosaic statement; when the warmth increases and pervades the whole, you get the clear, strong, impressive statement; but, when the glow has thoroughly mastered the mass and flames all over it, then comes the gorgeous images and parables which dwell for ever in the minds of the hearers.

The Example of Jesus Christ: Imago Christi, 186-188

Dave White's picture

Fulfills Psalm 78:1-3, "Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
2 I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us."

See Matthew 13:35

Don Johnson's picture

Or even parables.

Just make it clear and don't tell stories or share links AS IF THEY ARE TRUE unless you know they are true. That's my point.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Dan Miller's picture

Once upon a time, a man was interviewing for a job driving the coach of the queen of England. 

“How close to the edge do you think you could drive without going over?”...

Kevin Miller's picture

I just checked Wikipedia and found out that a frog actually will jump out of a pot of water if you start heating it slowly.

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