Adapting Illustrations So They Fit You
Adapting Illustrations So They Fit You
Six recipes for changing ready-made illustrations to fit your Style and purpose.
When someone special whips up a home-cooked meal for you, does she make everything from scratch? Not likely. Those zesty baked beans, for example, probably came from a jar, but they were prepared to the personal requirements of the cook by adding ingredients: bacon, pepper sauce, and some extra brown sugar.
Those who preach weekly often cannot prepare enough illustrations from scratch to consistently create well-illustrated sermons, but they can always personalize the ones they find ready-made.
Here are six ways to adapt illustrations available on PreachingToday.com or other quality sources to your personal style and unique purposes.
Sometimes the wording of an illustration clashes with our personality or viewpoint. Perhaps the writer is too sentimental or too detached. There may be slang, purple prose, or regional idioms. Perhaps the illustration contains stuffy, academic transitional words and phrases such as moreover, furthermore, or in conclusion. We can fix this with a bit of nip and tuck, or by adding some signature phrases.
Here, for example, is an objective, journalistic illustration:
The publisher's review of a recent book describes it as "a thoughtful, detailed discussion of every aspect of considering, preparing for, beginning, and conducting a successful and emotionally fulfilling extramarital affair." The book is called Affair! How to Manage Every Aspect of Your Extramarital Relationship with Passion, Discretion, and Dignity (by Cameron Barnes, UPublish.com, 1999). For just $19.95, plus shipping and handling, you can get a practical summary of the deception in our culture on the subject of sexual relations outside of marriage.
Let's change that to a passionate perspective on the illustration:
Believe it or not, there is a publisher that has the gall to promote one of its new books as "a thoughtful, detailed discussion of every aspect of considering, preparing for, beginning, and conducting a successful and emotionally fulfilling extramarital affair." Sadly enough, this depraved book is called Affair! How to Manage Every Aspect of Your Extramarital Relationship with Passion, Discretion, and Dignity. For $20 you can buy the lies that the devil would have you believe concerning adultery.
Or we could use a slang-filled street voice:
Get this. There's a bottom-feeding publisher who is promoting a new book as "a thoughtful, detailed discussion of every aspect of considering, preparing for, beginning, and conducting a successful and emotionally fulfilling extramarital affair." Whoa, am I hearing that right? This sick book is called Affair! How to Manage Every Aspect of Your Extramarital Relationship with Passion, Discretion, and Dignity. Yeah, right. For just $19.95, plus shipping and handling, you can stuff your brain with the lies that the devil wants to sell you about sex.
Notice in these different versions how much a slight shift in wording changes the tone.
Some illustrations are too spare for our tastes. We like to draw hearers in and have an emotional impact. For instance, we may find a story does not develop a scene enough to make it moving. It may lack physical setting and sensory appeal. What this illustration needs is more body.
One way to beef up an illustration is to use our imagination to fill in incidental sensory details that are lacking. This is not dishonest so long as we do not exaggerate, change, or add significant events or dialogue to a true story.
When Max Lucado enhances a Bible story, for example, he stays within the boundaries of what the Bible says but imagines what we could reasonably expect to experience if we lived the story. In Six Hours One Friday, Lucado writes:
"Lazarus, come out!" It took only one call. Lazarus heard his name. His eyes opened beneath the wrap. The cloth-covered hands raised. Knees lifted, feet touched the ground, and the dead man came out. "Take the grave clothes off of him and let him go."
In addition to sensory details, we may add a description of what we can reasonably expect people to feel, often with a qualifying statement like, "I imagine that at that moment tremendous fear welled up in her heart."
Tony Smith of Gainesville, Georgia tells this story:
I was sitting at my desk in my study after having scolded my 4-year-old daughter for misbehaving. I heard a gentle knock on the door. "Come in," I said. Bethany entered and then matter-of-factly said, "Daddy, sometimes I am good, and sometimes I am bad. And that is just the way it is." Then she left the room just as summarily as she had come in, acting as if she had completely explained her misbehavior for all time.
When I tell this story, I want Bethany's words to have a stronger impact right when they are heard, so I choose to set them up more:
Tony Smith writes: I was sitting at my desk in my study after having scolded my 4-year-old daughter for misbehaving. I heard a gentle knock on the door. "Come in," I said. Bethany entered and then matter-of-factly said, "Daddy, sometimes I am good, and sometimes I am bad. And that is just the way it is." Then she left the room just as summarily as she had come in, acting as if she had completely explained her misbehavior for all time.
Another way to beef up an illustration is to add important or enhancing facts from research. Let's see what we can do with this spare illustration:
The Ken Burns PBS series on jazz music has a terrific quote by jazz great Duke Ellington. Duke was asked about his feelings at not being able, as a black man, to stay in the guest rooms of the hotels he and his band performed in because of segregation. He said, "I took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues." (source: "Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns," Part 4)
One way to add muscle to this illustration would be to find an anecdote that describes a scene in which Ellington and his band were denied accommodations in a particular hotel. Through the story behind the quote, hearers would feel the pain of segregation and realize what strength of character Ellington must have had to overcome self-pity.
On occasion, instead of abridging an illustration, we may only want to salvage a key element: a quote, image, or metaphor. For example, suppose in the following illustration I want to focus less on the writer and more on the words of the man to whom he is speaking:
D. A. Carson, an author and professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, used to meet with a young man from French West Africa for the purpose of practicing their German. He writes:
Once a week or so, we had had enough, so we went out for a meal together and retreated to French, a language we both knew well. In the course of those meals we got to know each other. I learned that his wife was in London, training to be a medical doctor. He was an engineer who needed fluency in German in order to pursue doctoral studies in engineering in Germany.
I soon discovered that once or twice a week he disappeared into the red-light district of town. Obviously he went to pay his money and have his woman.
Eventually I got to know him well enough that I asked him what he would do if he discovered that his wife was doing something similar in London.
"Oh," he said, "I'd kill her."
"That's a bit of a double standard, isn't it?" I asked.
"You don't understand. Where I come from in Africa, the husband has the right to sleep with many women, but if a wife is unfaithful to her husband she must be killed."
"But you told me you were raised in a mission school. You know that the God of the Bible does not have double standards like that."
He gave me a bright smile and replied, "Ah, le bon Dieu, il doit nous pardonner; c'est son metier [Ah, God is good. He's bound to forgive us; that's his job]. (Bibliotheca Sacra [October 1999])
Here is one way to salvage just one quote from this story:
Author D. A. Carson tells of a conversation with a friend who was committing sexual immorality. When Carson confronted him, the man replied, "Ah, God is good. He's bound to forgive us; that's his job."
I accomplished this by summarizing only what was needed to set up the quote and by changing from a first person to a third person account.
Sometimes a relevant illustration is too long for our purposes. A five-minute story does not suit a minor point. What we need to do is abridge the illustration.
Here, for instance, is a long movie illustration I have shortened. In italics are the words I can delete without losing the essentials of the story. In bold are words I am adding.
The movie Glory chronicles the true story of the first noncommissioned black regiment to fight for the North during the Civil War. The formation of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts is not taken seriously from the beginning. Most doubt that enough soldiers will volunteer. Others suspect that even if enough enlist, the regiment will whittle away deserter by deserter. But the white abolitionist officer from Boston, Robert Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, idealistically agrees to command the 54th, believing that blacks should be given the right to fight for their freedom.
From the beginning, Shaw, tries to treat his men like soldiers, not like the slaves they once were. Even though the Union doesn't consider the 54th equal in status with other white regiments, Shaw wants his soldiers equipped as every other soldier is in the North: with firmly soled shoes, Union uniforms, and sturdy weaponry. Lobbying on behalf of his regiment, however, he increasingly understands how little his men are valued, even by those Northerners who maintain that blacks should be emancipated.
Throughout the film the white abolitionist officer who commands the black regiment, named Robert Shaw, faces the dilemma of standing up for his men or staying quiet amongst his superiors to save face. This dilemma is strikingly portrayed when Shaw must inform his soldiers that the Union recently determined that black soldiers would receive a smaller salary than white soldiers. Standing on a high, commanding platform, Shaw hesitantly announces to his troops, "You men enlisted in this regiment with the understanding that you would be paid the regular army wage of 13 dollars a month. This morning I have been notified that since you are a colored regiment you will be paid 10 dollars a month."
His regiment grumbles at the injustice, but they fall out by company to receive their pay. Some pay, no matter how little, is better than no pay at all. But there is one dissenter, a runaway slave named Trip, played by Denzel Washington, who stridently protests the pay cut.
"Where you goin', boy?" Trip asks one soldier.
"To get paid. Ten dollar, lot of money," his comrade replies.
Trying to garner some support, Trip asks his elderly bunk mate, Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman, "Hey pop, are you gonna lay down for this too?"
When Rawlins ignores him, Trip files up and down the forming lines struggling to get someone to join his protest. He hollers, "A colored soldier will stop a bullet just as good as a white one and for less money too. Yeah, yeah, Ol' Unc Abe has got himself a real bargain here."
Soon other soldiers join in the protest. One yells, "That's right, slaves. Step right up. Make your mark. Get your slave wage." Another says, "All you good colored boys, go ahead and sign up.
One by one, soldiers join the outcry, and Trip incites the regiment to tear up their paychecks. "Tear it up. Tear it up. Tear it up," he shouts.
The regiment repeats the same words: "Tear it up. Tear it up. Tear it up."
"Pow!" A shot instantly silences the clamor. The soldiers turn their attention to their commanding officer, Shaw, expecting to be disciplined.
"If you men will take no pay," Shaw sternly announces, "then none of us will." He proceeds to tear up his check as well.
Recovering from their shock, the soldiers uproariously celebrate, tossing their tattered paychecks in the air like confetti.
These changes cut the illustration more than half, from 563 words to 265. With a word processor, abridging an illustration is a snap. With printed text, use a yellow highlighter on the words you want to keep. With each phrase and sentence, simply ask yourself, "Is this absolutely necessary for the illustration to be understood or emotionally compelling?" If not, cut it. Sometimes if we cannot cut a segment, we can summarize it.
Generalize the source
Illustrations may come from a source our hearers will not relate to. Suppose you serve a largely blue-collar congregation and have a great excerpt from Dostoevski, or your classical music crowd would dismiss an anecdote from Garth Brooks.
Some try to overcome this by owning the illustration: "I once wrote a story about a one-legged man obsessed with killing a great white whale." Not a good idea.
The right way to solve this problem is to generalize the source. Instead of "In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote," make it "A great writer tells this timeless story." Rather than, "In 400 A.D. Augustine wrote," say, "One of the best-known leaders of the church once said."
Nip and tuck will not always put an illustration in our voice. The entire approach to the story may clash with our style. Other illustrations are in a written style—complex, long sentences, stiff-sounding transitions, formal wording—that will not connect with hearers in spoken form.
We need a total overhaul, a paraphrase. To do that, reread the illustration several times, fixing important details in your mind. Then, either immediately, or after letting it percolate through your subconscious a while, retell the illustration from memory out loud (preferably with someone listening—maybe at the dinner table). I suggest taping your retelling and then having an assistant type it for your notes. Finally, reread the original illustration and add to your paraphrase any important details you missed.
Here is an illustration I would feel awkward presenting in a sermon as is:
If you become an evangelical Christian in Laos, the communist neighbor of Vietnam and Cambodia, you likely will be "asked" to sign a fill-in-the-blank form. And it's not a membership card at your neighborhood church. The form reads, in part:
I, (name), who live in (location), believe in a foreign religion, which the imperialists have used for their own benefit to divide the united front and to build power for themselves against the local authorities. Now I and my family clearly see the intentions of the enemy and regret the deeds which we have committed. We have clearly seen the goodness of the Party and the Government. Therefore, I and my family voluntarily and unequivocally resign from believing in this foreign religion.
If you sign, you promise not to participate in this "foreign religion"—Christianity in every reported case—under punishment of law. If you don't sign, you can expect humiliation, harassment, and persecution, including probable imprisonment and torture.
The document's widespread use by Laotian officials has been authenticated by the World Evangelical Fellowship's Religious Liberty Commission and other sources. Hundreds of rural Christians reportedly have been forced to sign the form in public, then compelled to participate in animistic sacrifices. (Baptist Press [10–9–00])
Here is my paraphrase:
Laos, as you know, is a communist country bordered by Vietnam and Cambodia. If you become a Christian in Laos, communist officials may come to you with a form and demand that you sign it. The form basically says, "I know that I've been deceived, that this religion is just a weapon used by our enemies against us, and I turn away from it completely." If you sign that form, you are promising to stay away from Christianity, under penalty of law. If you don't sign the form, you can expect to be persecuted, harassed, perhaps imprisoned and tortured. The communists have forced hundreds of Laotians to sign and then to participate publicly in pagan sacrifices.
One advantage of writing out a paraphrase is it fixes the illustration in our mind, so we can tell it from memory rather than by reading it.
We might consider these techniques for adapting illustrations as spices in our cabinet. With them, we can adapt the recipe of any illustration to our own tastes and purposes. When we do, we have thousands more illustrations available and a far greater ability to connect with our hearers.