Paul was an expositor of Scripture who knew how to connect with listeners. One strategy he employed was to reference secular authors. He would do this when speaking to an unbelieving audience (Acts 17:28) and he would do this when writing to another minister of the Word (Titus 1:12). In both cases he was quoting Epimenides, a Greek philosopher, half legend/ half myth. Apparently, Paul thought the audience at Mars Hill would be more open the gospel if they saw where it overlapped with the teachings of their own revered prophets and seers. He also used Epimenides to help Titus understand his ministerial context. We would be remiss to not avail ourselves of the vast treasure trove of quotes, analogies, insights and illustrations waiting for us in the publications of secular authors.
Secular Authors Can Preach
Recently, I referred to the plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. A secular book if there ever was one. Wilde was ahead of his time in terms of rebellion against God’s revealed truth. But he had a Catholic background, was familiar with the Bible, and it shows in the one novel he produced. It reads like the book of Ecclesiastes where the main character seeks fulfillment in various brands of Hedonism. Toward the end of the book Wilde references Scripture including the “Lord’s Prayer” and, insightfully, recognizes that it should not say “forgive us our sins” but instead, “smite us for our iniquities” — in light of man’s sinfulness that he can never un-do, and God’s sense of justice (226). The book starts out in a garden where a painter creates a masterpiece which is a portrait of a rather innocent, young man. He does not want the young man to meet Lord Henry, a devilishly sly figure who comes on the scene and indeed begins to ruin the kid. Dorian’s innocence is robbed and he gives into the tempting lures supplied by Lord Henry — this scene takes place in a garden which is the very first thing Wilde describes.
It’s difficult to not see immediate analogies of the gospel. We fell in a garden and our prideful desires are the same. We pursue pleasure and we have to reckon with the guilt of our sins. In some sense, the Bible is true and Wilde knows it. It’s too bad he didn’t come to grips with the fact that we all do need a portrait to bear the weight of our sins. And God provided that in Christ, a portrait not of us but of the very image of God himself.
At a recent men’s breakfast I briefly shared how the Continental Army under the leadership of George Washington was nearly naked, starved and battling rampant diseases. What made them press so hard against the British? Their desperate desire for what they knew was waiting for them on the other side (liberty) outweighed their desire for comfort. Isn’t that the Christian life? I had just finished reading 1776 by David McCullough.
On another recent occasion I referenced Michael Collins’ superb autobiography Carrying the Fire. Collins offers his perspective on the deep depression that crippled Buzz Aldrin after his walk on the moon. What was next? There’s always been a “next” but after walking on the moon, there was nothing greater to achieve for him. It ate him up. I connected this to Psalm 73:25 — we will never be really satisfied unless our true desire is God himself.
Even when secular authors are not directly dealing with gospel themes, they portray life as it is experienced. Those portrayals are a gold mine of universally applicable life examples that can come alongside your proclamation of the gospel.
Some Important Cautions
That being said, here are a few cautions to consider:
- Don’t overuse analogies and quotes from secular authors. You don’t want to convey the notion that you read more Poe than Paul.
- Be careful not to reference books that you would not recommend they read themselves. If there is too much foul language or sexual content or if the author lures the reader away from the gospel, it might not be a good idea to use it. Your reference will be viewed as an implicit recommendation.
- Try not to linger on the secular source so long that the congregation forgets what you were trying to illustrate or loses where you were going with it. If the plot or the scene takes too long to set up, consider boiling it down it or foregoing it altogether.
- Make sure that whatever you use actually clarifies the point you are trying to illustrate. If your illustration doesn’t shed light on the passage, then it’s not an illustration. It’s just filler. Keep the spotlight on the passage.