But that is perfectly fine because illustrations have always been one of the most effective ways to convey truth. For thousands of years, successful communicators have understood this and employed the use of illustrations in their teaching.
For instance, in ancient Greece, a humble slave known as Aesop was a master at communicating through stories. His famed Aesop’s Fables are actually a collection of very short stories that he told, each concluding with a moral, or “point”. A classic example is that of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, a tale so familiar to most of us that it needs no recounting here. The moral, of course, is not to tell lies.
Another ancient Greek famous for his use of illustrations was the philosopher Plato, who often taught with illustrations. One of his more famous examples was known as "the allegory of the cave", related in his preeminent work, The Republic. Wikipedia.com gives a reasonable summary:
Plato has (the character) Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners' reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners.
The ancient Greeks were not alone in the use of storytelling as a means of communicating. The ancient Romans did the same, as did the Egyptians, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Indians, and all the kingdoms and cultures of the Far East. And so did the ancient Israelites.
In the Old Testament, we read the account where the Prophet Nathan is called upon by God to confront King David over his adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uzziah the Hittite, whom David had later slain to cover up his immorality. In Second Samuel, chapter 12, verse 1-7, we read:
1The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
4“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
5David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” 7Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!
Needless to say, the story Nathan told both made its point and had its desired effect! David was clearly guilty; and his response to Nathan’s story proves it conclusively!
When we come to the New Testament, we are introduced to the Greatest Teacher who ever existed. And the One Who related the greatest illustrations ever employed by any teacher. I am speaking, of course, of Jesus Christ. And over the life of His ministry, He shared at least forty different parables.
Webster’s dictionary defines a parable as “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle”. And Jesus was a Master at utilizing them.
Perhaps no finer example of His art is to be found than that recorded in the New Testament Gospel of Luke. In chapter 10, verses 25-37, in response to a man’s question about what he must do to obtain eternal life, Jesus reminds him of the requirements of the Old Testament law - to love the lord with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The man, not satisfied, pressed Jesus as to just who his neighbor was. In response, Jesus delivers the renowned parable of “The Good Samaritan”.
Later, in Luke chapter 15, Jesus recounts three successive parables illustrating the spiritual lostness of men and women, and the passionate desire of God to find, redeem, and recover them. These include the stories of “the lost sheep”, “the lost coin”, and ultimately, “the lost son”. The latter is universally referred to as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”. (The links below recount each of these.)
Given that great communicators throughout history have always effectively employed stories to teach truth; and given that chief among them in this art was the very Son of God Himself, Jesus Christ, it therefore behooves me to make the most of stories as I myself teach, preach, and write.
And if you also are called upon to communicate truth, then I trust you will see the relevance and do the same!
As a child, I was taught not to tell “stories”, a euphemism for “lies”. I have faithfully tried to live by that dictum. But, as an adult, and as a teacher, I now realize that I cannot possibly hope to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” without employing stories to illustrate the very points I desire to communicate.
And that, my friend, is the story of my life! And I’m sticking to it!
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Over half a century ago, Gilbert Highet, a classical scholar educated at Oxford University, and who later taught at Columbia University for forty years, published a wonderful work titled The Art of Teaching (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 1950). In this influential work, he discusses in detail the methods of all great teachers throughout history, including those employed by Jesus Christ.
In my opinion, this seminal book has not been surpassed, and should be required reading for all who still desire to change the world though the art of teaching even today, be that through higher education, public school, Sunday school, or even Vacation Bible school. The only book even coming close is The Seven Laws of Teaching (http://canonpress.com/content/AG-003.pdf) by John Milton Gregory.
(Speaking of storytellers, Gilbert Highet was married to one of my favorite novelists: Helen MacInnes. A prolific author, her 22 novels on World War Two and its aftermath, including the cold war, are quite suspenseful. My personal favorite is The Salzburg Connection [published in 1968 and later made into a film of the same name], about the discovery and retrieval of a chest from the bottom of an Austrian mountain lake (a "See") which contains the identities of Nazi war criminals and collaborators. Suffice it to say that she was a master of suspense!