Analogies, metaphors, similes, allegories, etc. all can work well in a sacrament meeting talk (or gospel lesson). They can also be where the talk (or lesson) fails completely. Because Jesus taught in parables (which, when asked, Jesus interpreted allegorically), these types of teaching tools have the highest possible endorsement. But caution is also warranted.
[For this post, I won’t attempt to differentiate the technical differences between analogies, metaphors, similes, allegories, parables, symbols, and the like because this is not a series on formalist literary criticism. Instead, I will group them all under the heading “analogy” as that term is broad enough to cover them all.]
Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, taught that analogies work well in using something familiar (a sower going forth to sow) to teach something the audience may not be familiar with (how various people react to the gospel). Jesus used parables to allow those who had “ears to hear” to make that move from the known to the unknown. A quick scan of any general conference report will reveal many, many analogies being used: Boyd K. Packer’s “The Mediator” in April 1977 and “Parable of the Treasure and the Keys” in Oct. 1993 Conference spring to mind.
Packer’s two analogies are perfect examples of the problems and strengths of using analogies in your teaching, considering the flack some have given him over them (the only problem I have with them is that the “Parable of the Treasure and the Keys” is not really a parable, but that’s a trifling complaint on my part). Here is a link to an example of the problems some have with his “mediator” parable.
The take away here is: NO ANALOGY IS PERFCT. Some people read the Parable of the Sower and find absolute predestination. Others read Packer’s mediator and find penal substitution atonement theory. In both cases, the readers are wrong, but it’s also easy to see why they could find what they did.
Thus, if you choose to use analogies in your talk (and you should, given that we have Christ as our exemplar, and he used them), the way to avoid some of these problems is to frame, in your talk, exactly how far the analogy is meant to be taken. You need to think through possible implications – but, just because a given analogy might have some problems does not mean you should abandon it.
Here’s an example, using a well-worn (but non-scriptural) analogy that shows up in lessons or talks every so often:
Sin is like pounding nails into a board and repentance is like pulling them out.
This is usually the most abused gospel analogy, by both proponents and opponents. It really has two parts, and most of the objections come from the second. However, there are problems with both parts, as well as (often overlooked) strengths.
In the first part of the analogy, sin is represented as nails in a board. We are the board, apparently, and driving nails into the board does damage by creating holes in the board. This does a good job of illustrating the damage sin causes. Sin is dangerous, and we should always keep in mind that even a little sin causes harm to us. Of course, the problem is that sometimes nails need to be driven into boards. Most houses are built on the principle that driving nails into boards is a good thing.
The second part becomes more problematic. We repent, the nails get pulled out. What’s left is a visibly weaker board with a lot of holes in it. Yet, the idea of repentance is that the Lord remembers our sin no more, and the sin will no longer keep us out of his kingdom. On that level, the remaining holes seem very problematic.
Yet repentance does not wipe away every possible trace of a sin. If you burn someone’s house down, repentance isn’t going to rebuild the house. If you get your 16 year old girlfriend pregnant, repentance won’t make the pregnancy go away. People who become addicted to (whatever), even if they stay clean, often never lose the cravings. David could not bring Uriah back, not matter how much godly sorrow he experienced. On that level, the holes that remain in the board illustrate that, even though we can repent and be right in the eyes of the Lord, sin causes lasting damage. That’s why President Kimball often said that, despite the thoroughness of repentance, it would be better to have never committed the sin in the first place.
In other words, if you choose to use this analogy, make sure that you are very clear about what implications you want drawn from it. While it is impossible to head off every possible bizarre reading of an analogy, you can contain them to some extent. If using the “boards and nails” analogy, make sure you discuss that this does not mean that those who repent are somehow eternally damaged and are unworthy of God’s presence.
What this means is that any analogy you use will require some effort on your part – especially in how you frame it. Too many analogies in sacrament meeting talks and gospel lessons get tossed off, quickly used and just as quickly abandoned. This can leave your audience confused, drawing the wrong conclusions, or otherwise unsure of your meaning. Saying “feeling the Holy Ghost is like eating the best chocolate cake you’ve ever had” should never be quickly said, lest the audience think you are comparing the Holy Ghost to something that tastes good but lacks nourishment.
As long as the analogy is not too bizarre or convoluted (“The tree of life is like a supercomputer with Angels as the customer service representatives” – yes, I’ve heard that one), then I believe that almost any analogy can be fruitfully used, if framed correctly. Just make sure that you think carefully about every analogy you use (and especially anticipate possible misreadings). Giving a great sacrament meeting talk requires preparation and thought, and when creating analogies to use, preparation and thought will make the difference between a good analogy and a bad one.
The next part of this series will deal with memory. Since many people write their talks out (or at least use notes), many think we have no need for memorization in preparing for our sacrament meeting talks. That attitude is wrong. Thus, I’ll discuss the whys and hows of memory as they relate to sacrament meeting talks next time.
In the comments below, I would appreciate it if people would share any particular analogies that have worked for them (or failed spectacularly).
[Note: A portion of this post has been "borrowed" from an earlier post of mine in the M* archives here.]