Using The Secular . . . .

secular jpeg  Also, Some Helps & Cautions

It is popular these days to cite and use secular advertisement, song lyrics, movie plots, and popular fiction and non-fiction books as an illustration within a message.  There is nothing wrong with drawing an illustration from a movie, book, or secular song lyrics.  In fact, it can be done very effectively!  I well imagine that there is not a pastor who has not done this at some time in his years of teaching or preaching.

There are entire sermons which call up examples from the secular world in order to illustrate our society’s or culture’s world-view.  Dr. Fancis Schaeffer, as well as his son and daughter, have all been known to give some insightful and inspiring messages which highlight examples throughout the American and European culture.

In fact, sometimes we can call up examples from the secular world by merely mentioning but a few words from this-or-that song, movie, book, or advertisement.  In a recent article (see pdf link) in which it was argued that indeed the birth of Jesus was in a commercial inn, this statement was made in closing . . . .

“The next thing we might hear is that Marty McFly was there that morning in his Delorian – Back in the future.”

Yes, most recognize that from “Back To The Future.”  Such secular references become embedded into the social awareness of country because the song, movie, statement, advertisement, or book becomes so well-known across a particular society.  At times, we miss the allusion which is being made because we do not know the reference.  We do not know the lyrics, book, movie line, or ad which is being referenced.

While there are some cautions which are worthy of consideration,* the secular world, American culture, commonly understood secular allusions can be effectively used to introduce, illustrate, or conclude a message.

An example of this is seen in a message by Matthew Martens, an attorney who is presently a partner at Wilmer-Hale in Washington, DC.  It was given at Capitol Hill Baptist Church on the book of Ecclesiastes.  In doing so, he used the lyrics of a popular secular song in his introduction.

(audio link)      —    (Introduction)


These are questions which philosophers and sages.  Theologians and ministers poets and songwriters have wrestled for millennia.


In his song “Badlands” Bruce Springsteen observes that

“The poor man wants to be rich.

And the rich man wants to be king

And a king’s not satisfied.

Till he rules everything.”


So is that the point? Is that the good life a continual quest to rule the world or at least as much of it as you can capture in this life?

In 2007 the alternative rock band – Nickelback — (I knew that would get a laugh) – released what was voted both one of the top one hundred songs of the year and also one of the worst songs of all time.  Which suggests that the year 2007 was a very bad year in music.


The song entitled “Rock Star” became the basis for the widespread ridicule of Nick Nickelback.


As my son Ian reminded me last night when I mentioned the Nickelback quote — “Dad that’s the group everyone makes fun of.”


The chorus to the rock star song goes like this.

“Because we all just want to be big rock stars 

live in hilltop houses 

drive in fifteen cars 

where the girls come easy and the drugs come cheap 

and we’ll all stay skinny because we just won’t eat

and we’ll hang out in the coolest bars with the V.I.P.’s and the movie stars

Hey hey hey

I want to be a rockstar”


The video that accompanies this song is particularly interesting.  It’s a series of clips of people lip sinking the song.  The song opens with what appears to be a twelve-year-old boy standing on a Little League baseball diamond singing this song.


The video flashes to . . . .

 a doorman 

a police officer 

road construction workers 

an elderly woman 

a valet 

a waiter 

a stockbroker 

a group of twenty-something women 

and on and on.


And then periodically the video flashes to people who seemingly already have it all. 

Wayne Gretzky

Grant Hill.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

all of them singing along  — 


“Hey hey hey — I want to be a rock star.”


As I mentioned it was this song that launched widespread mocking even loathing of Nickelback  The criticism was supposedly that this song made no sense but was the problem really that the song made no sense or that it had a little too close to home?


How many people do you know in this town who have concluded that

the meaning of life 

the point of life 

the good life 

the life well lived 

is a life lived pursuit in pursuit of rock star status.


Not literal rock stars of course but rock stars in whatever their chosen profession — whether 


or law 

or journalism 

or academia 


They decided to trade this life for fortune and fame, hoping for hilltop houses and fifteen cars with the unlimited sexual opportunities that come with power  with drugs or power or parties. 


Their philosophy of life can be summed up — I want to be a rock star (4:13).  


And no matter how much they seem to have attained — 
no matter that they seem to even have reached — Wayne Gretzky or Dale Jr level status, they still want more — Never satisfied.


Our scripture passage this evening comes toward the end of a book written by a man who lived the rock star philosophy (4:39) —  spending his life pursuing fortune and fame — the book of Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon the third king of ancient Israel and you would think that being a king alone would be satisfying.


But as Springsteen told us (4:54)– the king’s not satisfied till he rules everything. 


And so we see in Ecclesiastes that King Solomon spent much of his life in a continual pursuit of satisfaction and meaning — a continual pursuit of something more. 


In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes,  Solomon tells us that his quest begins with knowledge and wisdom if he just knew more if he just understood more if he’s wiser than any everyone else if he was literally perhaps the smartest guy in the room.


And surely that would bring satisfaction but in fact Solomon’s conclusion was that knowledge increases sorrow that as it turns out the more you know doesn’t mean the happier you are the more you know means you realize more and more about the unfairness of life the seemingly randomness of life it time and thus the more sorrow that brings.


And so in Chapter two Solomon tells us that he tried self-indulgence he built great houses and vineyards gardens and parks and pools.   He bought slaves he acquired massive herds of animals.  He accumulated silver and gold in abundance he gathered singers for entertainment and concubines for sex. This guy went all in on self-indulgence in a way that you and I could only imagine — and his conclusion was that its emptiness


And so Solomon next turns to work.  Maybe if he threw everything he could into accomplishment.  Maybe somehow those achievements would bring satisfaction and at the end His conclusion was that that too was empty.


Well what about wealth and power?


Solomon tells us in Chapter five he tried that as well and in the end it left him and he and so what’s the answer what is the meaning of life what brings satisfaction.

— Matthew Martens, CHBC – Ecclesiastes 12



Then again at . . . .

(@11:30) and so when we hear Solomon’s conclusion that the key to a joyous and satisfying life is to live it in full submission to God’s rules.  Our response can be incredulity.  Solomon — Surely you jest — and then like Eve we set off in pursuit of an alternative answer and alternative joy and alternative satisfaction and alternative meaning to this life we trade this life for fortune and fame — 


because the poor man wants to be rich 

and the rich man wants to be poor 

and a king’s not satisfied till he rules everything


But Solomon’s warning here is that he tried that life he tried it all.  And the verdict? — Is that it does not satisfy.


Then again at . . . .

(@12:29) Because the problem with this life is that you only get to live it once.


No one is born knowing what the good life is.  No one is born with an insight into the meaning of life.We spend our lives in search of it but the problem with this life is that you only get to live it one and if we get to the end and realize that we still haven’t found what we’re looking for — there is no do-over.


Solomon who Scripture calls the wisest man who ever lived tried it all 


wealth –  wisdom – sex – possessions – achievements – position 


and then he offers this insight the good life — he says is not found in being a rock star but in submission.


Then again at . . . .

(@17:21) And his sacrifice for my sins in my place He makes that offer not in exchange for anything but as a gift. By grace to all who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus.


The problem with this life is that you only get to live it once.

Will you spend it

Have you spent it

trying to be a rock star?


Have you lived it pursuing . . .

the next achievement
the next pleasure
the next accolade
the next dollar
the next sexual encounter
the next success


That life Solomon says — is empty.

He tried it and he warns —

That life is a road to nowhere.

He warns that life will wear you down.

It will tire you out.

And in the end — it will not satisfy.


Alistair Begg is also well-known for using song lyrics from the 50’s – 60’s and 70’s — and his use of these songs and lyrics often invokes a chuckle because Begg seems to “un-50’s -music” and the lyrics sound so not-him, along with his English accent.  At times, after he mentions a particular secular song, he will say  — “the six of you who remember it,” which always seems to evoke a chuckle from the audience.



√  Frame your use of the secular in a way that helps your audience understand the point or purpose of citing it.


“If you want to see how this world thinks, how this world views life and living, how different this world is in contrast to our vantage, this (this song – these lyrics – this book – this movie) will clearly illustrate it!”


“Ernest Hemmingway shouts the secular view of life in his book – Old Man & The Sea.  He is saying in the loudest voice — That’s life! — All your life you work every day, hoping to catch that big fish.  One day, it finally happens, but — yes but – it is so big that you lash it to the side of the boat and return to shore — only to have the sharks attack it and leave you with a skeleton of what you thought you had.”


You see that is his view of life — and no wonder that he committed suicide – as did his father, as did his son, as did his uncle!


The use of a secular song, book, or storyline needs to be framed in such a way that the audience understands that such citations are for illustrating or proving that this . . . .

  • is where our world
  • is the culture of our day
  • is a clear reflection of today’s thinking
  • illustrates the secular vantage of life and living
  • is what is driving the thinking of our society


√  If you can, use a particular portion or part of the secular example as a metaphor of the whole secular thinking pattern.  Matt sprinkles references back to the introductory illustration using just short and simple phrases, all which were part of the full lyrics.

Note the bold print in the transcript above.   Matt only needed to say – “rock star” or “king rules everything” and it called up the secular thinking originally mentioned in the introduction.


√ Make sure the secular example fits the driving point.  Begg is very good at this as he cites various secular song lyrics which capture the point he is making.

√  Make sure that the listeners understand that your approach in using this-or-that is analytical and illustrative.


“If you want to see — if you want to grasp or understand how the world around us is thinking – these lyrics / this book / this story reflects this world’s thinking . . .

  • about life & living, or
  • about marriage, or
  • about money, or
  • about success
  • about death
  • about Christians – when they meet or talk to you
  • about life and living
  • church / pastors / spiritual things / religion


√  Sometimes the background of the author, writer, singer, or artist can drive or punch home the point a quote / that statement / the lyrics / etc.  For instance, the background of Ernest Hemmingway is rather remarkable and worthy of some time for inclusion before referencing his book, “Old Man & The Sea.”



√  At times, an exorbitant amount of time can be given to the storyline of a book, the background of the song, the progression of the movie, etc  —  to the point that the listener tends to see the speaker as rather caught up in “it” all — “Like, wow, he is giving us the whole life and times of the artist / of the plot / of the various parts of the series / of the movie’s story.  He is into this!”  Your audience is not there to listen to “an exegesis of the movie / song / book / poem” !

√  Limit the span of the secular illustration.  Sometimes, the illustration begins taking over the whole message, whether it is a secular song, news report, personal example, or great story.  More time can be given to the secular than the Scriptures.  Keep the focus on the driving or central idea on what the biblical passage is arguing.

√  Don’t include more than you need to include in order to make the point.  There is always more to a story, your personal experience, the background of the artist/author, etc.  It might be interesting, but unnecessary (been there – done it!).

√  Endorsing By Use or Reference: By using this-or-that as an illustration, you may be promoting something you don’t fully realize you are promoting.  In citing Harry Potter / the Hunger Games / a Star Wars Movie /  a particular artist . . . . you may be giving some credence to your citation.  Typically you will hear it said — I am not endorsing / I am not promoting / I do not recommend him-her as a paragon of virtue, etc.

√  Be careful about your “Frequency” of doing such.  You may non-verbally be communicating that you listen to / watch / read a lot of this-or-that particular secular material.  Such may be okay, but in some cases, you may not want to give an impression which is not actual or wanted.




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