Preaching And The Stupid Male Butterfly

I have been learning the craft of preaching and teaching for many years now but only really writing for a few. (And by the way, I am very grateful that you have decided to take a moment to read these words.)

So, I am interested in good books about the craft of writing. I crave good books about how good writers become good for good.

Someone recommended a 1989 book by Annie Dillard to me – The Writing Life (citation below). And I recommend it to you. It’s a little tome about a hopeful yet realistic and practical approach to writing.

In the book, Dillard compares the written word to films and television and refers to an experiment involving butterflies:


An intriguing entomological experiment shows that a male butterfly will ignore a living female butterfly of his own species in favor of a painted cardboard one, if the cardboard one is big. If the cardboard one is bigger than he is, bigger than any female butterfly could ever be…(She describes the male butterfly’s foolish pursuit of the 2-dimensional imposter and closes the story with…) Nearby, the real, living female butterfly opens and closes her wings in vain.

Here’s an example of why a preacher or teacher must be a reader. We need unending sources of narrative, story, and other tools for illustrating Biblical points in our messages. They add depth and color; Jesus was a master at writing his illustrations, The Master.

When you read an account such as Dillard’s above, a story you know has meaning and impact even if you have no idea how you might use it, save it. Good stories should and will jump out at you. If you are hyper-organized, you probably already have a detailed filing system for preaching support. But even if you are as organized as a van full of five year-olds at a fast food drive through, just keep it.

While it’s inadvisable to build a sermon around an illustration, you will, no doubt, at some point, teach on a text or topic for which “The Stupid Male Butterfly” may have a genuine impact on people, helping you reach your communication goals.

I can see it as an illustration for a sermon on pornography, materialism, our entertainment culture, or marriage. It might be a tool for teaching on exposition work you have done with 1 Samuel 16:7, Romans 12:2, or John 15:19.

An effective preacher doesn’t twist a message to fit an illustration, but builds a file of narratives, stories, characterizations, metaphors, etc., that can be then used in support of Spirit-led and accurate Biblical exposition.



Dillard, A. (1989). The Writing LifeHarper & Row. New York.

You’ll find the butterfly account on pages 17-18.

Another excerpt from Dillard’s work:

You climb a long ladder until you can see over the roof, over the clouds. You are writing a book. You watch your feet step on each round rung, one at a time; you do not hurry and do not rest. Your feet feel the steep ladder’s balance; the long muscles in your thighs check its sway. You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark. When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb. The sun hits you. The bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end. You look back at the ladder’s two feet on the distant grass, astonished. (Dillard, pp. 19-20)


  1. I have someone like that in my life. His name is Kerry. Kerry he is.

  2. My favorite books to “read” are the living epistles of people’s lives. I “read” about three chapters today from the life of my mentor, James, as we talked and prayed together on the phone. Talk about illustrations!