Saturday, November 30, 2013

Inside the celebritydrome

One thing I've noticed in the Driscoll "plagiarism" scandal (I put plagiarism in scare quotes because we're dealing with a technical allegation) is the lack of ethical self-awareness on the part of some of his trigger-happy accusers. From the standpoint of Christian ethics, the same moral norms equally apply to the accuser and the accused. Assuming that the accused is guilty of misconduct, that doesn't exempt the accuser from being ethical in how he conducts his allegations. For instance, Carl Trueman has been one of Driscoll's most prominent critics in this current affair. And I've seen his criticisms touted by others. 

Before quoting him, I'd like to make a general observation. By his own admission, Trueman ties the Driscoll affair into a larger pattern. It's part of Trueman's ongoing campaign against The Gospel Coalition, and all that represents. And there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. If he thinks TGC is fundamentally flawed, he's entitled to make his case.

The problem is when the facts are secondary to the agenda. When you don't think you have to get the details right because your cause is virtuous. So we're treated to Trueman's throwaway disclaimers about how he's not vouching for the particulars, even though he's circulating those allegations to make a cumulative case against TCG or the "celebritydrome of the evangelical subculture."

But he really needs to slow down. If the accused is charged with failing to make proper attributions, then the accuser needs to make proper attributions. 

I commented at the weekend that Janet Mefferd's allegations of plagiarism against Mark Driscoll should be fairly easy to establish on the grounds that we have empirical evidence in the form of texts to compare.  She has posted a link to photographic plates here.  Regardless of whether one is instinctively inclined to like Ms. Mefferd or Mr. Driscoll, text is text and you can judge for yourselves who is in the right.  The second set, from comments on the Petrine epistles, is particularly noteworthy.
Elsewhere, Frank Turk has highlighted a few weird aspects of the whole affair.  Again, I make no comment on his statements as he provides evidence by which one can judge for oneself the plausibility of his interpretation.

Notice how Trueman covers his own tracks by invoking plausible deniability. He isn't personally vouching for the accusations. He's merely referring interested readers to what others have said. You can judge the evidence for yourself. But there are ethical problems with that tactic:

i) It's easy to foster a misimpression by selective presentation of the "evidence." So unless Trueman has independently investigated the evidence, he's in no position to say if that's representative. He's lending credibility to the charge by lending credibility to Mefferd. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But don't try to have it both ways. Either you think Mefferd is a reliable source or not. You give credence to the allegation by giving credence to the reporter. So be honest and upfront about what you're doing.

ii) It's also too much like a Fox News anchor reporting that CNN just reported that the FBI has arrested Richard Jewell as its suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. If it turns out Jewell was falsely accused, the Fox News anchor is supposedly off the hook because he didn't personally allege that Jewell was the suspect. He was merely reporting what another news outlet was reporting. This is something we see every so often, where the reputation of innocent ordinary citizens is ruined or tarnished by word-of-mouth. 

Over at First Thoughts, Collin Garbarino offers some very perceptive comments on the Driscoll plagiarism affair.  He makes the point that such activity receives a failing grade at his university.  I would only add that at Westminster it also involves automatic suspension from the degree program followed by discussion with the powers that be about whether Christian ministry is really an option for the perpetrator.

Several issues:

i) To begin with, universities can have double standards on plagiarism. Harvard has one standard for students, but another for faculty. Laurence Tribe was snagged in a blatant plagiarism scandal, but he didn't lose his job. He wasn't even demoted. 

ii) I'm sure most seminaries define plagiarism in the student handbook. They define plagiarism for students. But do they define plagiarism for pastors? A sermon is not a term paper. How many seminaries are giving students practical guidelines for what does and doesn't constitute plagiarism in the pulpit? 

iii) There's more than one way to cheat. A seminary prof. can cheat his students if he fails to do his job. On the face of it, Trueman doesn't take his day-job very seriously. He was hired to teach church history. Isn't that his real job? Isn't that a full-time job? But he also moonlights as a pastor. Jets around the world on speaking engagements. Does a radio show. Churns out a steady stream of op-ed pieces. And so on and so forth.  

Isn't he spreading himself pretty thin? Does he really have time to keep abreast of the secondary literature in his own field, much less conduct original research in church history? How many books and articles are published each year in church history? 

Trueman recently wrote a morally pretentious article on "Why is So Much Preaching So Poor?" I say "morally pretentious" because I have to ask how much time does Truemen devote to sermon preparation? Driscoll does 1-2 hours per week while Mark Dever does 35-40 hours per week. Where does Trueman fall along the spectrum? Or what about nurturing one's prayer-life. For instance, Trueman recently said:

My children have to be at school by 7:30, so I rise at about 6:15 to 6:30. I usually wait until I arrive at work, ca. 8 a.m., to have devotions. Westminster offices do not open till 8:30 so this gives me a half hour of peace and quiet. 

Maybe that's one reason why so much preaching is so poor. 

The Mefferd-Driscoll controversy points to another aspect of celebrity culture: celebrities are routinely allowed to behave in ways which would not be tolerated in ordinary mortals. 

Couldn't the same thing be said for celebrity church historians who shirk their professional duties? Is Trueman part of the solution, or part of the problem?

No comments:

Post a Comment