Friday, November 29, 2013

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

The current controversy engulfing Mark Driscoll as reignited the issue of pastoral plagiarism. But it's hard to have a fair and rational discussion of the issue because many critics' personal animosity towards Driscoll skews the standard of comparison. Because he's already typecast as the villain, any allegation is plausible and any punishment is suitable. 

My concern is how this distorts the standards we should bring to bear on the question of pastoral plagiarism in general. We need to have consistent, reasonable standards. 

Let's consider some of the propoals. Andreas Köstenberger offers one:

A limitation with Köstenberger's proposal is that it pertains to an academic setting. But is that the right standard for the pulpit? 

Moreover, his statement takes for granted that plagiarism, as he defines it, is wrong. But that begs the question of what constitutes plagiarism and what makes it wrong. 

D. A. Carson has strong views on the subject. Among other things, he says:

Second: Taking over the structure, perhaps the outline in exact wording, and other significant chunks, while filling in the rest of the substance yourself, is not quite so grievous but still reprehensible. The temptation springs from the fact that writing a really good outline is often the most creative and challenging part of sermon preparation. Fair enough: if you "borrow" someone else's outline, simply acknowledge it, and you have not sinned.Third: In the course of diligent preparation, you are likely to come across clever snippets and ways of summarizing or formulating the truth of a passage that are creative and memorable. If you cite them, you should acknowledge that they are not yours, either with an "As so-and-so has said" or an "As someone has said." This discipline keeps you honest and humble.

What he treats as self-evidently sinful, reprehensible, or dishonest in this context doesn't resonate with me. Except for personal anecdotes, I don't expect a pastor to say anything truly original in his sermon. I don't come to church with the presumption that the pastor is going to break new ground in his sermon. 

Let's take a comparison. I've read that George Whitefield was steeped in Matthew Henry's commentary on the Bible. This fed into Whitefield's evangelistic sermons. I don't think Whitefield routinely credited Henry, but that doesn't bother me. Whitefield was so selfless and guileless. He lived to advanced the gospel. I imagine Henry would be pleased to know Whitefield was using his material to win souls. 

i) Both Carson and Köstenberger are academics, so they define plagiarism in fairly academic terms. They publish commentaries, as well as articles in learned journals. In that context, certain well-established conventions apply. But is that feasible for a sermon? And do we have the same expectations for a sermon? 

In addition, Carson is very gifted. He can operate at a higher level than the average pastor. 

ii) Another problem with academic standards of plagiarism is that academics aren't necessarily as high-minded as their official standards suggest. For instance, I have a book by Nicholas Perrin (Lost in Translation) countering Bart Ehrmen. On the dustcover jacket, Perrin is identified as a "former research assistant to N. T. Wright."

Of course, that naturally raises the question, what does a research assistant do? Or perhaps I should rephrase the question: how much does a research assistant do? Does he dig up articles for his boss to read in preparation for a forthcoming book? Articles which the boss will read on his own? Does he draft a MS for the boss? Is he an uncredited coauthor or even ghostwriter? This raises the specter of barring plagiarism at the front door while letting it ride through the backdoor.  

Let's take a third example:

The central problem with plagiarism is twofold: (1) it is stealing; and (2) it bears false witness.

That can certainly be an ethical problem, but I don't see that as the "central" problem in pastoral plagiarism. Let's take a comparison. I believe there are the equivalent of essay mills for pastors. A pastor can pay somebody online else to write his sermon for him. Suppose a pastor utilizes that service. Is the "central" problem with doing so that it's stealing and bears false witness? I don't think so. It's not theft. He's paying for it.

Suppose it was an open secret that someone else writes his sermons for him. In that case, it wouldn't be deceptive. 

Yet it would still be wrong for a pastor to resort to an essay mill to write his sermons. Why?

i) A primary duty of a pastor is to teach what the Bible teaches. To do that, he must make a good faith effort to ascertain what the Bible means. He can and should read commentaries and other exegetical literature. But he should evaluate what he reads. If commentaries offer conflicting interpretations, he should sift through the arguments and pick the best interpretation. A pastor should be studious. A lifelong student of Scripture. 

If, however, a pastor simply recites someone else's sermon, then he's making no effort to independently confirm the correct interpretation of the sermon text. It's a coin flip.

ii) In addition, a sermon isn't just a detached intellectual exercise. A pastor ought to be applying the sermon to himself before he applies the sermon to his congregation. The application should arise from his own experience, as he strives to internalize the teaching of Scripture. He needs to be challenged and edified by the Word. He needs a prayer life. That doesn't happen if he makes a habit of reciting someone else's sermon.

iii) In my opinion, the senior pastor of a megachurch has less excuse to "plagiarize" than an overworked pastor who single-handedly shepherds a church of 200 members. Because a megachurch pastor can delegate so many tedious jobs to support staff, that should free up more time to focus on sermon preparation.

Megachurch pastors can easily fall into a vicious cycle. They may originally make their reputation on their homiletical abilities. But once they become famous, they receive a flood of invitations to do speaking engagements. As a result, they have ever less time for sermon preparation. Their preaching made them famous, but their fame erodes their preaching.

1 comment:

  1. Seems to me that "pastoral plagiarism" is a special problem for "free church" pastors who are looked upon more as teachers than proclaimers. In a liturgical church there is an expectation of plagiarism- the source is implied.