I Probably Got It From Tim Keller (Or, A Ramble on Plagiarism)

I'm going to re-preach whatever he's saying right now.

I’m going to re-preach whatever he’s saying right now.

My old pastor Mike Erre used to say, “I’ve never had an original idea in my life. I thought I had one once, but then, unsurprisingly I found it in C.S. Lewis.” He was always declaiming the originality of anything he was saying all the while preaching some of the most helpful, creative, biblical sermons I’d ever heard. At first I thought he was just being modest. But as I grew older, read a bit more, and finally had the responsibility of teaching myself, I began to see what he was saying. When it comes to preaching and teaching the Bible or theology, almost everything has been said once before by somebody. I mean, just the other day I was re-reading an old grad-school paper and realized I’d been arguing for something like Calvin’s double-gift theology before I’d ever read a lick of Calvin.

I bring this up simply because I’ve been thinking a bit about the issue of plagiarism lately. Most of us in the internet blogosphere have. In light of the big plagiarism scandal with several of Mark Driscoll’s works either not attributing clearly-demonstrated dependency on the work of others, or just straight lifting passages, the thing was ugly. What’s more, recent reports seem to indicate that the plagiarization of sermons is on the rise. Pastors are just finding sermons online and rereading them, or simply parroting their favorite podcasts, effectively doing the same thing.

Now, in the ramble that follows, I’d simply like to ask some questions and raise some points for consideration when it comes to the issue of “plagiarism” in blogging, writing, and preaching.

First of all, on the alleged rise in plagiarism, in general, I’m not so sure. I mean, the internet has made it easier to access tons of material and do that sort of thing, but when people talk about the recent rise in it, I’m wondering if certain things aren’t being forgotten.

For one thing, we’re more aware of that issue and people are probably paying greater attention now to it. It’s also probably easier to track now than in was before as well. Still, there were plenty of audio tape ministries that probably fed a lot of smaller church pastors with sermons back in the 80s too. Also, we should consider that because of the internet, Evangelical book/celebrity culture, and so forth, more people are hearing, listening, reading, digesting, and regurgitating the same voices. If that’s the case, it’s not unusual that you’re going to hear the same themes repeated in various sermons in various contexts.

Which raises the issue more formally: what counts as plagiarism in various contexts? Let’s be clear that direct quotes from other people that I lift, copy, and then claim credit for seems to be straight-forward plagiarism. Still, there seem to be some gray areas of confusion.

Take the matter of citing your sources in preaching. Now, I’ll admit, I tend to like quoting people in sermons because I want my kids to get a desire to read books, it gives some weight, and it’s force of habit from grad school. Still, do I have to mention Tim Keller every time I talk about a “Christ-centered” reading of the texts even though l learned it from him and Edmund Clowney? Or what if I mention the anti-imperial thrust of a certain Pauline text without citing the N.T. Wright commentary I got it from? That doesn’t sound quite right.

Maybe that’s just a function of the preaching context. When you’re preaching, you may not want to go citing a bunch of names and sources because it seems too cluttered. A sermon is not a lecture is not a seminary paper. It may also be show-offy to the point of distraction. Your point, in any case, is to preach the text, not Wright’s insight into the text. Or again, in the heat of a sermon, you might make a point about a text and forget who said it so you just preach it. What if you have in the general course of study preparation,  write it down, and completely forget that you originally heard that in a sermon by a popular preacher last year? Is that plagiarism, stumbling on the same insight, or a simple memory failure?

Of course, a single sermon point might be one thing, but what about a whole sermon structure? For instance, I’ve found myself in situations where I hear a preacher exposit a text in a manner that I find compelling and I think, “That right there is something I’m going to preach to my students.” It almost seems wrong to preach it any other way because the outline works so well. In the few times I have found that I’m following someone else’ basic outline, I think at that point it’s appropriate to say something along the lines of “Joe So-and-So gave me the premise of the sermon I’m preaching this to you today”, or something even more clear. Now, to be honest, I don’t think this should happen very much because it could become a habit you don’t want to fall into. Generally speaking, even when you’re using others’ insights into the texts, you need to be prayerfully working on applying them to your own context anyways. Joe doesn’t know your people and wasn’t called to your church, you were.

More briefly, how do those considerations play out in writing? It seems that a number of those points above would call for some sort of explicit reference. But what about general, widespread concepts, or biblical truths? I’m thinking, for instance, of C.S. Lewis’ analogies in Mere Christianity and his explication of the difference between begetting and making in his section on the Trinity. Lewis got most of that from Athanasius and the other Fathers, but he doesn’t do much crediting at all. Is it plagiarism to use the same analogy without referencing them, or just prudence in not wanting to get bogged down even in the writing format? At that point I’m not so sure. Maybe there’s a point when an explanation, or articulation of a text has become the common inheritance of the Christian tradition such that specifying its origin becomes pointless, especially when that’s not necessarily where you first heard the point.

At this point it seems prudent to end my ramblings. I suppose it makes sense at this point to issue my own version of my pastor’s disclaimer: if you find me saying anything of intelligence, worth, truth, or edification that I don’t cite outright, just assume I got it from Tim Keller. Beyond that, for other pastors, the best concrete advice I have is do your best to be honest. If you’re worried about a certain instance, err on the side of caution and cite it.

If you have any insights to offer on the subject, please chime in below. This was as much a comment as an invitation to further discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria 

6 thoughts on “I Probably Got It From Tim Keller (Or, A Ramble on Plagiarism)

  1. This idea of credit where credit is due becomes more and more complicated as the information Age drones on. I think the idea of originality is a long dead horse, but plagiarism and citation is getting muddier and muddier as ideas become more commonplace. Your bit about Lewis’ analogies, I think, point to an answer.

    I see comparable questions coming up in media like games and music. Take rock: some stuff is so specific that if anyone else tried to use it in their music it would be a blatant ripoff, but no one questions a three chord rock song. No one points a finger at a d-beat and cries fowl. Reason being, these things are so common and prevalent that no one remembers who was the first to do it and no one really cares.

    I play a lot of tabletop games and one type of game that’s picking up steam is the cooperative one. The ‘king’ of such gamemakers is a guy called Matt Leacock and his games feature a mechanic where an adverse action (disease spreading, islands sinking) grows exponentially and automatically based on certain factors. It’s a simple and effective way to get the game to ‘play against’ the players, but other game designers who use it get criticized for stealing an idea that will surely, in a few years time, be accepted as a common game mechanic.

    It’s not apples and apples alongside plagiarism, but the point I’m trying to make is that some ideas will be/are something like ‘public domain’. A word for word copy of someone else’s sermon without giving credit is, of course, wrong, but putting in big ideas that may have been pioneered by someone in the long ago and just having to give credit becomes (1) impractical and (2) sometimes difficult.

  2. One of the first things I learned going from a long period of academic study to working in the government sphere was to let go of the idea and importance of plagiarism. If one community has a policy that you would like to implement in your community, or a form for collecting relevant information, as a staff member you are doing it wrong to not be “borrowing” the work that has been done by another (making any necessary changes of course). Giving credit is often unnecessary, because no one expects it or cares for it, the goal is finding something that works even if it’s been done before.

    That said, political speeches should not be borrowed, same for copyrighted works. Statistics should be cited, and anything of a creative nature should be referenced. If someone is making a profit off something, it also shouldn’t be used without permission.

    Preaching is a difficult area. I think it’s primary purpose is pastoral, to edify and build up the local congregation that a particular preacher is responsible for. In that sense, too much citation and reference to sources can take away from the end result. Quotes should be cited, and if a certain book or preacher was influential it doesn’t hurt to mention it, but as a pastor your role is to take what you have learned from other people and make it speak to those in your care. It’s more about the person hearing the ideas than the person who came up with them.

  3. I believe in freely lifting whole ideas and such because of the things you wrote, and (another idea I didn’t invent) because we are supposed to be faithful stewards handing on what we’ve been taught, and NOT inventing things.
    About attribution, we have a problem. When a preacher, my preachers that I have sat under, give teachings as if they were their own and not lifted, they will both ask the hearers to change their lives based on the word. If they lifted the message, they won’t be committed to that new long term direction they just introduced, and the Word of God, and their leadership is degraded, besmirched, trivialized. We should we confident that Pastor is not going leave us dangling in the wind because we follow him.

  4. Great post Derek. The more I read others the hard it becomes for me to remember where I first heard certain ideas. As I grow my theological framework it’s almost as if those who influence me become part of my thinking. To that end, certain beliefs I had 3 years ago have took shape and shifted as I matured. I think this is all part of the learning process. Things seem to become plagiarism when we intentionally claim ideas–more like wording and grammar–from someone else as our own. I also think there is a sort of malicious intent involved; building ourselves up at the expense of others type of thing.

    How this applies to sermons is interesting. I worked at a church recently that purchased all of their sermons from a bigger church. We didn’t hide it but still got up there and preached this big name pastor’s sermons every week. However, sense we bought the material “technically” we didn’t need to give him credit for his work. (There could be ethical issues here I suppose. Definitely issues you raised too, about discerning the needs the body of believers you lead.) I know a lot of churches also buy material from this same ministry. Is it good? I’m not sure but it seems to be the way of the future.

    To your point about citing during sermons, I don’t think it is necessary. Sure it’s good to cite sources for credibility from time to time, but I think it is more important to take research as a whole and mold it together as one, large explanation of the text. In my Bib Interp class in undergrad we had to cite in our research–which I think is still giving credit where it is due because you can always pull out your research notes and point to where you got your information.

    Mark Driscoll, I believe, shows some of the issues of being a “celebrity” pastor. His rush to publish work caused him to be sloppy and cut corners. His whole scandal left me with little trust in his writing. Anyway, that a whole different discussion.

    Thanks for writing.

  5. There is a big difference between incidental copying – a phrase or an analogy or illustration – and the wholesale copying, word-for-word, of texts or sermons from the work of others. I was part of a church where this became a huge issue. The pastor had been caught “borrowing” parts of another preacher’s series on science and God, creation/evolution, that kind of thing. At first the pastor tried to minimize it by saying it was incidental and minor – as in my first sentence above. It was soon discovered that he had lifted large passages, verbatim, from a similar series preached by another pastor. Eventually he resigned, but well after this episode came to light.

    There are two reasons why attribution is important. The first reason is that it can encourage the listener to research more of the work of the source attributed. If a minister tells me a concept or a principle that was presented in a book by another preacher, teacher, theologian, etc., that sometimes motivates me to look up and see what else that person said. The second reason is that credit for a good idea, an insight, a concept, an important contribution, is a form of compensation for work done. “The worker is worthy of his wage” is a Biblical concept. Suppose my wife slaves away in the kitchen making a great cake and we go to a party that night. The cake is delicious and someone approaches me (ha!) and says, “Bill, that was a wonderful cake you made” and I smile but say nothing, not acknowledging that I did not make it, that is not fair to my wife. She should receive the recognition and gratitude for making something wonderful.

    I have done a fair amount of teaching – as a layperson. I cannot be absolutely certain that I have never used a concept or idea from someone else without attributing it. However, I have made it a point when quoting something or someone to say, “Dr. such and such says…”

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