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