Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Pressure to Plagiarize, Part One

There is much talk about Mark Driscoll being involved in alleged plagiarism this week. Mark Driscoll involved in controversy? It must be Tuesday.

I've known Mark for several years now––as much as anyone can know Mark Driscoll that is not a male, hip, five-point, mega-church, Calvinist (actually I am male). I've always liked Mark and a couple times his preaching truly altered my own life in positive ways, so in spite of our obvious differences in how we see liturgy, ladies, leadership, and limited atonement, I hold a warm spot in my heart for him. I don't have to agree with everyone I like––I'm not sure the same can be said for Mark, but that's for him to decide.

I will not weigh in on Mark's guilt or innocence regarding plagiarism on this blog. I simply want to address the idea of using other people's ideas for one's own benefit and a Christian climate that encourages it. Whether Mark plagiarized or not, all I want to address is the pressure pastors face today to do so. Therefore as I address this pressure do not read that I am singling out Mark. I'm just using the current news as a launch pad to unpack some ideas about "advancing original thought." In later posts I want to look at the culture we have that sees plagiarism as the most grievous sin when it is not always as bad as that. I will have a few posts to cover the subject from more than one angle, so as you read one post, realize that there is more to the story in the next.

Plagiarism is stealing material from another that is not rightfully yours. It is also stealing confidence from the public that is not rightfully yours. Building fame based upon other people's ideas taken as your own is fraudulent, false and unfortunately far reaching. Fraud is a particularly ugly sin and one the world is eager to expose in the church. The world can smell it in us. They know its there and are waiting to pounce when it is exposed. The church in today's world cannot afford to be built upon false confidence and fraudulent ideas...but often it is.

We have a church celebrity culture that actually encourages plagiarism and often refuses to admit it. Entire books are written by ghostwriters who are never mentioned. While this is seemingly acceptable in our current Christian climate, one must ask if it should be. If your name is on the front cover (and often your smiling face), and you didn't write the book but someone else did, you have questionable integrity. Honesty is not possible when you take credit for a book someone else wrote. No matter how good the content, such a book should be held suspect. This has gone on for decades now and as long as the contract is clear and the check is written all is fine...or is it? I've heard of personal stories from a ghostwriter's childhood that have been used by an author who then changed names to fit his own background and published the story as if he had the experience. This is not merely plagiarism, it is straight up lying; even if the ghostwriter is paid what the contract stipulated. Can we buy a life story for publication? Is that what we have come to? Why are some pressured to this point?

To build one's success as a Christian celebrity on lies is folly and will not be fruitful in the end. In fact fame itself is fickle and can be gone in a moment. It demands all your attention immediately just to keep your Klout score up and your blog traffic coming. The race to collect twitter followers and Facebook friends is cruel and never satisfied. When your book sells well and is featured in Barnes and Noble there is always another book that sold better and is featured at Walmart or Costco...upping the ante. When you are invited to speak at a big conference, you feel good until you realize someone else is speaking in the prime slot and you're just the warm-up act. No matter how far up you climb the ladder of fame there is always somebody's backside you are looking up at. Fame is a race that doesn't have a finish line, it just has lots of people running and falling back––and eventually out––while younger energetic people jump onto the track...until they too fall behind. No one wins this race. That is a lot of pressure to put on someone who is already busy running a church, and many are trying to do just that.

Once you are a published author or a famous Christian speaker there is much pressure to continue producing material to keep the success and fame going for as long as you can. Some pastors of large churches who start work before the sun rises and stay busy until late into the night maintaining the success of the church. Every week another awesome sermon must be preached several times, another elder meeting must be led, another building project must be managed, another staff member recruited and another let go.  It is actually a well hidden secret that many mega church pastors have had to take a lengthy sabbatical for health reasons because they have been running on adrenaline for far too long. It is an unrealistic and unreasonable environment to endure. These celebrity pastors hardly have time to write a new book every year, but that is what is demanded by their success. On top of all that after the book is written the celebrity pastor must travel to conferences, do interviews and book signing gigs, to push the book increasing the pressure and the demand on his/her time and health.

In order to write the next book a staff is often hired to do the research and help write the sermons that eventually a ghostwriter turns into a book. This can be a time-wise usage of a famous pastor's resources, so I get it. I don't think I could do it, the artist in me would not be able to live with it, but I understand. This process can produce a bestseller, but it rarely produces a good book; and the two are not always the same. A pastor who is particularly postured to be an intelligent "thinker" has the added pressure of having to articulate something profound and not just practical. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts to creativity and innovation. There is no other path to originality beyond hard work, practice, failure and rewrites...but a busy pastor needing another book to follow up the last bestseller cannot afford that. Given today's celebrity climate the real shock today shouldn't be that a famous speaker/author used someone's idea. The real shock is when they come up with an original one.


Jim Mather said...

An important post. God doesn't need Super hero Pastors and the local church doesn't either. It's fake and hurtful to everyone impacted by the reality that none of it rings true.

Anonymous said...

We know someone who used to write for Chuck Swindoll. Sorry but at least some of his books might have his glosses and edits but were someone else's work.

Brian said...

Thanks for getting at the truth behind the matter Neil, good stuff.

Unknown said...

An adrenalized Christianity coupled to a success driven cultural imperative to "prove" yourself is definitely a toxic formula. Good stuff Neil!

Anonymous said...

Just another piece of evidence of a broken (toxic) culture we call 'christianity'.

D. L. Webster said...

I don't specifically have a problem with a writer doing the work of actually writing out another person's ideas, especially if they're credited. I'm guessing there may not be a clear line, but it sounds like you are saying that it goes beyond this in some cases to where the writer is writing their own material and the "celebrity" is just putting their name on it as if it were their own. I do have a problem with the latter.

Anonymous said...

Doing your own work is a simple concept, one that even small children understand clearly-- how is it that the waters become so muddied when adults get involved, particularly well-known leaders with a following? Stealing is stealing, the peripheral arguments just distract from the main event. Taking credit for another person's work--Don't do it.

Henry Gomez said...

Every great evangelist is a plagiarist. It all belongs to the Holy Spirit. Honestly I am tired of all the permissions needed for passing on insightful material. Too many folks are to protective of their own glory. All the good stuff is from God.

Who was it that said, "Freely you have received, freely give."?

Neil Cole said...

Yeah Henry4474, you may like the other posts that followed this one.

Marty Schoenleber said...

Neil, thanks for this post. I saw it when it first hit the rounds and thought it was great then but now I have seen two friends lose their ministries over this issue, they plagiarized other men's thoughts, passed them off as their own and got caught and a third who did the same thing but is responding better to counsel. I fear that this issue is not going to go away quickly although I don't think it is new or confined to just the mega-church pastor or celebrity pastor.

It isn't the internet, and "Sermon Central" and other similar sites that are creating the problem. Those sites and opportunities are simply revealing patterns of questionable integrity that have been long hidden. In fact, it may be that the ease with which things can be searched out and discovered online, the stolen intellectual property of others, that some men might be rescued from a life and ministry built on falsehood simply because they are discovered earlier before their hearts become completely hardened. Anyway, thanks. I going to use this to counsel others as well as keep my own soul sober.