I don’t have much to say about the ruckus these last few weeks concerning the allegation of plagiarism by Mark Driscoll, an allegation that was made by Janet Mefferd, and then subsequently withdrawn by her. Not having much to say, I intend therefore to not say it. Initially I thought to say nothing whatever, but now I should actually say I do have something to offer about the ruckus, but not about the situation that caused the ruckus. I don’t know enough yet to say anything much about that.
Update: more on the whole deal can be found here.
1. I will say at the outset that I consider Mark Driscoll a friend, and I also have friends across the way from him who take a pretty dim view of all things Driscoll. Nothing I say here is intended to alter any of that, or adjust the general lay of the land. This has nothing to do with “tribes” or “sides,” so make sure you read clean through this entire post before drawing any conclusions about what you think I might be saying. My only relation to “sides” in this is that I have friends on both sides, and I intend to keep it that way. These are mostly observations that this situation made me think of — they are not necessarily allegations about the situation, although I will obviously be saying some things connected to it.
While I have friends in both directions, these thoughts are my own. I am not acting as anyone’s proxy, and I am not leaking inside information I got from anybody.
2. A point has been made that we have a culture that is dependent on evangelical celebrities, and that these shining figures at the top of our hierarchy need accountability. And so they do, but only because absolutely everybody up and down the entire hierarchy needs accountability. We are all sinners, and we all need it. Nobody should be above correction — but this must include those who deliver correction. And in my (quite extensive) experience with this kind of thing, those who make allegations usually operate with significantly more freedom than is enjoyed by evangelical “celebrities.” Prominent figures in the religious world are regularly toppled, usually due to their own sin and folly, but not always, and they are hardly permanent fixtures in our heavenly firmament. False accusers, on the other hand, are very rarely toppled. I think they all must have tenure, kind of like the English Department. So my first point is that everyone must be accountable for their words and actions — leaders and followers, rich and poor, celebrities and peons, high and low. Everybody.
3. From the foregoing, it might seem that I am leaning against what Carl Trueman wrote about all this, both at Reformation 21 and First Things. But I appreciated much of what he had to say. There was a lot of wisdom there, and I appreciated him saying it. So this point should be considered as a supplement to all that, and not an attempted counter to it.
There is absolutely nothing new about this problem. This problem is not uniquely “ours.” Bad men have always loved preeminence in the church (3 John 9), and people have always loved to bestow the wrong kind of preeminence on good men (1 Cor. 1:12). It is not possible to tell with a glance at a couple of overheated blogs which one it is, and we shouldn’t blame Apollos for his fanboys. Then there is another variation — when bad men attack the authority of Christ through His appointed representatives (2 Cor. 11:6-7).
Sometimes the critic of evangelical celebrity is a man of God, a wall of integrity, and he has had it up to here with the powder puff treatment of ecclesiastical bigwigs.
“Why does the CEO of Global Soup Kitchens, International drive a Lamborgini with solid gold hubcaps? Just asking . . .”
“Touch not the Lord’s anointed!”
But other times he is just mad because that should have been him up there. “Why don’t I get to be untouchable like that? And rich?”
Sometimes attacks on the establishment come from men who have dined on locusts and wild honey. Other times it comes from good men, but they do have to guard themselves carefully against any whiff of envy, the sin that smells like sulfur. And still other times the attacks come from people who are so envious that if you put them in direct sunlight you could see them quivering. It is not just men at the top who might not know what spirit they are of.
This means that our model for correction can be a kind of dogged and courageous journalism, but it must not be gotcha journalism.
“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
4. All that said, at an objective minimum, there is a gross citation problem in Driscoll’s book Trial, which needs to be acknowledged, owned and corrected. Looking at the two relevant sections, side by side, we know that there is a citation problem. What we don’t know is why or how it got there, about which more in a little bit. But regardless, however it got there, it needs to get out of there. The problem should be owned and corrected, in public, by the author and the publisher. The same goes for anything comparable.
The fact that Janet Mefford apologized and pulled everything down from her site doesn’t resolve the objective citation issues that remain unresolved (as distinct from the political issues). I am happy to take the assurances of those who say that they are working to resolve it, and to wait patiently while they do so, but I think those assurances do need to be made.
But what do you mean, we don’t know why or how it happened? Whose name is on the cover, man? That leads to my next point.
5. Facile comparisons between college term papers and published books need to quit being quite so facile. They may continue as legitimate comparisons, just not in facile-mode. When a college student finds some sparkling prose online, and plonks it down in the middle of his otherwise tepid paper, making the stolen portion flash like a strobe light at the instructor, everybody knows that this is simple intellectual theft, clumsily done. That kind of straight across plagiarism can happen with books also, and does, with depressing regularity.
But there may be other factors. The production of a book involves numerous people who handle the words prior to publication, unlike a term paper. How could something bad get in? Well, think about research assistants, copy editors, copy editors who think they should have been the author, copy editors who think they should have been the fuehrer, content editors, politically correct content editors, and so on. Just a few weeks ago I had the experience of opening a book I wrote only to have my eyes light upon something that I could never have possibly written, and which some helpful editor (or gnome in the printing press) had inserted for me. It was quite embarrassing, but I didn’t do it, although this leads to the next point. I am nevertheless responsible for it. My name is on the cover.
6. A distinction needs to be made between what you are responsible for and what you are guilty of. For example, I agree completely with Kevin De Young’s recent comments about ghostwriting (last paragraph in his sixth point). I believe that ghostwriting is dishonest, and I couldn’t do it. This is not because it is necessarily dishonest to craft words for others to use (as a candidate’s speech writer does). Being a speechwriter is not an honesty problem because everybody knows about the speechwriter, and he puts it on his resume, and almost no one knows about the ghostwriter, especially if he is not named or acknowledged anywhere. And with ghostwriting, there is no ethical problem if the “name author” has the name of his sidekick on the cover with him. “Mark Snozzlegrass (with Chauncey Smith).” When that happens the ghostwriter is not really that ghostly.
You also have the problems created by research assistants. This is not bad like ghostwriting is, but it can cause problems every bit as big.
Now suppose a writer gets hosed by his ghostwriter, or by his “researcher”? Suppose the ghostwriter plagiarizes? This is a good pragmatic argument against using ghostwriters, but the person whose name is on the cover is not guilty of the plagiarism — although he would be responsible for it. Or suppose a researcher supplies a quote that is entirely out of context, and which reverses the original writer’s meaning, and the author he feeds it to uses it in that way? Or suppose the researcher turns in as a summary something that is actually close to a verbatim quote?
This is a good argument for only using researchers who are extremely honest, competent, and reliable, and with a system of cross checks in place. But with all said and done, the person whose name is on the cover of the book is responsible to put things completely right if a problem surfaces. He may not be guilty, but he is always responsible — as basic covenant theology teaches us.
So the production of a book is a complex process, and there is no trouble with holding the author responsible, so long as we understand something about the nature of that process. It is quite easy for me to envision a situation where an author is responsible for plagiarism, misquotation, or a screwed up citation, but not be guilty of it. It is always proper to hold the author responsible, but if in the heat of controversy people are demanding that he acknowledge his personal guilt, as though it did it himself on purpose, his refusal to do so might not evidence a lack of integrity, but rather the opposite. Keep that in mind as one of the possibilities.
7. Full disclosure on the previous point. I have used a hired researcher on just one of my books (The Case for Classical Christian Education). Her job was to hunt down relevant quotations in particular areas. She was really good, and I said what she did for me in the Acknowledgments. X “did extraordinary work in her research assistance.”
And ethical considerations aside, ghostwriting is out of the question for me. My writing style is, um, too identifiable, and cannot be persuaded to take off that red, rubber nose it always wears around.
8. I don’t think this ought to be the case, but ghostwriting is acceptable in Christian publishing in a way that plagiarism isn’t. They both ought to be equally unacceptable because they are just two different ways of being dishonest, but as long as ghostwriting is with us — and we have authors who have written more books than they have read — we will continue to have a distressing increase of this kind of tangle.
(Please note that I am not saying that this situation was in any way caused by ghostwriting. I am merely saying that ghostwriting is part of our general trouble in this area.)
By the way, that jibe up above about authors who have written more books than they have read is not original with me. I got it from somewhere, and blessed if I know where that was. Should I cite it? Must I footnote it? Now that I have acknowledged it, I am merely quoting an unnamed someone. But if I had just used it, without this paragraph, what would that have been?
9. Be aware that when a controversy like this blows, there will be a public demand for various important people to line up at the microphone and say something about it, right now. When this starts happening, it means we have moved from the issue itself to a political move based on the issue. I saw at least one reference to John Piper’s “damning silence” on the affair. Is it a damning silence if he is Africa or somewhere? Is it a damning silence if he wants to find out what happened before he says something?
As I believe I have noted before, Proverbs 18:17 is in danger of becoming my life verse. Often men don’t say something immediately because they are wise and they know enough to know that they don’t have all the facts. So beware of connecting the dots, and assuming a grand conspiracy. Sometimes men are silent because they don’t have the right to say anything. Where there is smoke, there is sometimes a smoke machine. And other times there is a fire. Maybe we should check it out (Prov. 18:17), and sometimes that takes time.
10. In all such matters, we need honesty straight up, prudence all the way down, and charity straight across. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov. 10:19, ESV).
11. As many of you know, on this very important subject, this is not my first rodeo. And I also know that this post of mine now will cause my adversaries to say that (of course) these plagialebrities are going to stick together. To be sure, that might be what is happening, but it might also be that I have some experience in these things that might prove illustrative to the wise.
A number of years ago, we weathered a similar rumpus, and if you want to read about it further, you can get the Kindle version of Black & Tan for 99 cents, and get yourself up to speed. While I would be content if I never sold another copy of that book (provided there was no need to set the record straight), whenever there is a need for it, I am humblebrag gratified that readers fresh to these controversies of mine might discover that Eugene Genovese, one of America’s premier historians of the 19th century, blurbed that book for me, saying something like “this little book is the greatest thing ever,” or something like that. And a small thought, the size of a man’s fist, may begin to form in the back of their mind, and that thought is that perhaps Wilson is not a historical ninnyhammer. Maybe he is not a ravening racist orc. Anything is possible.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. The small saga concerning plagiarism is told at the back of the book. If you want the short form, back in the nineties Steve Wilkins and I co-authored a small booklet called Southern Slavery As It Was, which I edited. I won’t go into how it happened, but the end result was that some passages from a book that should have been cited weren’t cited (Time on the Cross), and it was entirely and completely accidental. It was an embarrassing editorial screw-up, not plagiarism.
12. Now I know and understand that in public controversies it is not necessary to follow the Matthew 18 process. When Paul confronted Peter at Antioch, he did it on the fly. Public error can be publicly rebuked in real time, and we do need to stop being pansies about this kind of thing. If you stick your head through the hole in the canvas at the state fair of public opinion, even if it is in the booth called Christian Radio, you can’t be surprised when this kind of thing happens. People are going to throw things at your head, and you have to be ready for surprises.
At the same time, I really appreciated how the gentleman who caught our citation howler dealt with it. He contacted me first, but I mistakenly thought he was simply arguing a historical point with us, and so I referred him to Steve, since it was about his section of the book. But when that gentleman got back to me, more insistent this time, and it dawned on me what the actual problem was, my reaction was immediate and in the aaaaa!!! category. We pulled all the stock out of inventory that same day and put the book out of print instanter. When it came to solving citation problems, and doing the right thing about it, there never was a publisher more eager to do the right thing immediately than we were. If everything had stayed calm that way, what likely would have happened is that we would have at some later point released a corrected edition, with the mistakes in the first edition named and acknowledged, and all due apologies made. In a delayed and more round about way, that subsequent publication did eventually arrive in the form Black & Tan, but because of all the subsequent yelling it took longer.
So we did not get that chance at that time. Some months later, another and quite separate controversy erupted, led by homosexual activists and other miscreants. We were attacked for our commitment to the absolute authority of Scripture, and these intoleristas were promptly joined by, you guessed it, evangelical Christians in their efforts to take us out, evangelicals who had their own political game going. As Church Curmudgeon recently put it, “It only takes a snark to get a fire going . . . ”
The accusations of plagiarism were swept up into the fray, and demands came in for us to admit to doing something we hadn’t done at all. It was apparent by this point that the whole fracas was entirely political, and we fought back accordingly. We were willing to take full responsibility for the editorial blunder, and did so. But we were not willing to agree with our adversaries’ agenda for our blunder.
13. T.S. Eliot is often misquoted this way — “bad poets imitate; good poets steal.” There is much more to it, but that is part of what I am arguing for here. There is always much more to a lot of this stuff. Eliot actually said this:
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
What he is saying about poets can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to other wordsmiths, teachers, writers, and pastors.
14. Pastors are in a related category. As I was talking to Ben Merkle about this situation, he pointed out how dependent John Calvin’s commentaries are on those of Martin Bucer. Calvin often had very little prep time for his lectures, and simply went over Bucer’s work, gathered highlights, and taught those points in his lucid manner to the people of Geneva. Notes were taken as he taught, and those notes were later published. Often his work is simply a summary digest of what Bucer wrote. Some might want to say that this was plagiarism — I am more inclined to say it was the work of a hard-working pastor who wanted to get the Word out.
When I go to preach, I am acutely aware of how dependent I am on my books, my software, and my conversations. Here is a quotation from the sermon outline I just posted Saturday.
“The name Joseph means God will increase, like the Puritan name Increase Mather. It is a name that denotes blessing and abundance. Joseph of the Old Testament sheds some light on Joseph, the husband of Mary. For example, both men shared a name, and both of their fathers shared the name of Jacob (Gen. 30:23-24; Matt. 1:16). Rachel named Joseph Increase because that is what she was looking for—and received in the birth of Benjamin. The one through whom all God’s promises would come to fruition and increase, Mary, was protected and cared for by a man named Increase. Both Josephs had prophetic dreams. Both Josephs were righteous men. Both were connected in some way to a sexual scandal involving false accusation. Both of them were a wonderful combination of integrity and compassion. Both went down into Egypt and were thereby means of saving their respective families. Both were used by God to provide for a starving world.”
I stumbled across the two Josephs connection when I was looking at Joseph in a genealogy and tried to identify which one it was by looking at the father, and then realized that their fathers had the same name too. I got the meaning of Joseph from my Logos Bible Software. And I meet weekly with our Greyfriar students the day after my sermon outline is done to go over it, and have them suggest ideas and interact with the text with me. We call it a Pesher group (which is Hebrew for interpretation), and they are a very good help to me. In that meeting, I said something like “I think there is a lot more to the two Josephs thing,” and they suggested the two visits to Egypt and the fact of sexual scandal.
My job as a pastor is to feed the sheep, and I have to get fed from multiple sources in order to do that — dictionaries, commentaries, software, and so on. My job is not to do “original research” in the same way a Ph.D. candidate needs to. It would tedious to cite everything, not to mention counterproductive to the nature of a sermon. This does not mean that dishonesty is impossible in the pulpit (obviously), but it should mean that we take into account the different tasks as we evaluate what is going on. I make a point to cite anything that is verbatim, or which is quite striking and original, but we must remember that every sermon worth anything is resting on a digest of numerous unnamed sources. That’s how it works.
15. Here are a few more random examples from my life. One of my first books was one called Persuasions. In that book I have a character compare monogamy to buying a musical instrument and learning to play it, which is not like buying a record album and being stuck with listening to just one album over and over again. Years later I had a friend tell me he was disappointed that I had used C.S. Lewis’s analogy when he thought I was fully capable of coming up with my own. But I had no idea I was borrowing from Lewis. I am sure I got it from Lewis, and had used it in many witnessing conversations, and then when I wrote a book of witnessing encounters, in it went.
Other times I use something consciously. I conclude my weekly homily at the Lord’s Table with a phrase I got from John Bunyan — “come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.” Should I feel bad about not saying, every week, “as Bunyan once said . . .”? But I don’t feel bad.
Another time I titled a book My Life For Yours, a phrase I got from Thomas Howard’s book Splendor in the Ordinary, a book that also had the same conceit that my book did, that of working through all the rooms of a house. I explained all this in the preface, giving full credit where it was due, but which did not prevent an accusation from coming in that I was being a sneaky dickens, and how dare I steal from Howard? I don’t remember if the word dastardly was used, but I believe the sentiment was there.
16. And so there we have it. I don’t believe I have made any claims about what actually happened in the Driscoll situation — for I don’t know. But I do believe I have put forward enough possibilities to perhaps aid us all in calming down a bit, and letting this play out in an atmosphere that does not automatically make us think of high scandal.