I think it can fairly be said that I am (and remain) a friend of World magazine. I have a link to the magazine off to the left, as you can see, and my wife and I are subscribers. I used to be on the masthead a number of years ago, and have written for the magazine before. Canon Press and New St. Andrews have both advertised regularly in World, knowing that our ministries and World share a significant constituency. The editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky was responsible for giving me the opportunity to write Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, which he edited. All this points to a good, working relationship, and I, for one, want to labor gratefully to keep it that way.
Unfortunately, in this situation such labor means having to be critical of World in public. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. This is something that I flat out did not want to do, and tried my best behind the scenes to keep from having to do. But now, as the philosopher said, the monkeys are out of the cage, and what shall we do?
I have described in this space the kind of harassment the Intoleristas have been conducting against Christ Church and related ministries for the last several years. Last summer, notice of part of that harassment made it into the pages of World in the form of a short news story on the fact that Christ Church had lost its tax-exempt status for Anselm House. This had happened because the officials responsible for the decision were responding to a complaint/pressure from the Intoleristas, and not because we were having trouble with “the government.” Our troubles with various government agencies are fueled by Intoleristas filing numerous complaints with numerous governmental entities, which the officials then feel obliged to do something about. And the complaints are invariably a tissue of lies.
A short time after (a month or so later), the story about “plagiarism” bobbed to the surface. I had come back from vacation to find that I had a phone interview set up with a reporter from World. Huh, I thought, knowing the climate here in Moscow. So before that interview occurred, I wrote Joel Belz a letter, which he did not respond to. Most of that letter is below, in italics.
Coming off a two-week vacation from my office, I noticed when I checked my calendar that I have a phone appointment with one of your reporters first thing Monday morning on a plagiarism fracas that broke out here a week or so ago. My plan is to tell your reporter anything he wants to know about that story, but I wanted to write to give you a separate heads up.
This is the second story that World has done within the last month or so on doings here in Moscow, and ______________ is right in the center of both of them. As I say this, I am hesitant to assume too much about what you know of all this, and I know you are sensitive to the story you previously heard and checked on (the untrue story that I had bragged that I had the ability to get stories spiked at World). But nevertheless, I am taking the risk of writing you separately because I very much want _______________ to prove unsuccessful in his game of “let’s you and him fight,” a game at which he is very good. He sows discord among the brethren like no one I have ever seen.
I don’t believe you want to hear the whole saga. _________________ very much wants you to hear one side of it. But if you start to deal with this issue at all, you need to know it is very different from what ____________ represents. And all of it is connected. The two stories you have shown interest in thus far (tax exemption and plagiarism) are simply parts of one big controversy here that has filled up the last two years. They are not isolated stories. And the real story is one of slander and vilification.
We are up against a very weird alliance of gay activists/abortion rights activists/open theists/disgruntled former members. This on-going campaign against us (that _____________ has joined up with, and is a major part of) has included theft of a Canon Press document, theft of Christ Church elder minutes, vandalism of our property, an illegal attempt to get the city council to declare our church unwelcome here in Moscow, the University of Idaho spending $16,000 to resist our history conference (along with offering a credit class for protesting us), anonymous character assassination, flat out lies, charging a fellow Christian before an unbelieving adjudicatory, and much, much more. I have not yet started wearing kevlar, but I have checked out prices on line.
In short, I really am not trying to tell you what to do. But I am encouraging you to do one thing or the other — either leave this baby entirely alone, or jump on the whole thing and wrestle it to the ground. If you decide to do the latter, you would have my full cooperation, and all my sympathy. But in my view, what would really be harmful both to us and to World would be for bits and pieces of this to be dealt with in dribs and drabs. That would offer a great deal of scope for the kind of manipulation at which ____________ is so good.
And of course, I am happy to talk with you about any of this at any time. I am at your service. Jesus said to leap for joy when this kind of thing happens, and we have had lots of practice. Blessings on you and your work.
Cordially in Christ,
P.S. A really helpful book for understanding what has gone on here would be Antagonists in the Church. The entire middle section of that book was a great blessing to me.
Let me emphasize one portion of that letter again: “But in my view, what would really be harmful both to us and to World would be for bits and pieces of this to be dealt with in dribs and drabs.” And as I said, this letter was not answered.
The interview occurred, but the story did not appear as quickly as I thought it might. The reporter, Mark Bergin, very graciously told me that he would let me know when it was going to run. A month or so ago, I got a message from him that it was going to appear in the next World. But when I checked my copy, there it wasn’t. Then I got another message from Mark saying that the story had been postponed.
Now another curious element enters the picture. Around the time this article on my supposed plagiarism was not running, the discovery that my son Nathan had made about the Shroud of Turin had made national news, and then international news. His article came out first in Books and Culture, which is published by Christianity Today. Afterwards, an article was run on the Discovery Channel web site, and he was on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, The Associated Press picked it up, and the story received intensive coverage all over the world. The aftershocks have continued, and this last week made it as far as The Daily Show on Comedy Central. But World was a very curious media entity in this little Warholian round of festivities in that there was nary a peep on the subject from World. Given the close relationship we have had with World over the years, this was very curious. International news coming out of our community is not newsworthy at World? And a nine-year-old story being used by local Intoleristas to trash our ministry is?
Well, then the story ran, the verbal food fight broke out at worldmagblog.com, and Marvin Olasky gave me permission to respond to the article in their print version in a letter to the editor (150 words), which I have already submitted.
Bringing this in for a landing, my objections to the World article are two-fold (in this space I have more than 150 words). First, taking the news story in the narrow sense, the article used the words “stolen” and “plagiarism” to describe what happened. An important part of the controversy here in Moscow about the citations surrounded this very point. Is unintentional use of someone else’s material to be described as plagiarism and theft? I have consistently maintained that it is not. We make distinctions about intentionality all the time, and for good reason (e.g. murder/negligent manslaughter). To make a distinction between these two is not to praise the manslaughter as a good thing, but to properly distinguish for the sake of maintaining moral proportionality.
Now even if everyone knew that plagiarism admitted of two kinds (plagiarism A and plagiarism B), and everyone knew the difference between them (A is intentional, and B is unintentional), the article stated by direct inference that I and Steve Wilkins were guilty of plagiarism A. The article did this by using the word stolen. Tracy McKenzie “easily recognized the stolen sections because he teaches on the work of Mr. Fogel and Mr. Engerman.” Secondly, even if the intent was to use the word plagiarism in the plagiarism B sense, there were no clear indications in the article that would make a general reader come to that conclusion. A person coming to this story cold has every reason to believe that “Steve Wilkins admitted to stealing certain sections from Fogel and Engerman, on purpose, and then he tried to take the blame for it. Still, Wilson was the editor, and they were both guilty of plagiarism.” The closest the article comes to recognizing any element of “accident” is in the use of the phrase “attribution oversights.” But the word stolen thunders, while oversights whispers. Third, because we here in Moscow have some industrious enemies (a fact not considered carefully enough by World), everyone should know that if we admitted to plagiarism B, our enemies would immediately begin quoting us as having admitted to plagiarism A simpliciter. And the reason for this is that in this instance our enemies don’t want us to be screw-ups. They need us to be wicked. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.
And this is the reason the issue of intentionality is so important to us (and to them). Both Steve and I are ministers of the gospel. If either of us intentionally stole the intellectual property of Fogel and Engerman, then we should resign from the ministry. We would be disqualified from our office, having disgraced it. That is the difference between intentional and unintentional in this, and it is not a trifle. It does not matter — if we have been out stealing stereos, automobiles, or ideas — we need to figure out another way to feed our families.
My second objection to the article was anticipated in my letter to Joel Belz. The article did not take into account the context of the controversy, even though I had notified World that this context was most necessary for understanding it. Now the question may be raised; in what significant way has my concern in that letter not been validated by events?
I certainly do not want to have a hissy fit scene with World. I do not want to be discussing this with them in public at all. I attempted to deal with it privately beforehand. But here we now are. And I do believe that they have wronged Steve Wilkins and me by assuming intellectual theft as an established fact, and not recording in the story our denials that we did any such thing. And this is not an insignificant issue.