Plagiarism and the scrubbing of history in sermons and popular Christian writing


Derek Rishmawy recently posted on the topic of plagiarism in sermons. He asks a good question – something along the lines of: “If just about everything I know I got from reading and studying a hundred other thinkers, is there ever really anything in my sermons that isn’t ‘stolen’ in some sense? Do I really need to be apologizing for that all the time?”

I think the answer is: “No, of course not”, but for a lot of reasons, I would be thrilled to see any step, even the smallest, toward attribution of sources in preaching, as well as the writing of popular books.

Somehow in 20th century evangelicism, we developed a school of preaching where all history between antiquity and the pulpit this very moment is essentially hidden. I was surprised to reflect on the fact that growing up in various baptist and pentecostal churches, I heard literally hundreds of sermons about the atonement, usually with some passage from Romans as the primary text. Yet I had never once hear a reformer or church father cited a single time. I was nearly twenty years before I first even heard Augustine’s name mentioned during a sermon, and of course I didn’t know who he was. I’m not kidding. It’s as if the entire lineage of our past had been scrubbed – there was no man, no thought, no development, in between the apostle Paul and you! In speaking with many of my peers, I discovered that my Reformed friends sometimes had it a little better off, but often not much so and many others had similar experiences to my own.

Two thousand plus sermons (long ones too!) and multiple times reading through the entirety of scripture I had, but I could articulate virtually nothing about the history of the church or the development of its beliefs. There was of course a vague sense that Luther (one of the tiny handful of names that was occasionally invoked) had helped rescue us from the “works righteousness” of Rome. I also recall hearing once or twice that some guy named Calvin wasn’t to be trusted because he was into “once saved always saved”. There was also a sense that we owed something (what exactly besides some hymns was unknown) to John and Charles Wesley. This is all somewhat embarrassing of course to look back on, but it’s entirely the truth.

Now, lest I turn and bite the hand that fed me too sharply, I must stop and say that I experienced much rich bible teaching in my youth. The gospel was expounded a hundred different creative ways, as well as the reasoning behind the bulk of New Testament moral and pastoral teaching. I had a firm grasp on the history of Israel, the typology of Christ in the prophets, the beauty of the Psalms and Revelation, the layers of meaning in nearly all the parables, and the value and importance of quite literally every single chapter in every book. Some support from classical apologetics made an appearance as well. I was given many treasures, and my teachers and pastors and parents cared deeply about the content and the communication of it.

Today, I realize that when I was taught to read Paul, it was through the lens of Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Spurgeon, and as well as popular teachers still living like John MacArthur or Jack Hayford or whoever the pastor was steeped in. The catch is that everything was always presented as being RIGHT THERE in naked scripture without the need for centuries of study. The thought life of one who loved God and studied his word was a room with bare walls and a bible on the table. There was no library. The only other tome that was standard equipment was a Strong’s exhaustive concordance. What was missing was the great cloud of witnesses, the saints that had all gone before. They were there of course, but being dead, only a nameless vapor. Discovering their names in the past decade has greatly enriched my faith, not crushed it. Why was I never introduced before?

Earlier this month in a comment thread about a similar topic, Alistair Roberts brought up the popular ‘myth’ (so the speak) of the Bereans from Acts 17.

Finally, because it is so commonly brought up, let me tackle the Berean thing. People—generally independent evangelicals—have this romantic notion of the Bereans as a group of studious individuals who all individually studied their individual study Bibles to see whether Paul and Silas were correct. Presumably if they had blogs, they would have been debating it online in a spiritually egalitarian manner. Unfortunately, this is a fairly nonsensical reading. The Bereans were in fact a synagogue of the Jews (Acts 17:10). It is quite possible that they only had one copy of the (Old Testament) Scriptures between them. Many wouldn’t have been able to read them at all, even in translation. The word for ‘examined’ is one suggesting a more formal, legal-like process. What this probably involved was a daily assembly of members of the synagogue community, with a trained reader bringing forth evidence from the synagogue’s copies of the Scriptures in an extended communally witnessed cross-examination of Paul and Silas’ teaching by the synagogue’s leaders. This is a very, very far cry from the idea that our discourse should be about every Christian with their personal Bible and their personal blog.

I was frequently encouraged to “be a Berean” and study the scripture for myself, and I did! But the whole time I was heavily influenced by a hundred people that had gone before me whose existence or work I knew nothing of. Where did their influence stop and that of the latest movie or novel I’d eaten up start? I couldn’t tell you because these things didn’t have names.

I wonder if this approach is uniquely American? We like to see ourselves as “rugged individuals” in a “new world” detached from the rest history, even though our nation is still young. I think the narrative of our ecclesiastical history has been unduly shaped by this as well. I also wonder if anti-Catholicism is largely the motivation behind this scrubbing of sources. Maybe to some degree, but the Reformers and their children were given just as short of shrift as well. Something larger seems to have been at work.

One oddity that DID frequently make it into the footnotes was the work of modern archeology. The Dead Sea scrolls, studies from the artifacts of Jericho, and even references to the metallurgy of the Philistines I recall being cited. I suspect these were favored as they seemed to carry a certain “scientific” air of authority about them. Trapped partially in the thrall of Modernity, we admired men with sophisticated instruments rather than old philosophers.

I’m not sure if this was all some attempt (unconscious even) to prop up a certain kind of individualized biblical literalism, but I can’t help but think this way of dealing with sources is partly to blame for how we deal with current popular authors and writings today. If you never cite anyone younger than Paul, you aren’t going to mention Tim Keller either. If your pastor just lifted all his ideas from his Matthew Henry commentary without ever acknowledging its existence, then you are just following in your father’s footsteps by doing the same with N.T. Wright’s material. There is a certain posture of humility that has to be taught. One has to see respect given to elders before one knows what it even looks like. How can one have good manners at the dinner table if they’ve never observed their parents sit up straight and use a napkin? We’ve lost something important by covering up our roots so much the side effects have come home to roost.

Does this mean that I am advocating we all go out of our way to copiously cite sources and turn all our writing and preaching into a history lesson or bibliography? Absolutely not. That would largely ruin them and turn them into something else entirely. I don’t think the medium of a sermon is a place to get bogged down in footnotes. The same goes for most devotional literature. It doesn’t take very many interruptions to undermine the communication. But I think zero, all the time, is patently unethical. I would love to see just a little bit of disclaimer, a little bit of humility, be the norm. In the age where many have Google and Wikipedia in their pocket, acting as if all our understanding appeared out of thin air will not do. People in the modern age have been burned too often with slick words. We need to reestablish some fidelity in our communication and that is going to mean more nods to our ancestors and peers.

By all means, learn everything you can and steal the best stuff! But then make restitution by simply being up front about where it came from. I think we have a lot of trust to gain and nothing to lose in doing so.