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Plagiarizing the Holy Spirit

There has been quite a dustup lately surrounding pastors being accused of plagiarizing sermons from other pastors, or even buying sermons from companies that specialize in drafting them. For many of us hayseed preachers, this might amount to the breaking news that Catholics baptize babies. Not ideal, but certainly not news. In my experience, preaching someone else’s sermon is practically considered an act of reverence. The originator of the sermon should feel honored! The reason this is such a big deal is because it has embroiled some of the biggest names in Christianity. I won’t tarnish them by naming them, but Google doesn’t exercise the same principled discretion… While I was peripherally aware of this hubbub, I recently became acutely interested because when searching YouTube for a series of Tim Keller sermons on “The Prodigal God”, I was surprised (to put it mildly) to find quite a few knockoff versions of the same sermons, with the same title, and even the same props. To my genuine surprise, these were from pastors of megachurches with thousands of members and multiple services. While I did not listen to those versions in their entirety, I did scan the introduction of the first sermon of the series and did not hear any attribution given to Tim Keller. I find this very odd and very disturbing. But for more reasons than just blatant plagiarism. 

 I am interested in exploring the discrepancy in my reaction to hearing a lifted sermon by a lay pastor in an assembly of 50 people and hearing a seminary trained pastor in a megachurch rip off a sermon. The former I find trivial and the latter I find revolting. It doesn’t seem fair, or righteous, to judge the two so differently. It would seem to me that what is right for the first should be right for the second. But I am not alone in this judgement. I remember reading a Texas Monthly article, published many years ago, on Joel Osteen, in which the writer made a casual comment that his sermons were routinely appropriated by preachers of small churches, and it was a form of imitation as the highest compliment. This has gone on for as long as preaching has been a thing. It would not shock me if Paul’s sermons came back to him with quite a few miles on the odometer that he couldn’t account for. I will be honest, in my youth I lifted and sampled sermons from a number of sources and never gave attribution. I haven’t done that in a very long time, but I don’t want that to be misconstrued as self-righteous indignation, it has more to do with my general distaste for most sermons I hear. If the preachers I have occasion to hear were speaking with flaming tongues, I am not sure that I wouldn’t help myself to at least a small portion of their spirit. 

And to be honest a little further, there is a part of me that has difficulty comprehending the accusation of plagiarism, at least in the abstract. I think that the insistence on saying something new is the root of most of the terrible Biblical interpretation that I hear incessantly. And I am not referring to interpretation of the obscure passages and profound doctrines where everyone disagrees; I am referring to blatant disregard for the context: Pure, inexcusable eisegesis. I believe that preachers are too worried that they will be perceived as retreads, and so they are lured by the siren call of odd phrases that lend themselves to novel interpretations. If preaching is to be strict exposition of the text, and there are only 32,102 verses in the Bible, and there are millions of people preaching it, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; it seems unavoidable that we are going to run out of novel things to say. In fact, if it is a strict exposition, then we will never have anything novel to say. How many ways can John 3:16 be broken down, unpacked, analyzed, exegeted, and exposited? 

But there is also the matter of the objective of Biblical preaching. I have always understood that Biblical preaching is not aimed at entertaining the people of God, but communicating the Word of God. “Communicate” meaning to share, to pass along, to transmit. If the receiver only listens, nothing really has been communicated. Communication takes place when those that hear the word, go out and communicate that word with others, and they with others. The word of God is, and is supposed to be, viral. As Paul readily admits to doing also. “I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received…” (1 Cor 15.3) and then goes on to recite, apparently, verbatim a Creed that was communicated to him. And in another place he says, “which at first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him” (Heb 2.3). What is Bible preaching, if not the repeating of things said by others?! In this case, “others” being Jesus, the Apostles, and Prophets. Is the objective of preaching to corner the sermon market? To narrow the range that everyone else can operate in? Is the objective really to run around planting one’s own flag on as many texts as possible, so that the other teams can’t? If that is the case, it would seem that preachers should avoid hearing anyone preach, the way many comedians do not listen to other comedians, for fear of lifting material, even inadvertently.

And there is the matter of the essence of Biblical preaching. Authors, comedians, artists, and musicians care deeply about plagiarism because they consider their work to be their own, born of their own creativity and effort. But that isn’t how preachers think of their sermons. At least that is not how they characterize them. They characterize them as the word of God; a message from the Lord. If that is really true, then how can they object to someone repeating that message from the Lord? And who should be credited with the message from the Lord? The preacher or the Lord? Isn’t it guileful to take the credit as if the word were your own but at the same time demand respect and obedience as if the word were the Lord’s? It seems that if the sermon is truly a work for hire, then the copyright would belong to the Holy Spirit, not to the minister in his employ. Authors, comedians, etc. also care deeply about plagiarism because they hope to earn money from their unique content. If anyone can copy it, then it is no longer unique; it is even possible that it won’t even be the best copy of it. While researching this piece, I listened to a mashup of the most recent high-profile example of sermon plagiarism, and it was an obvious ripoff, and the copy was notably inferior to the original… or so I thought. However, when I dug in a little deeper I was surprised to learn that the inferior version was the original. It reminds me of an old story of Charlie Chaplin entering a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest and placing 20th. But preachers should not be aiming to profit from uniqueness. Preachers should have the same ardent desire of Paul, “I would to God, that not only you, but also all that hear me this day, where both almost, and altogether such as I am!” And he reiterates, “be followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” 

And then there is the nature of Biblical preaching. Is preaching like writing a novel or is it more like playing chess? Because, how is chess not plagiarism? Should chess players be forbidden from playing any variation that has already been played? (That would give new meaning to the task of memorizing openings.) What would the state of the game be if this were the rule? It would be a clown show for sure. Chess advances because of plagiarism. And to not put too fine a point on it: Chess players do not announce which master they are lifting the next move from. There are no footnotes in chess games. The way chess players get good is by studying, memorizing, and replaying the games of the masters. When a young preacher takes a really good sermon — both in content and in structure — and preaches it, it affords him the opportunity to practice on the delivery portion, while still having something useful to say. It also trains his ear to be able hear the notes of relevance while still speaking in the key of truth. There isn’t much difference between that and how one learns to cook, or play basketball, or talk and walk, for that matter. We learn best by imitation. And as we learn, we also learn how and when and where to break away from the model and innovate one portion or another. There is a danger in all the ‘plagiarism’ condemnation: Inexperienced preachers are likely to be more concerned than they already are with uniqueness — even before they have learned what real uniqueness can be. They will pursue an apparent uniqueness that looks more like a teenager dressing in outlandish outfits to be different… just like all his friends.

One kind of plagiarism that often is overlooked is what we could call “negative plagiarism”. This is when someone preaches against a specific sermon. It is the sermon equivalent of YouTube click bait: Find a sermon that is popular and refute it. There is a legitimate place to correct egregious errors preached by others, at least when they are influential in the pastors congregation, but often it is not correction that is the motivation or true objective. The preacher simply has nothing to say and so he trolls other preachers looking for inspiration; but instead of swiping the sermon, he takes a swipe at it. It doesn’t take much effort or creativity, or intelligence, to pick something apart; but to create something fresh and new is unbelievably hard. For this reason it seems to me that this negative plagiarism is the most common variety. It dominates not only the sermon hour of many churches, but the gospel preaching of much of evangelism. There are many evangelists who wouldn’t know where to start a gospel sermon if they suddenly didn’t have their favorite whipping boy to go after; be it Catholicism, Naturalism, or Vice. 

In spite of this sanguine perspective on plagiarism, there is still something about it that is troubling; even if we drop the incendiary nomenclature. The first problem I have is primarily with the high profile practitioners: the well-known pastors of large ministries. Those ministries are almost always predicated on the supposed brilliance and unique insight of the pastor. (Whereas small churches are typically more focused on the intimate fellowship of the members, and the quality of the preaching is secondary, or less.) But when some of these mega-church pastors turn out to be simply good performers and not masters of the Word and not particularly insightful, it seems not only like a breach of trust but a con. In that situation it is very difficult to argue that the preacher merely was concerned with communicating the best possible message for the good of the congregation. Rather, it seems that he was intent on sustaining his image of a brilliant expositor. For better or worse, the expectations of mass entertainment underwent a seismic shift when the Beatles broke through. They wrote almost all of their own music, and famously lobbied other music acts to do the same. Whereas before that, it was perfectly normal for a singer, like Elvis Presley, to focus on his singing ability and leave the songwriting to the professionals. But since the Beatles, that is now seen as an inferior paradigm. Which appears to have opened the door to less talented voices, because, while they may not have the timbre and range, they have the appeal of “hearing the work in the voice of the creator.” One of the few arenas where this has not pervaded is politics, where, for some inexplicable reason, we continue to prefer performers over creative speakers. But it obviously has made its way to preaching, especially as it pertains to well-known pastors: They are expected to produce a new, unique masterpiece each and every week. 

The second problem I have is more generally applicable. Lifting sermons seems to be a symptom of both shallowness and laziness. The issue of laziness is self-explanatory, but shallowness is a characteristic we should consider in more detail. There are many ministers who, to put it bluntly, are not gifted in teaching and preaching. It isn’t just oratorical skills where they are deficient, but in spiritual discernment, aka, Biblical understanding. This is often a gift that is overlooked. It is simply assumed that given sufficient effort and desire, anyone and everyone can understand the Bible. This is completely false. I suspect that this error is largely a byproduct of the Enlightenment doctrine of meritocracy; in which anyone can be anything they want to be. It is what was drilled into us from birth by well-meaning, but equally deluded parents and teachers. No, we cannot be anything we want to be, no matter how hard we work. I want to be infinitely rich. I want to be 20 feet tall. I want to be emperor of the world. I want to be a bald eagle. We can look at the ‘logical’ conclusion of this delusional doctrine in modern gender ideology. It would be more honest, though certainly less inspirational, to tell kids that they can be anything they can be if they try hard enough, provided their social, cultural, political, and physical environment permits it, and provided that God grants them the grace. So in short, no, not everyone can understand the Bible. And that is not simply a function of effort or available time. Given this fact, we must conclude that not everyone who desires, even with great sincerity, to be a preacher, is qualified. Too often the response to that fact is denial and stubborn insistence; resulting in incompentent ministers flailing and clawing for something meaningful to say. That is, if they buy into the ‘cult of personality’ version of the ministry. There is another ministry model that accommodates men of slender oratorical and exegetical resources, but it isn’t flashy and will likely not get them on the cover of any magazines or on the lists of best preachers. But this other model also does not require nor does it have any room for sermon stealing. 

On the flip side of this matter, I take issue with pastors who copyright their sermons and put notices before and after their broadcasts warning others not to plagiarize them. What are these preachers really desiring? It strikes me to be as equally sordid to copyright a sermon as to plagiarize a sermon. A phrase I coined to describe this is “The Preacher’s Paradox”™ ® © ℗: It can be described thus: A preacher should have no jealousy over his sermons, and experience nothing but joy if they can be useful to another ministry, and not demand no even desire any attribution. But a preacher should also not have the slightest trace of the vain glory that would prevent him from clearly, publicly, and profusely acknowledging the source of his material, small or great. A sermon creator might argue that the only reason he wants his original material attributed is to protect the integrity of the plagiarist. And the plagiarist might argue that the only reason he doesn’t attribute is to protect the creator from being lifted up in pride. But are they both certain that their intentions really are that selfless and pure? Could it be that they both are more concerned with their own reputation than with the well-being of the other? 

In summary, if a preacher is lifting a sermon because he is too lazy to put in the twenty plus hours it requires to craft a truly good sermon, that is wrong. If a preacher is lifting a sermon because he thinks it will garner him more respect than a sermon of his own, that is wrong. If a preacher is lifting a sermon because deep down he doesn’t think he is called of God and doesn’t hear any word from God, that is wrong. If a preacher is indignant that someone lifted his sermon because he didn’t get the credit for it, that is wrong. If a preacher is angry that someone else preached his sermon to more acclaim and success, that is wrong. If a preacher is lifting a sermon because it moved him, convicted him, inspired him that is good. He should acknowledge the source of the sermon for his own moral integrity, as a form of humility and honesty. There is nothing wrong with preaching another’s sermon provided that it isn’t done for personal gain or advancement, but the only way to ensure that is both true and apparent is to attribute punctiliously; let God worry about the creator’s pride.

There is a great quote attributed to Pablo Picaso: “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” There is no strong evidence that Picaso ever said that; ironically this quote is evidence of itself, as it is the result of a series of ‘thefts’ from what appears to be the original quote by W. H. Davenport Adams. He wrote, “Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.” This has been attributed to many different people, and with each attribution it has also been improved upon until reaching this perfected form. The problem with many instances of sermon plagiarism is that the preacher was not good enough to steal the sermon, all he could manage was to ‘borrow’ it. Borrowing a sermon is an act of laziness and envy. It is to reproduce the sermon with all the emotional investment of a CD player. A preacher should have no qualms of stealing a sermon and preaching it with no attribution needed. Stealing a sermon is not simply repeating it. Stealing is to take it and make it yours. To eat it and drink it in, to saturate yourself with it, to ponder it deeply, to deconstruct it and reconstruct it, to order it and disorder it, until the nutrients of the sermon have been so absorbed and digested into your spirit that there is no way to know where the sermon ends and you begin. It is the same way that a steak dinner becomes both yours and you at the same time. This cannot be done from one Sunday to the next. This is a long process that is not about taking careful notes of the points and illustrations, but of instantiating the truths of that sermon in your daily life until you live and breathe it.

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