Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thou shall not Plagiarize

I was reading an interesting article by Tim Challies on "plagiarism in the pulpit" today. He was discussing how certain ministers utilized the sermons of other preachers, and passed them off as their own.

Tim wrote:

Of course we would be remiss to read about this issue and to neglect asking why pastors feel it necessary to preach other peoples' sermons. I'm sure that in some cases pastors are simply lazy and are looking for a way to avoid what can be a long, tedious task. But in many cases I suspect pastors preach these sermons because they feel their congregations will demand a certain quality and a certain level of entertainment that they cannot provide. The spirit of pragmatism lives in the church today and I know of many pastors who have succumbed to it. They feel that their congregations will be better served by a sermon that is witty and contemporary than by a pastor who absorbs himself in a week-long study of the Bible. Some churches expect far too much of their pastors, demanding that they be leaders and entertainers more than preachers. Some pastors are not allowed sufficient time to adequately prepare their sermons. In many cases, the pressure for plagiarism may well originate in the pews and not in the pulpit.

Of course, plagiarism involves at least a certain degree of dishonesty on the part of the plagiarizer. But this issue is not only plaguing ministers in the pulpit, but also certain lay leaders and teachers of God’s Word. I believe Tim’s perception, that certain ministers resorted to plagiarizing sermons because of their desire to please the congregation, is rather accurate. In such cases, "the pressure for plagiarism may well originate in the pews and not in the pulpit."

Despite Tim’s article on this issue, I am still rather perplexed as to why a teacher of God’s Word must resort to plagiarizing the work of other Christians. If the congregation wants to listen to "Chicken Soup for Itching Ears," and refuses a steady diet of God’s Word, should the minister or teacher change his feeding methodology? Should he then acquire the scraps and offal from animal farms to feed the humans in the church? Perhaps, the proverbial "congregational" squeeze of the wallet is sometimes too difficult to bear. The minister usually has a large family to start with (say, wife and six children), and coupled with an already minimal sum of monthly allowance (for some Reformed ministers at least), a "tightening" of his salary might even mean a tightening of his belt, more gastric ulcers, and tattered pants for the Lord’s Day worship. This does not apply to pastors of megachurches, as their earnings can even be substantially more than that of plastic surgeons. I know that in Singapore, a certain pastor’s house has even a lift to carry him up and down his multistorey bungalow. Now, that is definitely better than my church’s building! As a matter of fact, my church does not even have one. We are currently renting a room to worship in.

Furthermore, if the minister were to preach systematically from the Bible, I believe there will never be a lack of biblical text to preach from. Unless, of course, such passages from the Word of God are deemed boring, unentertaining, and banal. The true child of God should desire the sincere milk of God’s Word, not the fermented and spoilt milk from the world. If the congregation is indeed averse to listening to sound preaching, feeding them the poison of human philosophy and carnal wisdom will only worsen their spiritual illness. Entertaining sermonettes limited to 30 minutes - peppered with a few jokes along the way - would not do these folks any good. What they need is the sound preaching of God’s Word, not exhilarating punch lines or motivating speeches.

Even among bloggers, there may be a temptation to plagiarize another’s ideas, or even words. Whether one is a lay leader, Christian writer, or theologian, it is generally good policy to give due credits to the sources one uses. Even if one is using the ideas, and not exactly the thought-flow or words of another writer, it is good to include a footnote stating the original source.

On the another hand, the fact that two writers present similar ideas in their work is not always necessarily plagiarism. Certain concepts are so widely known that, to put these ideas into one’s writings without quoting the original source may be acceptable. For example, Covenant theology has its roots in the works of Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), Scottish Theologian Robert Rollock (1555-1599), the church fathers and, of course, the great reformer John Calvin. To use the concepts of Covenant theology in one’s theological writings without actually quoting the original sources (in this case, the writings of, say, Caspar Olevianus) is absolutely acceptable. This is because any theologue would know that the originator of Federal theology is not the writer in question. If, however, the source of such ideas is not widely known, the onus is upon the writer to ensure that due credits are given to the author of these concepts.

A further note of warning to budding writers: paraphrasing another’s writings does not make those ideas yours. Even in academic writings, plagiarism is sometimes rampant. I have read books by high profile academics who sometimes utilizes the concepts of another theologian, which were presented in some obscure journals, without ever giving a single clue as to the original sources. Paraphrasing another author’s writings might make it more difficult for the reader to "google" search for the original quotations, but the truth will eventually find you out.

So readers, do your own research, and quote all the original sources in your writings, okay?

PS: As I am currently going through the draft of my writing project, I am particularly conscious of this "plagiarism" issue. So, in a way, I am directing this post to myself first and foremost.

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