Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Why pastors should plagiarize

This semester I've been slogging my way through The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. Okay, I have a Ph.D., but I think that I got the wrong one because there's a whole lot in this book that I don't understand. This is frustrating because from all accounts this is a modern-day classic (oxymoron?), and I really like what little of the book I do understand. Willard has some great things to say, I just need some help in "getting" them.

This leads me to wonder why pastors do not more frequently base their sermons on the work of others. Presumably pastors know the best books about Christian faith & practice, and, with their theological training, pastors are in a better place to understand & explain the ideas of others. For example, I would love to hear a sermon series on the work of Dallas Willard, Scot McKnight, or any number of authors.

There seems to be a norm among pastors that all sermons have to be original in idea and expression. The problem is that this is very hard to do, so a lot of sermons aren't really that good. That's why the few pastors, such as Mark Driscoll and Ben Dubow, who excel at this form of expression have their sermons downloaded by so many people.

Let me come at this from a different angle. In two weeks I'll be teaching a course on criminology. If I had to present *only* my own ideas, the class would be equal parts useless and boring. Instead, I use the work of many scholars (with proper citation, of course) to help my students to understand how to think about crime. Yes, I give my own ideas and analyses (and probably more than I need), but the the core of my material is the work of others.

Pastors almost seem to feel guilty about using the ideas of others--as if somehow they are avoiding their pastoral responsibility.

To be clear, whenever we use others' ideas or words, we need to clearly indicate the source; otherwise it is plagiarism. (Okay, the title of this post isn't quite accurate, but it's catchy, no?). So, I'm advocating using others' ideas with full acknowledgement.

In short, I propose that many pastors would preach more effectively if they sometimes simply summarize and illustrate the ideas of others.
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jimi said...

i spent 9 months in that book. Completely undoing and rebuilding most of what i believe along the way. In a good way. His writing style leaves something to be desired (read: difficult to follow at points), particularly coupled with the complexity of the ideas he's trying to convey. But i sometimes wondered if that wasn't intentional. If he wrote with more smooth-flowing prose i wonder if i wouldn't have missed some of the meat that's there.

tobiK said...

You are absolutely right, but do you think that you also should tell the people which hear your sermon from whom you have your ideas and thoughts? One the one side I would prefer this, on the other it can easily look like a name-dropping...

By the way: I am a sociologist from Germany and I follow your blog since some weeks. Good to hear from other sociologists who are christians...

brewright said...

I've heard other people say similar things about his book... Maybe I need to process it with others somehow, for I sure didn't get it by myself.

As far as acknowledging where ideas are taken from, I believe in full disclosure, and I've rewritten the post to indicate that.


Ben Dubow said...

Interesting thoughts Brad, and I agree with you.

Too many pastors thing the point of a sermon is to be original, innovative, or new.

The point (biblically) of preaching is to proclaim God's timeless message for today, leading to life-change.

I'd be crazy as a pastor not to include resources and ideas from other more gifted people.

Two words of caution:

1. In my own preparation/study I take two different approaches... one is to start with my own Biblical studies, prayer, drafting, and use of secondary sources... and then I will look at how other people have handled the same topic. Other times, I will get an idea/inspiration for a message or series from another preacher or a book... then I put the book/essage aside, do my own biblical exegesis, etc.

2. When I use ideas from people, I acknowledge it as "I am indebted to..." or "I have been heavily influenced by..." oral notations; if I quote directly, I attribute directly; if I use an illustration/personal story from someone, I always attribute.

Obviously, the standards for attribution are different than in the academic world, and could ge cumbersome during a message. Similiar (I assume) to the differences in a lecture vs. an academic paper or book.

Within the evangelical world, this seem sto be pretty normative and encouraged; for some reason, in the "main-line" world, less so. I'm not sure why...

Knumb said...

Best point eva.

Not everyone can wrestle with theology like St. Thomas Aquinas, nor should they feel compelled to.

Knumb said...

To add...

In Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner writes about the bible:

"7. Finally, if you look at a window, you see fly-specks, dust, the crack where Junior's Frisbie hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond."

I often think about this passage when a pastor holds forth about the granular details of a biblical verse, its Real Meaning©®™ in ancient Greek, etc. While I appreciate some context, if the examination of the verse gets too complex, I just try to hang in there until the application phase (which often is wedged in right at the end).

Many branches of Christianity seem to thrive on complexity. I'm not sure 'twas always thus.

sapience said...

The whole "pastors need to be original" is a fairly new development. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, only a few pastors wrote their own sermons, and they were regularly plagiarized.

I can't say for sure (my area of research is Medieval and Ren. religious writings) but I suspect the emphasis on originality started around the beginning of the nineteenth century (around the time literature became infected with the same pressures to be original).

Brad Wright said...

What really cool information... brings to light that much of what we view as required in the church may just be this century's fad.

Thanks for posting.

Jim Swindle said...

I've read neither Willard nor McKnight (am I benighted?), and suspect that my own pastor ( wouldn't agree with much of what they say, but one thing I really respect about him is that he doesn't seem to try to be very original. He tries to be clear and faithful, and to give credit when it's due. Someone must agree that it's a good method, because thousands of his sermons are downloaded monthly. That doesn't make it right, of course. It just proves that there are some people out there who prefer substance over pizazz. May the Lord give us more real pastors, who are more concerned about their holy duty to guide souls than they are about their own popularity or reputation.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate much of your comments as I've just discovered your blog. I feel I must comment regarding this one. While there is much out there in Christian literature that is very useful and worth a pastor's passing along to his congregation, he is really responsible to be feeding from the Word of God for himself, letting it work it's way in his life through real application by the power of the Holy Spirit, and then sharing it's riches with his flock. There is power in the Word incarnated in our lives! While there is truth and knowledge that is useful to share from great Christian literature, it cannot nor should not be an easy substitute for a pastor's preparation in study and application of the Word as the main "food" he offers his flock. I would want my pastor to be deeply feeding himself in the Word regularly as he prepares the sermonic "meat" and then "seasons" it choice and valuable insights from great Christian thinkers/authors. Good sermon prep isn't just intellectual exegesis with a few obligatory application questions at the end. Great sermon prep is a life marinated in the Word of God that has flavored the messenger's life and transformed it. He then just shares the fruit of that study and application. Unfortunately, when a message hasn't moved past the head to the heart or hands in the life of the pastor, there is no lasting fruit.

Anonymous said...

>> There seems to be a norm among pastors that all sermons have to be original in idea and expression.

where have you been nowdreaming?

Pastors often use other people's material and lyingly claim it is from God.

One of the best way for me to know what type of a real christian the pastor is, I get an excuse to visit his own Library and see the books he has read..

I gave a pastor's secretary a book, and the pastor next sunday preached the book from the pulpit even claiming it was all his own divine revelation.. what a liar too.

Most pastors are still not Holy Spirit led or filled.

I know I help to fire many of them