whytheology

For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Archive for the month “November, 2013”

Plagiarism is a Kingdom issue

Background

So if you haven’t heard: Mark Driscoll has done it, yet again. During an appearance on the radio call-in show hosted by Janet Mefford, Driscoll became incredibly hostile in relation to probing questions about his book and antics related to it. To summarize, there were two issues of conflict. First, Janet Mefford questioned Driscoll as to whether John MacArthur’s security actually confiscated his books, as Driscoll had said, or whether Driscoll tried to make it appear that way, as video evidence has suggested. Immediately Driscoll, rather than owning it, became defensive and began to blame Mefford for not being concerned about the Kingdom, claiming he was doing her a favor by appearing (via phone) to promote his book. Ok, well Mefford let that go and proceeded to actually talk about the book.

After Driscoll gave a summary of the key point of his book, Mefford called him out for plagiarism of that exact point. Specifically, Mefford notes that there are 14 pages representing the crux of Driscoll’s argument in his latest book (A Call to Resurgence) and possibly a few pages later, that represented the ideas and sometimes exact phrasing of Dr. Peter Jones. Specifically Driscoll’s use of the terms “one-ism” as representing “neo-paganism” (the hyphen is somewhat unique to Peter Jones) and “two-ism” as representing a Christian worldview. This, and the specific manner in which Driscoll addresses it, is not Driscoll’s idea. It is clearly that of Dr. Jones. Driscoll, who seems simultaneously shocked and annoyed at this point in the interview, says that it must have been a mistake and that he used to have dinner with Dr. Jones, where he (Dr. Jones) did most of the talking while Driscoll mostly listened, but did not take notes.

At this point Driscoll then begins to again turn the tables on Mefford, claiming that she is following tribalism (declaring that she is merely defending MacArthur), claiming to be the victim in this situation, telling Mefford she has “an opportunity for growth,” strongly implying that she is inappropriately taking on the role of a domineering teacher (a clear no go in these circles), and trying to claim that he is just trying to talk about the kingdom of God and all Mefford is concerned with is a “footnote,” implying again that this is a silly thing to be worried about. After Mefford points out that Driscoll’s own sermons on stealing and lying suggest that plagiarism of the exact same sort that Driscoll has done are wrong and possibly cause for a pastor to step down, and after she notes that on Mars Hill, Seattle’s website (Driscoll’s church), it specifically says that those who use any portion or idea of Mark Driscoll without citing Driscoll, something happens with alarming frequency in pulpits, is plagiarism (and may be subject to lawsuit).

Now the last bit has been up for debate, with Mefford claiming they lost all connection and Driscoll claiming she cut him off and editing the audio. Both sides have released raw audio, one clearly recorded from Driscoll’s end (supporting his version) and the other obviously from the radio recording in a single track (and so it could not be edited as Mars Hill staff have alleged). At best someone slipped and hit a button, at worst this was planned out and intentional from one side or the other. However, such debate misses the point.

Following the interview, when Tyndale House (Driscoll’s publisher) was reached for comment, rather than acknowledging an error in the editing phase, or noting it was an honest mistake, Tyndale House, who as a publisher should know how serious plagiarism is, instead doubles down in defense of Mark Driscoll by attacking Janet Mefford. Additionally, Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition’s “Between Two Worlds” blog (who famously attacked Rob Bell’s last book based almost entirely on its trailer) called for a Boycott of Janet Mefford’s show. Just so everyone is up to speed, Mefford is not some liberal secularist, or anti-Christian brow-beater. She is incredibly conservative. You can read about all this drama from Jonathan Merritt at Religious News Services, and from the blog Pyromaniac (both of which provided additional facts related to this brief summary).

Additionally, to thicken the plot, Jonathan Merritt has reported that Mefford has shown indisputable proof that this was not a one time thing for Driscoll. Specifically, Mefford shows that two entire pages from Driscoll’s book on 1&2 Peter were taken word-for-word from a commentary by D.A. Carson, also without attribution. You can find that story here.

What’s at stake

Throughout this entire ordeal, whenever Driscoll has responded, it has been with a tone of indignation. Without saying it, he, and his supporters, have implied that this is a very minor offense and that it is being used to attack him. To be sure, I have seen anti-Driscoll-ites saying this is like bringing down Al Capone on tax charges on Facebook and Twitter. On the other end, I’ve seen supporters of Driscoll claiming that we’re missing the entire point by arguing about a footnote. Driscoll himself, in the initial interview, claimed that “this” would be used by opponents of Christianity to make fun of all Christians and hurt the Kingdom. What Driscoll meant by “this” seems to be what he considers division. Driscoll, however, has an odd definition of division. If someone disagrees with him, or challenges him, it seems, then they are a cause of division. If the roles are reversed, though, then the one in disagreement with Driscoll are deemed heretics.

Let me be clear, “this” will be used by opponents of Christianity. And most of those involved are missing the entire point. But “this” and the entire point are directly related to these footnotes. Ask anyone in college (or high school) if plagiarism is a big deal. Do the words failure or expulsion ring a bell? This isn’t just for doctoral dissertations, either, as Driscoll tries to intimate (interesting, though, considering he has no issue touting his Masters degree when it suits him), but a universal standard. Nor is it confined entirely to academe.

In the publishing world, such as the press carrying Driscoll’s book, plagiarism often leads to lawsuits and immediate terminations, not to mention someone being “blackballed” from the industry not only for committing plagiarism, but for failing to catch it. The non-Church world seems to take plagiarism very seriously, and not at all in the flippant way that Driscoll and his cadre seem to approach it. But why?

At the heart of plagiarism are two primary issues. One has to do with the act itself, the other has to do with the motivation behind the act. Janet Mefford, who certainly seems to understand the gravity of plagiarism, has said much about the act itself. It is simply lying and stealing, and, by Driscoll’s own admission, a pastor who commits plagiarism is unworthy of the office (see Driscoll’s book Vintage Church).

The second issue has to do with motivation. There are two principle motivations for plagiarism, and both of them may very well be at play in Driscoll’s case. The first is hubris. The thought is that I am so amazing that either a) I certainly thought of that first, or b) it doesn’t matter who thought of it first, people will want to give me credit because of how great I am. This may have something to do with the celebrity pastor movement. Namely, if you have church membership in excess of 15,000 members spread over an area broader than 100 square miles, who are you accountable to, and why do you think that your message is so important that the sermon is divorced from personal pastoral care? Now, I don’t think all megachurches or all multi-site churches are de facto wrong, but one should approach these type of things with an extra measure of vigilance because the Church is not a corporation. The Aquila Report has a post dealing on issues of celebrity and the pastorate related to this case.

The other principle motivation is just laziness. Here it may be primary: “I just don’t care,” or ancillary: “what I have to say is so important I don’t have time for due diligence.” In either case, the issues seem to relate back to pride, though perhaps less of the vulgar sense seen above. Still it does not promote the Christian ideal of hard work and working in all things as unto the Lord.

There is another issue that is also related. This has to do with perception of the Church. Certainly the fallout will lead many to view Driscoll and his ministry as epitomes of liars, hypocrites, thieves, and arrogant or lazy people. But the main issue for most of the “millennial generation” is authenticity. If you mess up, intentionally or not, you should own it. Admit that you are a liar, a thief a hypocrite, whatever. Own your mistakes, especially when you are called on it. Don’t put up a façade to hide behind while you blame those who point out structural issues. Own it, and try to fix it, maybe ask for forgiveness or the help of others.

Driscoll’s response only serves to circle the wagons and alienate those outside. The response of Tyndale House sends the message that they are not be respected by readers, nor to be trusted by authors because rather than investigate plagiarism, they may just side with their superstar author. This is particularly sad given its prior excellent history. All in all, this will not get better until someone steps up and admits that, at the very least, someone made a serious mistake, and then apologizes. If Driscoll really wants to end “tribalism” and move toward a more global view of the church, now is his chance to prove it.

The Value of Higher Education

So my other passion beyond theology, if you don’t know (and even if you do), is higher education. More specifically, higher education in the Western liberal arts tradition. There has been a lot of talk, on the news, in trade journals, and in blogs or on social media, recently about whether it is “worth it” to go to college–even the past two US presidents have been getting in on the action. I would argue that, in defiance of the claims and arguments about education and its value, there is a worth the liberal arts education completely excluded from the conversation; and this, while not a quantifiable worth, is nevertheless one of the most important aspects of a democratic society.

Frequently, the conversation is phrased in terms of ROI, or return on investment. That is, education is reduced to a mere utilitarian concept and is guaged useful if it leads to a greater level of material income, less lost costs of work, than if you went into work directly after high school. Most of these analyses show that, on a pure economics level, yes, the college degree is worth it. That is, if you factor in income lost over a 4 or 5 year period in a job without a college degree, and compare it to the increase in income from getting such a degree, and balancing this out with experience and promotions/raises associated with both scenarios, the college degree comes out on top. However, it is quickly noted that in general, especially if one takes 5 years to complete a degree and even moreso if you pick the wrong field, the ROI is not very high, and occasionally negative. In other words, college may only be “worth it” if you pick a utilitarian degree, if you graduate in 4 years, and if you take the highest paying job, ignoring all other factors. Also, usually included in these analyses, is the point that college tuition is going up, and soon it will not be worth it to go to college.

That’s all well and good, but I find myself looking at these studies and seeing a fundamental flaw in them. The assumption is that the only value in a degree, or a liberal arts education, is in what type of earnings it can potentially provide (and in the current economy, including future projections of it, that is not guaranteed). Here’s the problem: that’s not the only value higher education has. Such an analysis assumes that the college education is only a professional qualification; it claims that all education is vocational training. Implicit is the assumption that anything beyond vocational training is either a) easily done alone, or, more alarmingly, b) should only be undertaken by the elites of society. I would suggest that both assumptions are false.

The assumption by the first claim is that one does not need anyone else to learn. It implies an idealistic picture of a lone individual sitting in a room reading book upon book. While that may make for interesting movies, like “Good Will Hunting,” or compelling historical narratives, such as Bill Gates, such individuals are the exception, not the rule. Most learning requires a broader community and, along with that, an individual materially connected to that community who guides and leads it, giving it structure and substance. We learn from each other, and we learn best when we have a guide who is invested in our education on a personal level. In short, the best learning happens face to face, not through a book or on a video screen. Even though I value reading widely and rigorously, unless there is someone to guide us as to what we should read or watch, anything goes. “Zeitgeist” is an incredibly popular youtube video, but it is factually inaccurate throughout. Holy Blood, Holy Grail may be a bestseller on religion and Christianity with a compelling story, but it hardly qualifies as quality research. We need a guide, and we need a larger community to help us. As the biblical book of Proverbs says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” We learn from each other in dialogue, in disagreement, and through mutual struggle.

The second assumption, that learning beyond credentials is reserved for the societal elite, undermines the very nature of a democratic society or of a republic. Education should not be for the elite only, but for everyone. Soceities function best when all participants are educated as best as they can be. Only then can meaningful dialogue about the future direction of a country, or city, or state, occur. Only then can we actually discuss the merits and failings of various proposals without descending into angry animals barking at each other. Education, and in particular higher liberal arts education, encourages to see past empty rhetoric, to view the heart of an idea and evaluate its substance, and to see the point of view of those with whom we disagree. Only those who seek control and power over the masses would knowingly discourage such a practice or undervalue such education. The conversation in America should not be about the value of education, but about increasing access to it. And the increase in access should not focus on MOOCs, or the cheapest, or most cost efficient way to do so. Aside from the studies showing many of these forms fail when it comes to student success (MOOCs, Massively Open Online Courses, tend to show only 2-5% of students who actually learn the material or could pass with a “C”), such talk inherently encourages a two-tier system in education, with the elites (read: richest) getting direct interaction, and everyone else watching videos and left to struggle on their own. In other words, those least equipped to teach themselves would be those most likely to be required to do so.

Of course, both of these points I’ve made assume something about education. Namely: it is inherently valuable. To phrase discussion about education purely in terms of ROI is to miss the point completely. Let me argue by way of analogy. What is the value of having and/or raising a child? Unless you work on a farm in the middle ages, this has a terrible ROI. Yet most of us do not question that such a thing is valuable. Even if we do question it, the arguments tend to focus on more than return on investment. Or how about this: what is the value of voting? of giving to charity? of going to church? of reading beyond what is required for a job? of simply sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee/tea? These all have terrible ROI because you have lost opportunity costs (at the least, sometimes material losses as in donating to charity), and very little prospect of them producing anything to materially compensate them. Yet, are they valuable?

“Get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, gain understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

What Kind of Fire is it?

Ok so yes, this is late. But it is still important.

If you haven’t heard, John MacArthur released a new book and he did so with gusto, including a conference advertised by this video:

Now, I can’t tell you everything that is going on in that video. There’s a whole thing with what appears to be random scenes from the bible enacted by action figures. (Is that Stephen at the beginning? And why is he missing a leg?). This much I do know, John MacArthur does not think the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement is part of true Christianity.

Now I should be clear about something up front. I like John MacArthur’s studies. When I first started to undertake serious study of the bible, MacArthur was one of my early entry points. While I don’t tend to read him as much today, I nevertheless think many of his studies and earlier sermons are invaluable.

Also, in case you were unaware, I should note that I am not a Dortian Calvinist. Look, I’ve got lots of friends who are. That’s fine. We can disagree on that and still speak constructively about the message of the bible and partner together for God’s Kingdom and to fulfill the works he has called us to and prepared for us (“that we should walk in them” as the Apostle Paul says). So already I’m in disagreement with MacArthur who has become increasingly vocal about Calvinism, and more intolerant of those who disagree with his position (sadly I have lots of former friends who are Calvinists in much the same vein).

I also would not characterize myself as being Charismatic or Pentecostal. “So why,” you might ask, “do you even care about this?” Quite honestly, it’s about unity. And the whole Strange Fire issue directly undermines the unity of the Church. I say this not to shun MacArthur, because one does not build unity by pushing others to the fringe, but to encourage other Christians not to write off what has become the largest and fastest growing area of Christianity today.

I get that there are certainly some abuses within the Charismatic church, largely centered around the so-called “health and wealth gospel.” If you are unfamiliar with that term, let me explain. The health and wealth gospel takes the focus off of the redemptive, transformative, revolutionary and radical power of the cross and empty grave and places it on personal material gains in this life. Does God want you to have joy? Absolutely. Does that joy consist primarily in being materially wealthy and physically healthy? Not remotely. Yes, it is true that the bible says “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7 NIV) and one verse later “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9 NIV). Yet it is the intervening verse that directly undermines the health and wealth message “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6:8 NIV). This message, which is purported sometimes by charlatans and, more often than many of us would like to admit, by earnestly believing preachers who simply don’t know any better, is a dangerous message. It appeals to those who are desperate, tells them to focus on a false and quickly fading hope, taking their eyes off of the goal Christ has put before them, and blames the individual for not believing strong enough when things don’t work out. In this way it makes the poor even more poor and blames them for that, it encourages the ill to divert their funds away from genuine treatments (ones that God had a hand in making) and tells them to buy snake oil. It is dangerous and preys (either intentionally or unintentionally) on the most vulnerable. Yes it should be opposed because it is not the gospel.

Still, to argue that all, or even most, Charismatic and Pentecostal churches are part of this false gospel, as MacArthur very strongly implies, is grossly mistaken. You don’t reject all of them for the abuses of a minority. MacArthur, though, goes even one step further. He declares that members of this church are practicing “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” That is very serious charge! This comes from Matthew 12. Jesus says that anything will be forgiven, even blasphemy against the Son of Man (referring to himself), but blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. MacArthur, fully aware of the content of what that means, quickly passes judgment that millions, if not billions, of those professing to be Christians, those who have died to themselves with Christ, are consigned to hell, and will not be raised with Christ. But judging by the way in which he does so, you would think he is wholly unaware of this. Further, he explains that he is sure he is correct because, according to MacArthur, blasphemy of the Spirit is “assigning to God the work of Satan.” But right away there’s a problem.

Let’s actually look at Matthew 12. In it, Jesus has just performed a miraculous healing on the Sabbath. For doing such a work on the Sabbath, the Pharisees begin their plan to have Jesus executed. Not too longer afterward, Jesus performs an exorcism, driving out a demon from a man, healing him of his physical maladies at the same time. The Pharisees declare that Jesus does this under the power of Beelzebul, another name for Satan. It is in this context that Jesus brings up the “blasphemy of the Spirit.” If anything, it is not assigning to God the works of Satan, but rather it is assigning to Satan the works of God, exactly what the Pharisees are doing.

However, I think the issue is much deeper than that. Jesus declares that “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,” (v. 30) just before he mentions this unforgivable sin. I would argue that this sin has more to do with disrupting the unity of the Church. Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that John MacArthur has committed blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I am saying that there is a lack of caution here that should give us pause, especially when speaking about the broader Church. The Spirit works to preserve and unify the Church. As Jesus prayed in John’s gospel (ch. 17, NIV)

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

If what we do is damaging to the unity of the church, it should be abandoned. We should strive to work together with others, even when we disagree, so long as we have our eyes fixed on the cross of Christ, and not our own wealth or lack thereof. Pray for unity. Build up, do not tear down. May we all grow together into God’s building.

This was written in response to a direct question. If you have a question you’d like me to write about on the blog, let me know (comments below are a great way to do that).

Post Navigation