Plagiarism is a Kingdom issue
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.