Monday, July 20, 2009

Plagarizing sermons

Yesterday, the Star Tribune ran a front-page story about the ethics of preachers using previously preached sermons. I’m not sure what prompted the Star Tribune to put a story about this issue on the front page of its paper. The link to the story is here:

This issue isn’t new. Tom Long wrote an article in the Christian Century on the same issue two years ago. That link is here:

Pulpit plagiarism is not new—but I guess because of the Internet the practice is spreading.

Long summarized the issues much better than the article in the Star Tribune.

A couple of his nuggets touched me:
“… good bit of clarity is achieved, I think, when we keep two factors in focus. The first is truthfulness. "Plagiarism," writes Richard A. Posner in The Little Book of Plagiarism, "is a species of intellectual fraud." Posner goes on to name the two key ingredients of fraud in every act of plagiarism: one, somebody copies something and then claims ("whether explicitly or implicitly, and whether deliberately or carelessly") that these words are his or her original composition; and two, this deception causes the readers (or hearers) of these words to act differently than they would if they possessed the truth.”

Long concluded the article by sharing this:
“Preachers who strive to tell the truth, who seek to honor the communion of saints, who desire to maintain the trust of the faithful community—that is to say, preachers with ethical integrity—will wrestle with these questions and make the best decisions they can. Pulpit plagiarists, however, in the name of expediency, will grab what they wish wherever they can find it and claim it as their own. Their stolen sermons may occasionally sparkle, but in the end they will have spread the banquet table of God with the empty calories of homiletical fast food.”

The closest I’ve come to plagiarizing is when I used three points from a Rick Warren Easter sermon in one of my Easter sermons. I gave Warren the credit for the three points, used them, and then wrote my own sermon. The sermon was very well received.

Preaching is so contextual that I can’t imagine that preaching another person’s sermon would be effective. I preached over 600 sermons in my 16 years at Plainview (and have a copy of almost every one of them). When I found myself in a difficult time bind (which happened once or twice a year) I would get out an old sermon of mine to preach. But even if I had only a half hour to work on it, I would always change it. The changing context (even if the only difference was time) demanded it.

I can sympathize with any preacher who finds him or herself late in the week and with no sermon. I can understand if that happens once or twice a year. But I don’t have sympathy if that happens frequently.

As Long argued—striving to tell the truth is the best way to negotiate this increasingly complex issue. If we preachers can manage our time effectively we won’t find ourselves madly looking for sermons on the Internet early on a Sunday morning.

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