Friday, 9 February 2018

Sermons: Here's one I lifted earlier

Recently I was treated to a most excellent sermon. It was a real gem and the exposition of the word took me to places my theology had never visited before as the preacher expounded the word and presented me with hitherto unnoticed nuggets of gold.

After the sermon, pondering on the contents I took to my computer and searched on one of the phrases used which had especially challenged me. The problem with the Internet is that it is a place where there is nowhere you can hide and the first result of my search led me to a place where the phrase, and the whole of the sermon, were to be found; for it seemed the preacher had 'lifted' the thing I had just heard in its entirety.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that the sermon was produced by someone else as the previous offerings I'd heard from that self-same preacher had been short in terms of content and time needed to deliver it; they were what one of my tutors referred to as a 'fag packet' preacher.

But the experience has left me challenged on a number of levels:

i.    I was challenged and blessed by the sermon, so should I just issue a 'Hallelujah' and move on?

ii.   It was obvious that the person standing up the front was enjoying the approval of the people
      afterwards for an 'excellent' sermon. Was there some dishonesty to be found in all this, after all,
      wasn't this merely plagiarism at its worst?

iii.  Don't we all take material from other sources without attributing them to the sources? After all I
      have a number of Commentaries and theological books to teach, reveal and challenge me as to the
      contents, context and esoterica of the Bible. I don't provide a bibliography of announce, "Today's
      sermon consists of Carl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Stan Hauerwas and  . . ."

Reflecting on the points above I found that although I was blessed by what I had experienced, to merely smile and move on would be to permit the means by which I was blessed to be approved of, and could be that in doing so I was applauding sin? Now as much as the zeitgeist of this age is that the end justifies the means I'm not too sure that the lack of intentional integrity should be applauded.

Also, the preacher had appropriated the work of another in its entirety without attributing the source. Isn't this theft? It was this thought that jogged my memory and reminded me of an article by D. A. Carson that I read some years back. In this Carson said that anyone doing such a thing, "Should be fired!" So I went and searched for the quote and found it on the site 'The Gospel Coalition' Carson says that the reasons for his thinking (he also says that the preacher should have the integrity to resign rather than be sacked) are:
  1. You are stealing.
  2. You are deceiving the people to whom you are preaching.
  3. Perhaps worst, you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God’s truth captures you, moulds you, makes you a man of God, and equips you to speak for him.
So it seems that I cannot just walk away from this issue and look the other way, for in doing so I will  (albeit tacitly) be approving of what they person is doing and rob them of the joy of discovering the blessings of the word of God first hand (and will be supporting them in their act of 'deception' aimed at themselves and others).

The word 'deception' is a challenge in this context, isn't it? It's up there with the thought that this is 'stealing'  - at uni' that was what we were told plagiarism was: Stealing and fraud in one bundle!

When I quote people I try  attribute the words to them. When I sit and read commentaries I find myself dialoguing with the words before me and use them  explore the relevant Bible passages and to provide the means by which I can make the knowledge before me, mine. I do this by retelling the stories and employing comparatives; I make the material part of who I am and allow it to shape my understanding and direct my thoughts and actions.

I was taught to first read the relevant Bible passages and then to establish the context of the passages before me (asking 'what meaning does this passage have for me' and 'what passages inform, or are informed and shaped by what is before me')

Then I look at the reference materials to delve deeper into the text and draw out understanding.

Then  might listen to, or read, sermons or lectures on and around the topic.

Then I produce from within me what I going to say - but as I don't actually write sermons this is usually obvious as the sermon is created from what is within me rather than what is read. The same goes for the 'Can't make it to church' entry - I sit and splurge from within  onto the screen rather than copy and paste notes.

To plagiarise is to demonstrate a lack of commitment to the word of God and to the people before you. So if you are someone who does this STOP IT!

Working Preacher and the many 'last-minute' and 'instant sermon' web presence are undoubtedly great tools (being merely another form of commentary) but they should be used as learning aids, not the means to preach without knowledge, learning, understanding and integrity. There is no difference between copying a book, transcribing audio or video resources or living something from the internet. All and every resource is useful - just remember to use it as a resource rather than as the stuff you present as your own.

And, if you want to keep your integrity and keep it honest:

a. Cite the source if using a direct quote,

b. Mention any key influence in what you present,

c. Don't make it yours by means of putting it into the first person! There's an evangelist who tells all the same stories I heard at missions events some thirty years ago. They do it as if the things in them happened to them, but you know that they never did. When I pointed this out, those nnn groupies took me to task saying, "They're not lying, they are just using old illustrations!"

Actually, it's not an illustration - it's a lie, and they are as guilty of misappropriation now as those who were using them when I first heard it were!

postscript. When I started off doing this theology stuff I would often answer a question or respond with a quote from someone and would add, "Thomas Merton puts it like ...," or "So says Thomas Merton." One of my early tutors took me to one side and said that doing that was a 'no no' as it appeared I was telling people, "How well read I was!" I was doing it because others had told me that unless I did that people would assume I was deliberately picking the thoughts and words of another person - and if those hearing knew the source they'd assume I was seeking to look good. Seems some days you just can't win.


UKViewer said...


Since I have been preaching, I have done as you describe, starting with reading the bible verses and so on. But I also look to see where others have had insights in the commentaries and books written, but I always reference and acknowledge those who have contributed by spelling out who said what.

It's surely the only way to stay honest, and to preserve your own integrity.

I have heard speakers say things like "one commentatary said" or suchlike, attributing that these were not their own words, but that they'd been inspired to use them as they said what they were thinking, and perhaps better than their own words. There is honesty in that, and its important that those hearing a sermon know where the sources come from if they want to follow up the source themselves.

I have once or twice been asked for a copy of a sermon, and the one given will always have the references and foot notes that I used, to allow the person asking to do their own research.

While I don't preach that often, probably 8 times a year (we have 3 priests in our benefice, as well as another LLM) so I have time to reflect and to research and to edit my drafts, which often end up completely different from the original draft, given new insights as I get them. Even something said in the meantime can influence our thinking, so having a notebook tucked away is always handy.

Anonymous said...

This is a real challenge for me as I have two readers who regularly lift their sermons from the internet and deliver them in their entirety and having read this post it becomes clear that I have to work out how I address this situation.

Thanks (I think),