Opinion

The sin and crime of plagiarism in Christian publishing

Plagiarism is an often undiscussed problem in Christian publishing. RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

(RNS) — Plagiarism: It’s the sin few in the wider Christian publishing world will publicly talk about.

But peel away the layers, and it’s undecorated lying and stealing — a practice rooted in the cult of Christian celebrity plaguing the North American church.

This month, one of the country’s largest Christian publishers settled a lawsuit in which Christine Caine, a best-selling author, was accused of lifting content for two recent books directly from author Carey Scott.

Scott sued Caine after discovering that portions of Scott’s 2015 book, “Untangled,” were copied word for word in Caine’s 2016 book “Unashamed” and repeated in “Unshakeable,” published in 2017. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Caine is not the only high-profile Christian author accused of plagiarism.

Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, also appears to have repeatedly plagiarized other authors. Clinton denied he did anything wrong — and then blamed any plagiarism on graduate students and others who assisted him with his writing.

Former Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll saw his ministry unravel, in part, over accusations in 2013 of plagiarism. This year, best-selling author and blogger Ann Voskamp borrowed the words of Cynthia Occelli and “then put those words into her dad’s mouth” to create a folksy anecdote for one of her books, according to World Magazine. To her credit, Voskamp apologized, and the publisher later removed the quote.

We also see this kind of borrowing in the pulpit. Earlier this year, a church plant planned to hire a new pastor who would simply act out sermons from well-known pastors. Another pastor preached a sermon that left his congregation in tears — only to lose his job after a listener realized it was taken word for word from someone else’s sermon online.

Some Christian leaders are expected to regularly produce new, unique content while maintaining busy schedules. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The Bible doesn’t specifically address plagiarism, but Scripture is replete with strong language prohibiting both lying and stealing. Plagiarism includes both of those practices.

Why is this happening with such frequency?

Our clamoring after Christian “rock stars” — paired with the sheer volume of content those in the spotlight are expected to produce — has created the perfect environment for slipshod attribution and theft of content from lesser-known authors.

Publishers choose authors with surefire platform numbers to hedge their risk (understandable, since theirs is a business, not a ministry). Ministry leaders with overextended schedules must create content to feed that hungry machine. Under pressure, they may hire others to write their books (and their ghostwriters may lift content), they may blatantly take words from others, or they may be so overtaxed that they neglect to attribute and cite sources.

Our culture’s obsession with Christian celebrities has everything to do with a man-made kingdom built on fame and wealth and little to do with the Kingdom of God, where little is much, the last is first, and money and God cannot be simultaneously served.

The sin goes both ways — from the celebrities intoxicated by fame to the followers idolizing those people.

And the results can be absurd, especially when compared with the way Jesus conducted himself on earth — in poverty, integrity and honesty. Some examples:

“Research suggests a high number of people with narcissistic personality disorder end up in ministry,” warns Katelyn Beaty, former managing editor of Christianity Today. “Narcissists are skilled power wielders, using manipulation, gaslighting and deceit to consolidate power for selfish ends.”

Plagiarism thrives in this kind of system.

Producing unique content can be very difficult. Ideas, phrases and more are sometimes taken from others. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

It would be better for leaders to step back for a moment and take the long view, creating careful and truthful work. Proverbs 13:11 cautions, “Wealth obtained by fraud will dwindle, but whoever earns it through labor will multiply it” (HCSB).

Words are labor. Turning phrases takes time. Integrity displays itself in small acts. Consumers can help by demanding thoughtful, original work and by calling out those who steal content.

Perhaps we should revisit the idea of Sabbath, take a holy selah, and produce content that author Cal Newport calls “deep work” — the kind of words that are hard-won, mined from our own experience of Jesus in the mundane of life.

If authors feel the pressure to produce to the point of using someone else’s creativity while parading it as their own, repentance is in order. Hurry produces plagiarism, as does greed.

Our celebrity-driven culture sadly overlooks it, but our Lord does not.

It’s lying and stealing, plain and simple.

(Mary DeMuth is a podcaster, speaker and the author of three dozen books. Her latest is “The Seven Deadly Friendships.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Mary DeMuth

48 Comments

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  • It’s lying and stealing, plain and simple.

    Since “Christians” have overwhelmingly jumped on the Trump bandwagon with complete abandon, they know full well that statement is no longer true. In Trumpworld, lying, cheating, and stealing no longer matter, unless of course you get caught doing it, at which point you obfuscate, deny, and double down. Owning up is for losers.

  • Plagiarism seems to be a problem for some authors. The challenge is biblical and Christ-centered creativity meeting needs of the contemporary communities. The various prophets of the Tanakh-Old Testament took the ideas and teachings of Moses to different directions, applying them to changing circumstances in their various communities. Likewise, the four ethnic Gospels have a similar pattern and somewhat similar narratives with specific ethnic differences of emphases. The churches found the differences important, emphasizing the differences between Jewish, Roman, and Greek audiences. Likewise today, an author takes some specific teachings, or experiences of Jesus, and applies them to a variety of contemporary circumstances in their own words and style.

  • For the last twenty years of his ministry my dad never, and I mean never, preached a sermon that lasted for more than 5 minutes.

    He said it was because his job was to impart a simple message, and that if he couldn’t do it in five minutes it would be no better done in twenty.

    I also know that he hated preparing sermons – but he did, and each one was unique and his – despite the embarrassment he sometimes caused family members who featured in his oration.

  • Would that there were more like your dad out there! In this day and age of TMI and sensory overload, if you can’t say it in five minutes you might as well not even bother, IMO. Sadly, there are lots of clerical egos bothering captive audiences out there with seemingly endless orations.

  • “Producing unique content can be very difficult. Ideas, phrases and more are sometimes taken from others. Image courtesy of Creative Commons.”

  • I really enjoyed this story, but there is a dimension of the issue of plagiarism in a faith context that is worth adding, especially with regard to sermons. For centuries, people giving sermons used previously existing work without acknowledgement. In many communities it was perfectly acceptable. I don’t know about re-purposing an entire sermon without acknowledgement, but a good line, a trope, or even a paragraph was fine. Depending on how you read scripture, you can even find this in one of the New Testament’s most freighted moments, as Jesus on the Cross says “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is from Psalm 22. (Of course, some people hold that the Holy Spirit helped King David prophesy the Gospel by retrojecting it into the Psalms. But if you believe that, you still have to contend with other examples.) For most of the history of Christianity, the only reason to quote someone by name would be because naming that person (Augustine, or Peter Lombard) would add authority to your work. A lot of other things got shared around. I would say that one of the issues here is that at some point (perhaps at the end of the 18th century?) even religious writers moved into an economy where, as you write, “Words are labor,” and labor is a commodity. It seems to me, at least in the cases you mention, that the borrower should have been as aware of that as the lender. Then you can talk about fraud; and, if you like, sin. But at least for sermons, I believe there are still websites offering up entire messages that can be used without attribution-relics from a different understanding. To attribute sermonic borrowing to a “narcissistic personality disorder,”and/or a sin, ignores a slab of history that creates a grey area.

  • That is quite the picture of a terminal. I haven’t seen something like that for decades. My first guess is it’s on a Lanier word processor.

    Discussing plagiarism among Christian ministers would not be complete without at least mentioning Martin Luther King.

  • Earlier today you were denying that “politics IS salvation” was a fair assessment of your thinking, and then I read “(s)ince “Christians” have overwhelmingly jumped on the Trump bandwagon with complete abandon”.

  • That was my first guess, but it lacks drives. It might be an Altair, but I think it’s a dumb terminal.

  • There are several explanations for the Psalm 22 words, they all require Faith. The scripture is written by inspired individuals. After the Bible was completed, it is the Word of God. Before the Book was complete, there were messengers ascending and descending in time, resulting in foreknowledge. Of course, Jesus is and always was going back and forth in time.

  • Hey, Mary DeMuth, Evangelicals in John Piper’s circle already dealt with this problem – like, 12 years ago – in Matt Perman and Justin Taylor, “What Is Plagiarism?”, Desiring God, January 23, 2006.

  • Got me looking that up. Thanks. What little I now know follows:

    (1) We all know that Martin Luther “King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the 1963 Washington D.C. Civil Rights March.” But word is, “in September 1962, SNCC activist Prathia Hall had spoken at a service commemorating Mount Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County, Georgia, which had been burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan. The service was attended by King and SCLC’s strategist James Bevel. As Hall prayed, according to Bevel, ‘she spontaneously uttered and rhythmically repeated an inspiring phrase that captured her vision for the future – “I have a dream”‘. Bevel claimed that her use of this memorable phrase is what inspired King to begin to use it as a fixture in his sermons.”

    (2) “Regarding his PhD dissertation, written at Boston University, an academic inquiry concluded in October 1991 … [with] a letter … now attached to King’s dissertation in the university library, noting that numerous passages were included without the appropriate quotations and citations of sources.”

    Right on, Marty!

    Per Wikipedia’s sources.

  • Dude! Don’t know the diff btw messianic prophecy & prophetic fulfillment? The Plagiarist “Jesus on the Cross [you’re spinning here] says ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ … from Psalm 22”? Know the expression, It’s a done deal? Well, that’s what that was.

  • “jump[ing] on the … bandwagon with complete abandon” is impossible. Try it. No can do. “Jump[ing out of] the … bandwagon with complete abandon”, is more gravity-friendly, however. Know your physics prior to ranting, Dudey!

  • The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible
    – George Burns

  • No surprise to me. My Southern Baptist Cult “preacher” brother attended a calvinist madrassa for his theological indoctrination then failed to complete doctoral programs at three different legitimate universities. He then enrolled in a diploma mill where he would “complete” an entire course in a weekend and was granted a “doctorate”. It’s outrageous that he is accorded the same status as those of us who completed a legitimate doctoral program including all the research required in writing a dissertation. He, like the so called church to which he belongs, is nothing but a fraud and its way overdue that we start calling out this deceitful behavior.

  • The Scriptures are clear that one should “give honor to whom honor is due.” It literally take 5 seconds to give credit to authors upon which one draws inspiration… even if one builds a thesis based on their insights.

  • This is not just a Christian problem. It is a major academic problem. You may be interested in my article on plagiarism, which was first published in “The Humanist Forum,” message 8/8, 2 April, 1992, a revised version is found on my university website with other articles on academic fraud at: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~he…/content/courses/courses.htm

    The articles itself can be found at: http://people.ucalgary.ca/…/plague-of-plagiarism.html

    It as probably the first academic article published on the topic on the Internet and one of the earliest in the recent wave of interest in the topic. The point I make is plagiarism is not the same a people coming up with similar ideas and is best identified in terms of the use of five or more exact words. I then give a number of examples and show how plagiarists typically try to disguise their work. Plagiarism is theft and should be treated as such although one has to show systematic plagiarism. People do make mistakes and in some older theses or similar writing typists were responsible for missing quotation marks etc. Importantly, plagiarism is very common in academia. Universities do very little about it if the plagiarist is a “well established academic.” If they are a student or graduate student they get into a lot of trouble. Publishers, including the top ten academic publishers publish plagiarized works and when this is pointed out do little about it. The recent case of a lawsuit against a Christian publisher is an exception.

    Having said this it is important to recognize things like common usage and the fact that sometimes people come up with very similar ideas that can seem like plagiarism when there was no possibility of contact between them. So one has to be very careful before concluding similar writings are plagiarized. That is why exact wording is important.

  • Any good propagandist knows they must continually produce content for their audience so their audience doesn’t wander away and have a chance to hear contradictory information that debunks the propagandist.

  • Another way of looking it, of course, is Daddy had really nothing to say. To teach. To believe. To yearn. His proto-Atheism must’ve rubbed you not the wrong way, but the right way, i.e. toward becoming the Rationalizing Atheist that you are now, having really nothing to say. To teach. To believe. To yearn. Nothing, that is, but Nothingness itself. Emptiness. All for nothing.

    Unlike the Psalm says, Thine cup runneth … not runneth over … but runneth on Empty.

    Thanks an awful lot, Dad.

  • The saying, A friend closer than a brother, must’ve come from Atheists like you. And so fulfills this prophecy:

    “Brother will betray brother … and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents … You[r Southern Baptist Cult ‘preacher’ brother] will be hated by all because of The Christ Jesus’ name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.”

    Please pass this word to “[your] Southern Baptist Cult ‘preacher’ brother” for me: “ENDURE [stan] to the end”.

    Source: Matthew 10:21-22.

  • You’re misled & misleading. That Romans 13 passage doesn’t deal with author-ship, but with author-ities:

    “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore … render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”

    Source: Romans 13:1-2, 7.

  • My father would have forgiven you.

    He was a Christian – you and I are not; I am honest about it.

  • CORRECTION: “[Your] dad never, and [you] mean never, … would have forgiven [me] …that lasted for more than 5 minutes.”

  • I’m pretty sure from having, unlike you, known him he would have forgiven you absolutely. You might well have insisted upon creating a further need for additional forgiveness – which you would have received. I suspect he would then have gently but firmly dissociated himself from you, as he did whenever mentally disturbed parishioners became irrationally and persistently abusive.

    I note that you do not quarrel with the accuracy of my second sentence.

  • To DoggieBackBone here, his very own trolling statement – “If [Christians] couldn’t do … sermon … in five minutes it would be no better done in twenty” – isn’t “irrationally and persistently abusive”, because he’s a Self-Rationalizing Atheist, thanks to his Daddy-O’s Proto-Atheism. A born-from-above, fired-up and die-hard follower of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation calling that trolling statement “irrationally and persistently abusive”, isn’t “irrationally and persistently abusive”: Because this troll is characteristic & typical of The Empty Atheism of Nothingness he has been peddling at Religion News Service.

  • You had to change what I wrote (“he” to “Christian”) to enable you to pretend that I’d intended to convey something I did not intend. Fail.

    Deceitful, besmirching the character of someone you know nothing about, playground name-calling – the Jesus of the Gospels had a message for you – Matt: 7:23

    I can’t help but feel that what you were born-from-above with wasn’t the Holy Spirit – it was something expelled by a bird, the fire you think is heating you is burning brimstone and die-hard simply means too dumb to realise one can be wrong. As to following the Christ Jesus of the Gospels – I’m content to leave it to people who have read your posts and the Sermon on the Mount to form their own opinions.

  • Wait, what? – “i.g.n.o.r.a.n.c.e.”? Let me see:

    impeccability? – checked!
    groundedness? – checked!
    nonconformity? – checked!
    optimism? – checked!
    rebelliousness? – checked!
    acumen? – checked!
    nurturing? – checked!
    candour? – checked!
    earnestness? – checked!

    Right you are about that – thanks, man!

  • Add arrogance to the list of descriptors in addition to fraud, heretic, blasphemer, one who commits sacrilege, etc.

  • Seems to have be an old problem Jer 23:30 Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, who steal my words from one another.

  • “arrogance”?
    “fraud”?
    “heretic”?
    “blasphemer”?
    “sacrilege”?

    “a.f.h.b.s.”?
    “afhbs”?

    WHAT IS THAT, ‘YO ?!

    Oh that doesn’t count? Wanna try again? Go ahead.

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