What now seems forever ago, some editors asked if I'd be willing to try my hand at a book of devotionals for kids. My own kids were kids then, and it seemed like something I'd like to try. I wasn't a preacher, but these folks were serious.
Really, it was fun--a joy--and it paid well.
Now all of this was long before the internet, so whenever I really needed to know something, like for instance how much a sperm whale weighed, I'd yell upstairs and turn one of my kids into a research assistant, enlist them to run two blocks west to the library and look it up for a buck or two.
Technologically, we were in the Age of Stone Tools. It would take me about ten seconds to weigh a sperm whale today, and I wouldn't even have to let my fingers do the walking. I can simply ask the computer in front of me. (Can you guess why some libraries are in trouble?)
I can only imagine how helpful the world wide web is to a preacher these days. With so much information so blessedly available, coming up with fresh ideas has to be easy pickins.
An article in Christian Century, "Plagiarism in the Pulpit," poses a very real question with a stiff opening line: "Thou shalt not steal." Then, it lists a number of Christian notables in the U. S. of A., who were caught red-handed, fingers on the keys, real preaching superstars too. What's more, plagiarism is an equal opportunity employer; it's brought down Baptists and Anglicans, fundys and lefties.
But is lifting sermon material from sources other than your own mind and soul and passing it off as if it were your own really plagiarism? As the article notes, the sheer abundance of information in this Information Age, takes the edge off our sense of sin.
Besides, we are, all of us, composite constructions of what we read and see and hear. I likely wouldn't be saying anything at all about pulpit phonies if I hadn't read it in a magazine. And I didn't always do referencing either: when my son came back from the town library with the goods on sperm whales, I didn't credit World Book. Who needs to go to confession here--and why?
A very wise old preacher/editor I worked for once long ago, told me, long before the internet, that it really wasn't all that tough to be a good preacher because good preaching was just a matter of good reading. Okay, he was being a little cutesy, but I believed him then and I still do. He wasn't talking about baldly lifting other preachers' sermons and passing them off as your own; he was talking about reading in general--articles and books that, like sunshine, make a person grow.
It would be interesting to know how much plagiarism got past me as an English teacher for the last forty years. I'd honestly like to think not much, but I'm probably kidding myself. Some profs I knew were sticklers, seemed even to enjoy grilling students and hanging them thereafter. I was always too lenient--after all, I did it myself when I was in college.
Anyway, I trusted my editing geiger counter. After an entire semester or more, if I knew the kid, I knew what he or she could do, knew them in fact, by style. We all have our own, after all, like a fingerprint even. When a Hemingway handed in something written by a Faulkner, I could smell it. I'd call the kid in. Every time I did, I got a confession. Went through plenty of Kleenex, believe me.
When preachers deliver sermons that aren't theirs, trust seeps out of the stained glass and foul barnyard odors replace it. That cheap kind of plagiarism is stealing.
But show me preachers who don't read or aren't shaped by what they do, and I'll show you whole churches full of losers, which we weren't last night, a fact for which, this morning, I'm thankful.