Plagiarism has been in the news in the Christian world over the last two years, partially causing the downfall of at least one megachurch pastor1. Let me be clear plagiarism is wrong. You can’t take someone’s words and make them yours.
But where do you get an original idea from? Austin Kleon, author of Steal like an Artist would argue that you don’t. There is no such thing as an original idea.
Every artist gets asked the quesiton, “Where did you get your ideas?” The honest artist answers, “I steal them”.
There is nothing new under the sun. The key is to be honest with your stealing. For the sake of ethics I will call it “borrowing” and watch the discussion unfold as to whether ideas can be “owned” or are a part of the community.
Most of us got into preaching because we saw someone who inspired us. We had that moment “I want to do that“. It’s not because we wanted to be the centre of attention (or it shouldn’t have been) but because we saw the majesty of preaching God’s Word. We have heroes and let’s face it, we try to emulate them. Some of my heroes include Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Phillip Jensen, Don Carson, Tim Keller, Ajith Fernando and Dick Lucas. I remember as a young Christian trying to find anything and everything by Lloyd-Jones. Others I have learned different things from.
So if you are going to borrow from preachers, here are my 5 rules of borrowing for preaching, based on Kleon’s advice to artitsts:
- Honour and Credit. One of the main differences of plagiarism and borrowing is that you don’t acknowledge where you got your material from. This is stealing. As preachers we are a part of a community and if someone is worth copying and borrowing from, then they are worth honouring by crediting when they should be. If you are going to borrow an illustration, say where you got it from. “I was listening to this other preacher…”
- Study and Don’t Skim. This is important for Kleon: “What to copy is a little bit trickier. Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” You need to ask why did they do this rather than that? The great thing for me is that most of my hero’s have written about preaching and so I can see where their working is. One great exercise is to work out what you would do and then compare it to a hero.
- Steal from the Many rather than the One. Copying is one thing, copying from many is another. “The writer Wilson Mizner said if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, its research”. Don’t just steal from one person, steal from many!! Gary Panter (a cartoonist): “If you have one person you are influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!” Of that list above, I don’t want to be everything of all those preachers, there are some things I want from some and others from others.
- Work your Weaknesses. You can’t copy perfectly and that is what makes you you. Kleon talks about how Kobe Bryant wanted to copy some of his heroes’ moves on the basketball court. But his body type wasn’t the same and so he could not pull it off in quite the same way. He adapted the moves to make them his own and this is what made him a great basket baller that other people wanted to emulate. You can’t preach like these other guys because God didn’t make you and gift you that way. If you are not funny and your hero is, don’t try and be funny the same way.
- Emulate don’t Plagiarise. If I was going to sum it up it would be with this last rule. There is a difference between plagiarism, copying and emulating. “Plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse engineering.” And then you take it another step further: “Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through to your own thing.” Learn from your heroes, but be the best preacher God has made you and gifted you to be.
1. If you missed the controversy with Mark Driscoll, then its probably a good thing, but in case you really want to chase it up, here is Christianity Today’s article on whether it was plagiarism or citation errors.