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No Posturing in Borrowed Plumes

by Hunter Beckelhymer

Dr. Beckelhymer is associate professor of homiletics at Texas Christian Universityís Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, Texas. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 6, 1974, pp. 138-142. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Recently a student of mine, whom we shall call Student A, submitted a sermon outline "in partial fulfillment of course requirements" (as conventional academic phraseology so plaintively puts it. I immediately recognized the title and the four main points, in Sequence and verbatim, as the sermon outline of a nationally known preacher in an eastern city, whom we shall call Preacher B. We happened to have a commercial recording of that particular sermon in our library. When I brought this fact to the attention of Student A, he unhappily admitted that the sermon was not his own work. But, he said, he had borrowed it from Preacher C, a less well known preacher in a midwestern city, who had delivered it from his pulpit without acknowledging his indebtedness to Preacher B. And a fine sermon it was.

I told a faculty colleague, Professor D, of the incident (without mentioning Student A by name). His laughing reply was that the whole business was poetic justice of a sort. On an eastern trip not long since, he explained he had gone to morning worship in the church of Preacher B, whom he greatly admired. It chanced that on that particular Sunday, Preacher B used almost verbatim a sermon by Preacher E, which sermon Professor D had included with due credit in an anthology of sermons he had edited. When he met Professor D at the door afterwards, Preacher Bís embarrassment was acute. He had been caught in an impossible time-bind that week, he said, and had resorted under pressure to a practice he deplored, had rarely if ever indulged in before and would certainly never follow again -- sentiments very like those expressed to me by Student A.

This is surely a remarkable case of homiletical hanky-panky. But I fear it is not at all unusual; it may be more like the tip of an iceberg. Shall we laugh over it or cry? Certainly ministers cannot afford to have the suspicion of plagiarism added to the burden under which they must labor today. Why then do they lay themselves open to it? For the moment, letís give then, the benefit of the doubt and name the extenuating circumstances.

I

First, is the often cited fact that the parish preacher is under a nearly impossible production schedule. A sermon per week is equivalent to a 400-page volume per year. The sheer quantity of material -- not to mention quality -- represents an awesome demand upon any man.

Second, all sermons draw, theoretically, on the same primary sources the Scriptures. Granted that the riches of Christ are unsearchable, there are still only so many ways of outlining a sermon on the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, and there is only so much to be said on the parable of the soils or the parable of the Pharisee and the publican praying in the temple. And Jesus said it tolerably well. Under such circumstances originality is hard to come by indeed. Borrowing and repetition, whether intentional or unintentional, are inevitable. Besides, what minister is so systematic in collecting data that he remembers the primary source of every illustration, every major idea, or even every bare-bones sermon outline he uses? My generation of preachers avidly read Harry Emerson Fosdick. Years afterward it was difficult for us to preach about anything Fosdick preached about without being in his debt in ways we were not even aware of. (I have found out as much -- to my embarrassment -- in rereading Fosdickís sermons and my own later.)

Third, a sermon is neither an academic term paper nor a paper to be read at the annual meeting of some learned society. A good preacher, however conscientious he may be in tracing his materials to their source, will not choke the flow of his morning sermon with a profusion of oral footnotes. And he can use the escape hatch "as somebody has said" only so many times in each sermon -- the fewer times, the better.

These circumstances make genuinely unintentional plagiarism a fact of life for every parish minister.

One more circumstance deserves mention; namely, that not all parish ministers can expect to be excellent in the pulpit. Many menís gifts lie primarily in other areas of ministry, and through these they bless their congregations with truly redemptive ministries that include the "proclaiming" of the gospel. What harm then if of Sunday mornings such men let the really fine preachers carry most of the preaching load for them by providing sermon introductions, basic outlines and illustrative material? (To be sure, few would want to go so far as a seminary classmate of mine who regularly, and without acknowledging his source, preached Fosdickís sermons in his student church because he figured that his little congregation "deserved the best." You canít fault his motive -- at least not the one he verbalized.)

Writing in the Wall Street Journal for March 14, 1972 (p. 1) , George Mitchell estimates at 40,000 the number of subscribers to publishing services which issue "weekly texts or tapes that clergymen can deliver verbatim." Mitchell quotes a Chicago pastor as saying: "Frankly, I donít have the time or the training to produce a quality sermon every week.... I donít think Iím shortchanging my congregation if I find something suitable from an outside source." Judging by the popularity of volumes of sermons, ministersí manuals and pulpit digests, many ministers share this pastorís views.

II

Perhaps we now admit the possibility of a nonmalignant strain of plagiarism, however much we may deplore it. But having made all due allowances, I believe that the use of other menís material in our own sermons still brings us up against a profoundly ethical issue. According to The Random House Dictionary, plagiarism is "the appropriation or imitation of the language, ideas, and thoughts of another author, and representation of them as oneís original work" (italics mine). That last phrase is the accusing finger. There is nothing wrong with appropriation; indeed, education involves the appropriation of oneís heritage. It is in the representation that the trouble lies. Ethically, the issue can be readily identified; it is dishonesty, pretense.

Technically, plagiarism is easy to avoid -- by the preacherís simply making sufficient and graceful acknowledgment whenever he knows that the language and ideas he presents are not his own original work. Acknowledgment is the sovereign preventive and cure of plagiarism. The stylistic issue may be a bit complicated, but the ethical and technical issues are not.

But weighty as the ethical issue of dishonesty is, a weightier one yet has to do with the ministerís calling, vocation and self-understanding. Surely every minister has some sense of his personal responsibility to be a spokesman for God, a mediator of the Eternal to his times. In meeting that dread responsibility he needs, of course, all the human help he can get, from the community of faith and from secular wisdom, But the angle of vision must be his own, and the synthesis must be the work of God upon his own conscience, heart and mind. "Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another" (Jer. 23:29-30).

The burden of proclamation is each manís own. Those of us whose gifts of intellect and speech are manifestly mediocre bear exactly the same responsibility as do persons of greater talents. But is there not more hope than despair in that fact? The Lord expects of his spokesmen that they wrestle afresh with his Word and his peopleís need and proclaim what he gives them to see. But we are led to believe that in this as in other responsibilities the Lordís judgment of "Well done" or "You slothful servant" depends not upon the magnitude of the servantís gifts but upon the fidelity of his stewardship of them.

Obviously, hubris is a constant danger here. Where does professional pride -- and the preacher is a professional -- cease to be a strength and become a snare and a delusion? I freely admit that I take greater satisfaction in using my own insight and craftsmanship (such as they are) in preparing a sermon than in using those of any other preacher, however much more scholarly or eloquent he may be. I had rather discern a cry of human need voiced in a novel, or discover the grace of God profanely proclaimed in a drama on the stage or on the street, than retell what some other has discerned there. I had rather create a sermon illustration than borrow one, if I can. Mere pride? The Lord knows; I donít.

III

There is much evidence that those who hear us also prefer that we roll our own. They can read all the good sermons they want to. Do not our congregations expect from their own ministers that they wrestle honestly and immediately with the Christian faith and the issues of human life, and preach from that inner encounter rather than give a digest of what other ministers have said? It is at this point that the truth-half in Marshall McLuhanís half-truth, "The medium is the message," speaks to our condition. The minister standing to preach before a congregation is a medium. If he be only a purveyor of other menís experience with the Eternal, or a synthesizer of the secondhand, he is that medium-message.

But -- as P. T. Forsyth said long ago (in Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind [Hodder & Stoughton, 1908], p. 284) -- let a man arise to preach "with an equal knowledge of his sin, his Savior, and his subject." Let him bring to his words the witness of his own struggle with the Scriptures, his own contention with God in prayer, his own vulnerable love for his people, his own "daily pressure... of... anxiety for all the churches." Then medium and message become not only single but singular. The rhetorical quality may drop, but the spiritual power increases, "When God makes a man into a fisher of men," says Rudolph Bohren (Preaching and Community [John Knox Press, 1965], p. 48) "this man cannot be content merely with casting his net or line; he is himself a worm wriggling on the hook." Live bait!

The issue, then, is deeper than a studentís grade, a distinguished preacherís embarrassment, an undistinguished preacherís pretensions, or a homiletics professorís pedantry in drawing a crooked line of definition between plagiarism and legitimate borrowing. The issue is no less than that of the preacherís vocation and viability as a spokesman for his God. Of every preacher, however limited his powers, Karl Barth wrote (The Preaching of the Gospel [Westminster, 1961], p. 52): ĎĎHe is the one who has been called, he it is who must speak. Let there be no posturing in borrowed plumes"


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