The Twittersphere lit up this past week with the revelation that Mark Driscoll's new book includes passages that bear a striking resemblance (though not quite word-for-word equivalence) to material from the book that is cited as their source. Further digging found a Bible study guide published by Driscoll's church in 2009 that did lift an entire passage, word-for-word, from an InterVarsity Press commentary on 1 and 2 Peter. The ensuing controversy has revolved largely around one of the last truly scandalous words in the English language: plagiarism.
I believe this scandal is largely misplaced.
To be sure, there is something troubling here, which I'll get to in a moment. But the fact that popularizers like Driscoll borrow material in books like A Call to Resurgence, without documenting the source of every turn of phrase in painstaking detail? Without excusing the carelessness, that's about as shocking (shocking!) as Captain Renault's discovery, in the movie Casablanca, that there was gambling going on at Rick's Café Américain.
As for the unattributed copying in the church's Bible study guide, by "Pastor Mark Driscoll": this was, without a doubt, improper use. But rather than tar it with the explosive word plagiarism, with that word's connotations of intent to reap rewards by presenting others' work as one's own, why not simply call it a mistake?
A mistake that needed correcting, to be sure. But plagiarism? Let's give the research assistant who was at the time writing under the name "Pastor Mark Driscoll" a break. Given the volume of writing that "Pastor Mark Driscoll" needs to be seen as doing, such mistakes are bound to happen. They require no witch hunt and certainly no attempt at defense—just prompt correction and apology when they emerge, and efforts to make sure that they do not recur. The measured and calm statement from InterVarsity Press (full disclosure—my publisher) struck exactly the right tone: no outrage, no vitriol, just a calm statement that improper use had occurred and needed to be set right.
But there is something truly troubling here, in my view. Not that "Pastor Mark Driscoll" carelessly borrowed a section of a commentary for a church-published Bible study, but that "Pastor Mark Driscoll" was named as the sole author of that Bible study in the first place. In fact, when Driscoll introduced the series on Peter to his church in a 2009 letter (quoted by Religion News Service's Jonathan Merritt), he forthrightly credited two researchers: Justin Holcomb, who worked for an outside research firm called the Docent Group, and Crystal Griffin, a deacon at Mars Hill. (Glenn Lucke, founder of the Docent Group, told me his firm's records show that Holcomb provided Mars Hill all the documentation needed to properly cite the IVP commentary.) With their help, he told his congregation, "I am now sending out literally thousands of pages of content a year, as well as preaching and teaching hundreds of hours of content a year."
So why were their names not on the final work? This is what is troubling about much of the work attributed to celebrity figures in the Christian world today—it is not their own work. It is the work of teams of people, often including highly skilled and dedicated researchers and writers.