God Will Give You the Words, So Don't Steal These
In a recurring dream, I see myself writing in an old attic or barn, wood beams above me and panels around me. I don’t know whether I’m writing on a laptop or by hand; all I know is there’s blinding white in front of me and the words have run out. I used to think it was a nightmare about writer’s block, but it’s evolved slowly over the years to a worse fear: There are no words left to say about anything.
Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, “Of the making of books there is no end” (v. 12:12). My dad used to tell me when I whined as a child, “Same song, different verse.” In an anthropology class I read Noam Chomsky saying there are untold numbers of ways to say the same thing without ever using the same words in the same order. The possibilities seem endless.
Why then, the fear of words of running out?
Our fear of finitude of ideas drives writers to steal from others. Austin Kleon writes in his best-selling book, Steal Like an Artist, “Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.” Unfortunately, though, many copy, copy, copy and instead of finding themselves, they lose themselves.
Seasoned bloggers know that when they press publish, releasing their words into the wild abyss of the Internet, they lose a bit of themselves. Not just because their once-private words have become public, but because they can no longer control where, when, and how those words are used.
Loyal readers flag me about every other month when they notice cut-and-paste hack jobs swiped from my personal blog. I mostly assume that someone’s grandmother doesn’t know Internet protocol or some kid wanted words to put on a stock photo with a hazy Instagram filter. The most recent case was different, though. After the third email came, I clicked through to spot whole paragraphs, paraphrased sentence for sentence, from a few of my own posts. I clicked further to discover this new blogger’s “about” page co-opted my own bio word for word, sandwiched by paragraphs of her own details.
Her words sounded like mine, my readers had said. Well, because they were mine.
I’m a gentle sort and slow to accuse, but I sent her a long and careful email trying to help her see what plagiarism is, where she had plagiarized me, and what the consequences were for a habit of plagiarizing. Plagiarism has become easy and common in the digital age, and Christian writers, speakers, teachers, and preachers, unfortunately have not been immune.
It’s never been easier to cut and paste and declare your ownership. All it takes is a compelling idea spotted online, a good thesaurus, and a quick rewriting to adjust key points, and you’re plagiarizing before you know it—and reaping the affirmation and positive feedback.
D. A. Carson in this interview with Collin Hansen says, “Changing a few words here and there in someone else's work does not let you off the hook; retelling personal experiences as if they were yours when they were not makes the offense all the uglier. That this offense is easy to commit because of the availability of source material in the digital age does not lessen its wickedness, any more than the ready availability of porn in the digital age does not turn pornography into a virtue.”
World recently covered new safeguards being used to screen for plagiarism among Christian authors. The magazine quoted former InterVarsity Press associate publisher for editorial Andy Le Peau: “It’s just easier to pull stuff off the Internet and use it or rework it. There’s this misimpression that because it’s on the web it’s public domain.” Adapting, paraphrasing, quoting, or summarizing without identifying the original source? It’s all plagiarism.
We can show that we take plagiarism seriously in our response to such mistakes, whether they’re intentional or not. (Sometimes we don’t realize an idea got into our heads because we read it elsewhere before, or we forget to add the necessary links.) We should be diligent and transparent in both personal blogs or published manuscripts. I asked the blogger who’d used my words to add links and citations to my original posts; remove the post entirely; or replace the post with an explanation. She responded that she had never plagiarized me but she would add to the post that I had been one of many influences for her thoughts. I let it go.
But deep down, it ate me alive that night. I had the nightmare again, the End of the Words one.
A few years ago the Christian blogosphere went into a tizzy upon learning that Mark Driscoll, megachurch pastor and best-selling author, was not as original as he originally appeared. Not only had Driscoll used assistants who plagiarized (unknowingly or knowingly, we can’t know), but he had also used a marketing company to get his books on the bestseller list.
For Christians who pride themselves on commandments like “Thou shall not lie” and “Thou shall not steal,” these actions—as common as they are for nearly every author on The New York Times list—were reprobate of the worst kind. For all Driscoll’s faults, this was one more common than any top author would like to admit, and it was the beginning to the fast end of his celebrity.
Along with plagiarism, we see the continued rise of ghostwriting as standard practice among celebrity writers. Most “creatives” churning out high rates of content aren’t doing all the research, writing, or editing on their own. It makes practical sense, but also perpetuates the idea that numbers (posts, shares, readers, financial gain) are better than honesty and attribution.
For most bloggers whose ideas and phrases get copied and represented elsewhere, it’s a tough crime to convict. There’s public shaming and copyright threats, but neither guarantee a fix. More than the legal ramifications, we should consider the moral ones. God forbids his children to lie not only because it’s an offense against himself, but because it’s an offense against one another.
In a world where we can’t trust others to appreciate our words and acknowledge them as ours, we can’t trust anyone’s words for what they are. We begin to suspect everyone. Bestsellers, viral blog posts, and even clever tweets suddenly carry with them the scent of the steal: Who said it first? becomes the question of the reader, instead of Who said it best?
T. S. Eliot said, “A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” The Apostle Paul borrowed from ancient poets for his conversations with the philosophers in the book of Acts, though he attributed ownership to the poet himself. This is what a good writer does—make it plain that someone else said it, and then build on the idea with original thought, deeper insight, or greater concepts. Good poets don’t simply take and rearrange, they chew, swallow, and are changed by the words so they can go forward and change.
What is the way forward for the Christian, then, in this “content-driven” media landscape? How does the slow, methodical thinker and creator of beauty move in circles where the bottom line more commonly has nothing to do with words and lines and everything to do with money, fame, or likes on Facebook?
We don’t have to look far in Scripture to see a way. In fact, we find our answer in the first five words of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created.” For the Christian—even as we push for originality, attribution, and truth in our work—we also remember that there is nothing new under the sun, nothing more original than the stunning act of his creation.
We’re all copycats, plagiarizing the work of the perfect Creator, taking creation and rearranging it for our own glory. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment of stringing words together with perfect sound, fluid reading, and elegant cadence, but it’s all a variation on a theme he’s been playing since the beginning. For God, there is no end of the words. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the author and the finisher. He has the first breath and the final word. It’s all his.
Plagiarism in our books, blogs, and sermons is a sin against the original author, but even more, it is a sin against the Original Creator. God gave gifts to his children that he intended to be used for his glory. Stolen goods do not glorify the Father, they mock the gift of creation and creativeness. They are evidence the thief does not trust God to give exactly what they need for their daily bread on earth, like the Israelites trying to stockpile extra manna: it rotted away as quickly as they could gather it.
In Christ I have no need to co-opt another’s gifts or be staunch in the belief that I created my gift on my own. I am free to relax in the churning world of more and more, better and better. I drifted off to sleep after the nightmare had awoken me, once more with words of prayer on my lips. Not just a prayer that my plagiarizer would see her sin and own it fully both to me and to her readers, but a prayer that I would see my Creator as the full owner of every word, every phrase, every paragraph, every biography, and every story. That I would trust he gives enough words for today.