The evangelical world is being plagued by ghostwriters in the sky.

Charles Jones, A leader of the church, has some ideas his friends think would be helpful to a wider audience. “Why don’t you publish them as a book, Charlie? I get a lot more from you than I do from most books I read.”

But Charlie says, “Oh no, I’m no writer!” And there the matter rests. Eventually, however, someone suggests that Charlie seek the help of a capable writer.

So Charlie approaches him. “Money isn’t my main object,” he says. “I just want to be helpful to more people. Will you at least talk to me about my ideas? I have some notes, too.”

“Yes,” says the writer.

In the course of time an agreement is signed. The writer interviews Charlie extensively to discover his views, looks over Charlie’s scattered notes, and listens to tapes of some of his talks. The writer spots the key issues, works out the general outline with Charlie’s aid, and then writes a draft in his own words.

No ethical problem so far.

Then Charlie begins to think, “After all, these are my thoughts. Why should I share credit for them with anyone?” He begins to visualize the book jacket, The Christian View of Holiness, by Charles Harmon Jones. It has a good ring to it. He says it over aloud a few times. It grows on him.

Finally he tells the writer, “I want to give you credit for your help. I couldn’t have done it without you. But instead of putting your name on the cover with mine, I’ll say in the preface how much I owe to you. Of course this won’t change our financial agreement.”

The writer, gulping once, says with false modesty, “Well, Charlie, if that’s what you want, I guess I can go along with it.”

Then a publisher is found. “There is no question in my mind,” he says, “that this has to be solely in Charlie’s name. He’s the one with the name recognition. We’ll sell a lot more books that way.”

So publisher, writer, and source all agree; the book appears, and Charlie is swamped with praise.

“Charlie, I never knew you were a writer. That was a fine book. Clear and easy to read, but it packed a wallop. Thank you for writing it.” Charlie finds himself manuevered into the position where he has to accept credit for both what he did and what the writer did. He says, “Thanks, Jack, I just thank the Lord for his help.”

Frank Appeal To Conscience?

Let’s analyze this biblically. First, Paul says “… we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2, NIV).

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But can Charlie commend himself in this way? If one of those readers who had complimented him on his writing (“I didn’t know you were a writer, Charlie!”) were now to find out that the book had two authors, Charlie and Jim, how would he feel? A bit let down? A bit deceived?

Theft With A Modern Wrinkle?

The commandments, surprisingly, may apply here. The eighth says, “Thou shalt not steal.” Is there a sense in which Charlie (supported by his publisher, and with Jim’s limp-wristed acquiescence) has stolen credit due Jim? God gave a gift of writing to Jim that he didn’t give to Charlie. Yet Charlie received acclaim as a man of both insight and writing ability.

Now, of course, Jim should count others better than himself (Phil. 2:3). But do we not feel a sense of loss, a certain failure of the fellowship, a lack in community when the body of Christ at large does not have the opportunity to turn to Jim and say, “You did a good job with Charlie’s ideas, Jim. Thank you.”

When Is A Lie Not A Lie?

We should also consider the ninth commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Asked who wrote that book, any reader would say, “Charles Jones.” After all, that is what the jacket and blurb and title page bore witness to. But in fact, Charlie did not write that book. Jim and Charlie did the job together.

So publisher and supposed author have entered into a conspiracy to deceive the public. This is becoming so common in the religious world that if not stopped it could become an evangelical Watergate—an authorgate.

Why should the publisher and apparent author deceive the reading public this way? “Well,” says the publisher, “is it really deception? After all, the ideas were the ideas of Charlie.” Yes, but the words were the words of Jim. Shades of Jacob conning Isaac out of Esau’s blessing!

Suppose instead the book jacket had said, “by Charles Harmon Jones, with James Q. Wilson.” Some such phrasing would bear true witness to the state of affairs. And according to the ninth commandment, God would have been pleased.

Can We Covet Someone’S Gift?

The tenth commandment says, “Thou shalt not covet.” One wonders what goes through the mind of a person who cannot write a book but wants his name in print. Charlie turned over and over in his mind the words, The Christian View of Holiness by Charles Harmon Jones. His ego fattened on them. He swelled. But is that only the Walter Mitty coming out in Charlie? Perhaps this explanation would be suitable if the words had remained in Charlie’s imagination. When a real book appears, though—one we can buy and lay on the coffee table and discuss with others and compliment Charlie on—it goes beyond a pleasant fantasy to downright covetousness.

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By refusing to put Jim’s name on the cover, Charlie shows how he covets Jim’s gift, and is ready to distort the truth to satisfy his thirst for what is not his own. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife … nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s”—including his gift of writing. Such covetousness dampens the enthusiasm of emerging evangelical writers, and retards the development of fine new writers committed to the Bible.

And perhaps coveting of a more serious sort is involved. Jesus said, “He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him” (John 7:18, NIV). Whose honor is Charlie really coveting?

Ghostly Writers

The problem is not restricted to ghostwritten books. God’s spotlight of realism, the Ten Commandments, shines on magazine articles as well. Suppose a man writes an attack on feminism and then gets to thinking about the resistance of his intended female readers. “They will say I’m a man, accuse me of male chauvinism, and refuse to be receptive to what I say.”

What to do? Simple, some would say: Use a pseudonym, a female pseudonym. The offending male name is purged from the article, and an acceptable author’s name is listed. Is this ghostwriting? No, it involves no writer who produces the text for a nonwriter—no Jim who writes in Charlie’s place. Yet going back to the ninth commandment, we see we are forbidden to bear false witness.

Perhaps this is a case not of ghostwriting but ghostly writing. The apparent writer is nonexistent, a ghostly form of no substance. But suppose one of the readers, a woman, now goes to a writers’ conference where she hears the author admit that when he writes attacks on the feminist movement he always uses a female pseudonym. As she sits there listening to him, how will she feel? Manipulated? Deceived? Betrayed? That writer is in the process of losing his most precious possession as a writer—his believability.

Another situation arises in magazines where the editorial staff themselves choose to write most of the articles. To them the problem is that the resulting issues sound ingroupy—ten articles by four people whose names keep popping up. As a solution they might be tempted to fake it, to use pseudonyms, to make it appear that the issue was the work of many authors instead of just a few.

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A better editorial solution might be to publish some without a name, or with “name withheld.” The reader is then not deceived, because no name is given. A still better solution might be for the editor to develop a larger group of reliable writers so he does not have to rely solely on his small staff.

From the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” we can draw some such principle as this: The reader has a right to know that if an author’s name is given, it is the author’s true name.

Honesty Demands Creativity

Someone may pose an exception: “A Russian Christian in touch with Western magazines wishes to bear witness to the true condition in his church in relation to the government. But if his name appears in the Western press, he will be imprisoned. Should he, bowing to the authority of the ninth commandment, bear true witness, state his name, and lose his freedom?”

Such a problem raises another point. Deceit in publishing is less a matter of being too creative than of not being creative enough. There are many ways by which an author can have his cake and eat it too. The editor of the magazine publishing the Russian’s article can either use “name withheld,” or perhaps invent a name and then indicate after the author’s name that this is a pseudonym for a Russian Christian whose life would be endangered if his true name were revealed.

The effect is that the reader is not misled, and the editor and writer keep their integrity and honor God by submitting to his commandment.

Creativity—more creativity—could also be the answer in the article on feminism. Suppose the author, a man, had talked the issue over with his wife, and they had come to agreement. Could they then not have written the article together? It could appear with coauthors “Betty and John Moses.” Then the feminist reader would see that both a woman and a man were involved.

“Not enough of a difference,” an objector might say. “If a man’s name is there anywhere, it will turn off women readers.” But at some point we have to do what David did—trust God to bridge the gap. David was nothing to Goliath, but God made the difference.

A Matter Of Trust

The growing tendency today toward ghost- and ghostly writing may boil down to this: a canny but this-worldly approach to life, a playing of all the angles, a cunning attempt to skirt the edge of moral forthrightness, a refusal to trust ourselves to God to get across his message against all opposition.

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Perhaps we must renew our trust in the Holy Spirit, the Great Communicator, so that with Paul we may then trust ourselves “to even man’s conscience in the sight of God.”

The ghost- or ghostly writer would then protect his integrity, and stand up to be counted. The nonwriter with insights would receive the just credit for his work. The publisher would seize the opportunity to acknowledge his commitment to the truth.

And the reader would be told the truth.

We have laws governing such matters as truth in packaging and truth in advertising. The last three commandments constitute a kind of law governing truth in writing. It is time for readers to be freed from the borderline deceit (and conceit) involved in ghost- and ghostly writing. The reader has the right to know that if an author’s name is given, it is the true author’s true name.

Paul Fromer, associate professor of English at Wheaton College, Illinois, is a former editor of HIS magazine. He serves part-time as deputy editor for CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

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