The Real Problem With Mark Driscoll’s “Citation Errors”

And it isn’t plagiarism.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, 10 December 2013.

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.

Christians should have a far higher standard for acknowledging the role of collaboration in creation.

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.

Publishers and public figures often defend this practice of sole authorship as the "industry standard." Indeed, in certain domains, like politics and government, it is taken for granted that top figures write little or none of what is attributed to them. When the economist Larry Summers left Harvard to join the Clinton Administration, he is said to have remarked to his friends, "When I was in academia, it was the greatest possible sin I could commit to sign my name to something I did not write. Now that I'm in government, it's the secret to success."

Even in the Christian world, it is by no means just celebrity pastors who are subject to these pressures and who make use of unattributed assistance. I was surprised when an interview conducted earlier this year about my book Playing God appeared under the name of RNS's Merritt, even though the interview was conducted entirely by a writer named Margot Starbuck who was not named at any point in the final piece. When I contacted Merritt about this yesterday, he promptly and sincerely explained that Starbuck often arranges and conducts interviews for him, preparing the questions in consultation with him. (Starbuck gave the same account of their arrangement.) Without any further prompting from me and clearly wanting to do the right thing, Merritt quickly updated his bio at RNS to make the arrangement clear. There is nothing wrong, per se, with teams of people working together to produce content—that happens every day, including at Christianity Today.

In fact, not only is there nothing wrong with it—Christians of all people should know that all true creation requires collaboration. We believe, after all, that even the Creator God is not one splendidly isolated monad, but three glorious persons who always and everywhere work together in the divine economy. And it is the very nature of God to share power with the ones he creates in his image, male and female.

So Christians should have a far higher standard than the world around us for acknowledging the role of collaboration in creation. And right in the New Testament, we have a model of how that can work: "the letters of Paul."

That is how we speak, in shorthand, of the apostle's letters, but Paul himself was amazingly quick to credit his partners in ministry and, so it seems, fellow authors, even when the letters are written in the first person singular and clearly reflect the apostle's personal heart and mind. "Paul and Sosthenes"—1 Corinthians. "Paul and Timothy"—Philippians and Colossians. "Paul, Silvanus and Timothy"—the Thessalonian correspondence. And Paul's letters are chock full of references to his partners and friends, including those like Phoebe (Rom. 16:1) to whom he entrusted the letters' delivery.

Indeed, one of my favorite verses in the Bible is Romans 16:22, "I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord." From Tertius's name and comment, we can guess that he was a scribe or secretary (not an author in our sense of the word), and probably at least in origin a slave. We can further infer from his name that he was the "third" son born to his parents, a recipe for being overlooked in a world of primogeniture with many mouths to feed—a world where a third child would simply be called "third." And yet Paul interrupts his greetings to the varied members of the household of God in Rome to let "Third" give his own name and his own greeting, in his own hand.

Mark Driscoll is a human being, created in the image of God, with great gifts, real limits, and very likely a genuine calling to ministry. But "Pastor Mark Driscoll," the author of "literally thousands of pages of content a year," the purveyor of hundreds of hours of preaching, is in grave danger of becoming a false image. No human being could do what "Pastor Mark Driscoll" does—the celebrity is actually a complex creation of a whole community of people who sustain the illusion of an impossibly productive, knowledgeable, omnicompetent superhuman.

The real danger here is not plagiarism—it is idolatry.

All idolatry debases the image bearers who become caught up in its train. Idols promise superhuman results, and for a time they can seem to work. But in fact they destroy the true humanity of both those they temporarily elevate and those they anonymously exploit. Nothing good can come from the superhuman figure presented to the world as "Pastor Mark Driscoll"—not for the real human being named Mark Driscoll himself, and not for the image-bearers who may be neglected in his shadow.

Paul—and Phoebe and Tertius—could show us a better way.