Plagiarize This

I was called into the Dean’s office the first week after matriculating into the English program at my university. She was gentle and fierce at the same time. I admired her immediately and was terrified I was about to be ousted for some terrible mistake. “We have an immediate need for an English 101 TA and I was wondering if you’d be interested in taking it?” A what? When? What? She knew nothing about me, save for my entrance essay and my grades from my previous university. But, like any self-respecting starving student, I took the job.

I became an assistant to a teacher with a class full of the athletes he coached in what he considered to be his “real job.” By week three I’d reported two students for plagiarism and by semester’s end, I’d nearly given up trying to teach a class of jocks why you can’t just cut and paste your English 101 paper from some Internet site. I knew that I cared more about the integrity of word-smithing because I was one, but I thought anyone with any integrity at all should care about stealing in general. I was wrong.

Most of you aren’t here for writing lessons, but increasingly I note instances of plagiarism (most unknowingly, I’m sure) across social media, in sermons, blogs, and even books. So I thought perhaps a short lesson on what plagiarism is might be helpful. I’ve used a properly attributed quote which I’ll be using as the benchmark for the lesson:


“Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.”

―C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

It is not plagiarism to paraphrase the quote and still attribute the thought to Lewis, like this:

C.S. Lewis said something once like “Real love is more difficult and more profound than simply kindness.”

However, plagiarism often shows up by doing something like this. Note the difference. I don’t give a nod to Lewis for informing the line and only make tiny, almost imperceptible changes. But it's clearly still his thought. This is plagiarism:

Love is a thing more stern and more splendid than just kindness.

It's also plagiarism to omit the original author's name and leave off quotation marks, like this:

Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.

Plagiarism also comes in the form of emulated original work like:

I have been thinking and come to the conclusion that real love is more difficult and profound than simple kindness.

However, it is not plagiarism to think along the same lines as someone and discover a shared view, like this:

I've been thinking about love and kindness and the difference between them. How the former can sometimes come across as unbending and yet is so profound, and the latter is substanceless really. And today I found Lewis said something similar, that "Love is more stern and splendid than mere kindness."

Plagiarism comes in other forms too:

Stealing an image off the internet unless it was off a site that offers them for free (like unsplash.com).
Copying someone's original artwork, perhaps changing it in small ways, to use as or in your own work.
Using a quote in speaking or teaching, without attribution.

As I would tell the students in our class, there are easy ways to avoid plagiarism:


Love a thought you had or heard? Research it and see if where it shows up first. The Internet is a wild and deep place!
Always give the author's name if speaking or writing, and use quotation marks if writing. If you can find the original source, this is also great.
Be original. Things get famous or go viral because they're cool and original. When you co-opt ideas or art, even if you give them a shoutout, it weakens your message. It says you aren't brave enough to create or properly attribute the work.

. . .


Because we live in an Information Age, it’s easier and easier to read something and absorb the information without processing the author or source, and then regurgitate the information at a later date, patting yourself on the back for how brilliant you think you are for coming up with it. So while we need to be aware of clear instances of thievery, we also need to understand that plagiarism is NOT:

Shared similar ideas.
Shared vision or goals.
Overlapping messages or research.
Similar taste and aesthetic.
Shared mission.

If you want to have any kind of integrity in publishing or speaking, the earlier you learn these things, the better. Don't believe for one minute that your "platform" makes you immune from paying attention to this stuff. Especially as your readership/following grows, you will encounter more and more people with shared ideas, vision, mission, aesthetic, etc. If you cry "plagiarism!" when you encounter that, word will get around that you're stingy, prideful, and arrogant.

The world of words is built upon shared ideas and goals, a constantly recycled and regurgitated rhythm of truth, beauty, and goodness. The more you write, the more you'll encounter this. Protect your heart from pride and arrogance by properly attributing in your work, not stealing the work of others, and sharing the load of the message you say you believe with other thinkers and writers. It's a win, win, win.

Plagiarism does happen. It takes humility to admit when you’ve done it and humility to swallow the possibility that someone might have done it to you. When it’s clearly word for word (as above), you should say something. I have. But if it’s just shared ideas, the more the merrier! The Kingdom of God is big and it’s going to take a lot of people taking seriously the call to discipleship. We’re all part of one family and of course we’re going to share ideas occasionally. That’s the beauty of having “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).

Broken Theology Breaks People

One of the more crippling beliefs I heard growing up, from my earliest teens well through my 20s, and did not have the Biblical undergirding or emotional capacity (because of my dysfunctional paradigm and family dynamics) to refute, was the idea that a woman was under her father's "authority" until she married, at which point the authority was transferred to her husband. Quibble about the theology if you want to (I don't), but this idea especially for a woman with an abusive or dysfunctional father leads nowhere good.

I saw it working okay in families and marriages where the fathers and husbands were good men, seeking to serve and love women and daughters, but think for a moment the message this sends to a woman who doesn't have that experience at all. "Well, for you, you're under a pastor's authority," they would say to me. But I'm too smart to not notice the kind of care a pastor had toward me as a daughter figure wasn't the same as toward his own daughters. I wasn't his daughter or wife, he was incapable of feeling or action toward me in that way and I was incapable of feeling or acting toward in him as though I was.

Instead of trying to make a weak paradigm work for all people everywhere, what would have been better is for someone to say, "We're so sorry this is the life you've been given and our hearts break with you. But the Spirit of the Living God lives within you, empowering you, helping you, comforting you, and teaching you all things. God cares about the husbandless and fatherless and he withholds nothing good from you. In the absence of a godly father, I am not your father, God is your father. In the absence of a godly groom, I am not your husband, Christ is your groom. In the absence of the availability of a partner's wisdom, the Spirit of God lives within you, teaching you all things. The Spirit and the Word of God have everything you need for life and godliness in Him and you do not need to look to me as your protector, defender, and final arbiter on what is true or good."

But almost no one told me that (except two tireless mentors who'd had to learn the same things the same way) and so I have spent nearly forty years looking to others (not just men, women too) for cues and permission on what to do and when. I already have a disposition drawn to keeping the peace and not rocking the boat, so this paradigm was seemingly working for me. I look to others to provide the peace I can't find from God. I have not known how to trust or believe I am just as chosen, redeemed, virtuous, and sinful as any man, and therefore just as able, wise, and permitted to make decisions. I am still learning to pay attention to God’s word and the Spirit of God within me, to obey them instead of the outcome that will cause the least conflict.

Espoused theology lays tangible weights on the shoulders of some people who do not have the emotional, physical, spiritual, or mental capacity to carry it. I have laid that weight on the shoulders of others more times than I can count and am doing my best to repent to those people as it comes to mind.

The story people are living is not the best, most ideal story we build our theology upon. It's a broken story, more and more broken as time goes on and the ways to break a man or women grow more grievous and incendiary. Real humans live these horrific stories and when we give them acronyms or three principles or five points for how to do something, we fail them. We might be offering them a system that looks good on the outside and works for some people, but if it doesn't work for the one with the most broken story, it's not the whole truth. And, if they spot that early on and opt out, that's great. But most don't. Most get caught in this form of the prosperity gospel, positive that doing it "right" will result in a good outcome.

I've made peace with this aspect of my story. As a young teenager it seemed dreamy, as a floundering young adult it seemed like it would offer security in the particular shifting sands of my life, as a fully grown adult, it resulted in a lot of missed opportunities and mismanaged authority. I bought into it for far too long and it has crippled me and others. God, in his wisdom, did not give me a husband who views himself as my authority, but as my partner, my friend, and my co-laborer. He never pretends to have answers, never purports to be my source of wisdom or strength. He never lets me get away with looking to him or others for cues on what to do, but always, always, always goes to the Word of God and the Spirit of God to beg for wisdom. I keep trying to put him on the throne of my heart and he keeps gently saying, "No."

I love theology. I love the grandness of it all. How it's all the story of God revealed in flesh, the Groom coming for his bride. I love the metanarrative of Scripture and how everything reveals Christ. All of that. I'm a sucker for it. But it has to work its way down into the "minute particulars" of all of life. The practical applications of theology have to work just as well for the one with the hardest story as for the easiest, or the theology as we understand or communicate it is erred in some way. This comforts me because it means we have to engage the gerunds of the gospel, the -ings. Being. Forming. Becoming. Growing. God is unchanging. We are always changing. If that's our best theology (and I hope we can all agree it is), then not only our practical theology, but our systematic theology will have to be forming, changing, and growing too.

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