Copying the Creator

It was the his third strike. He was a baseball player, so he and I both knew what that meant. Out.

I was a TA for an English class in college. It was my first semester as a transfer student. I hardly knew my way around campus and I’d been tapped on the shoulder by the chair of our department to assist one of the English professors.

The first inkling of plagiarism seemed innocent, an uncited source; the second instance seemed lazy; but with two warnings under his belt, he handed in his third paper full of paragraphs I found in their entirety in a few minute google search.

I don’t know what happened to him when I reported the situation to the administration, though I knew they didn’t handle that stuff lightly. Looking back I wish I’d been more careful to explain why this wasn’t acceptable. I had plenty more opportunities in my years as a TA to do so, but I never did.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Allegations of plagiarism by Mark Driscoll are all ablaze right now and they seem justified in some ways. Whole ideas or outlines have been lifted, slightly altered, and used as his own material. I would flunk a student for doing that, and yet—haven’t I done it a thousand times?

In recent weeks I chew on John 3:30, “He must increase. I must decrease.”

Whether you’re a college student trying to get a passing grade or a pastor churning out books written by a ghostwriter, there is an element of “increasing” present that I’m not sure is healthy. I would argue too that even bloggers must wrestle with this dichotomy. If it is true that we must be ever decreasing and increasing Him—what does that say about all our platform building?

We may not be building a tower of Babel to reach God, but what have we made our god in His place?

This isn’t easy wrestle through. God gives gifts to men and finds joy when we use them for His glory—but I wonder sometimes how many of us are like my college student: trying to get a passing grade. It doesn’t matter who we seek approval from—if we seek it from men, we’re in sin, and if we seek it from God, we do so in vain. If we are His children, we have His full approval in the righteousness of Christ.

I have one finger pointed at you and three back at myself here. I seek the approval of so many other than God and I want less of it. More than ever, I want to shrink my footprint—or at least my byline. More of Him, less of me.

God help us, we are all guilty of plagiarism. The wise man’s words “there is nothing new under the sun,” assure of us that. You are the author of all truth and we merely regurgitate it, chewed and masticated, hardly a form of its original beauty and intention. Help us to copy you, emulate you, take our truth from you—and if another steals words from us, let us hand them over willingly because we truly own nothing apart from You.

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9 responses to Copying the Creator

  1. I’ve fought this fear as an author — will I mess this up? Forget to cite someone important? Then I remembered the gospel. If I do and someone brings it to my attention, then I can repent and make it right. Acknowledge my mistake and do what I need to rectify it. It’s a simple thing to rectify. But it does take admitting that I got it wrong and humbling myself to correct it. But there is a lot of gospel good in that response.

  2. I’ve fought this fear as an author. Will I accidentally forget to cite someone? It’s always likely. But then I remember that the gospel equips me in such an event. If I do one day do this, I can repent and then do my best to make it right. The answer in Christ is really quite simple. Someone’s response in such a case doesn’t say as much about what they think about plagiarism as it does what they think about humble repentance and how the gospel equips us to face our mistakes head on.

  3. I think “You are the author of all truth and we merely regurgitate it, chewed and masticated, hardly a form of its original beauty and intention” really sets the bar low for human flourishing and creativity. I can see where you are coming from, but this is more of a Platonic vision of truth than a Christian one. We don’t live in a cave and see flickering shadows of God’s truth like Plato’s realm of ideals. We, as Christ followers, are partakers of the way, truth and life.

    To take a cue from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, we are sub-creators, people made in the image of God who create, work, perform, befriend and serve as a form of worship. We’re not automatons who just walk around regurgitating it. We are human beings who live, move and have our being in God and, as people made in his image, become creators as well. That’s something more in vein with God’s original beauty and intention, and not a severely diminished version of it.

  4. Hmm. Good thoughts, Thom. I think it only sets the bar low, though, if we think we can even get near to what God has already created. I think the higher our view of God is, the higher we can set the bar for human creativity and flourishing. Right? It raises the ceiling on our capacity and ingenuity because God is raised higher.

  5. I agree, the higher our view the higher our sense of calling and vocation is. I guess I’m hung up on regurgitate. Chewing on God’s truth and then spitting it back up just seems disconnected from our call to savor God’s Word and then have it energize our vocation.

  6. Okay. I’ll give you that one =) Maybe not the best word choice?

  7. I’ll just say what I would expect people to tell me if I lifted a whole passage from someone’s book: I would expect people to say that I was lazy and prideful and willfully disobedient and dishonest. I would expect people to challenge me to interact with scripture on my own and to interact with the writings of others so that God can birth new things through my own creative process. By failing to use my own critical thinking abilities and writing gifts, I would essentially forfeit my calling and my gifts as a writer. I would expect people to tell me that I need to be honest and forthright, holding myself to a higher standard if I want to teach others scripture.

    I think there’s a whole other conversation we can have about creative people sharing their ideas and being generous to each other, and I think this post addresses part of that well. I often witness a scarcity mindset among creatives who fear someone will steal their idea without realizing so much more could be had if we share our ideas and develop them together. That drives me crazy! However, we don’t end up with more creativity if folks just lift writing word for word, and that’s the crux of this issue here for me.

  8. Lore I have only been following you a short time but I never fail to be blessed. The nugget in your post was “He must increase, I must decrease”. Isn’t that the key to it all? Your words come to me on angel’s wings. Thank you for your insights and tender heart.

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