The news Mark Driscoll (henceforth MD) had plagiarized some 14 pages of his book Resurgence once again rocked the evangelical world. Jonathan Merritt first broke the news in Religious News Service and picked up by CT later. Since then, the host of the show, Janet Mefferd who first challenged MD had apologized for the manner she brought this up. Yet, the damage is done, as Mefferd had exposed even more cases of plagiarism in MD’s other works (quite possibly 4 more books) before her apology and Merritt immediately latched on to giving the most accurate report. With Mefferd’s apology came the resignation of the part-time assistant show producer Ingrid Schlueter whose statements cannot be interpreted as anything other than a loud protest against the “evangelical celebrity machine” (Schlueter’s terms). The situation got more complicated as it appears that the organization that owns the radio station also owns MD’s publisher Tyndale House. Perhaps, an order has come from above to silence Mefferd because her show would cause financial conflict of interest.
I have restrained myself until now to speak to this because I want to look at all sides of the situation. Not to my surprise, I still come up with the same conclusion: the business model evangelicals operate on has got to go. Let us first examine some of the more interesting and insightful responses to this crisis.
Many worthy responses (and some unworthy ones) came as a result of this fiasco. Let me categorize the responses as follows:
1) MD deserves better
Christian Piatt points out that MD is wrong but deserves basic dignity apart from the “witch hunt” (his words) he has to suffer right about now.
2) MD should understand his responsibility as a writer
Kevin DeYoung, almost a lone voice from the Gospel Coalition, talks about the responsibility the pastors has to the reading public. He spends the most space on the idea of honesty or integrity, talking about ghost writers and humility.
Merritt has since contacted D. A. Carson’s office and this is the response from Daniel Ahn, assistant to D.A. Carson: “Thank you for your email of 27 November. I apologize for taking so long to respond back to your email. Dr. Carson was out of the country last week and just returned. At the moment, Dr. Carson does not want to comment on these accusations of plagiarism against Mark Driscoll. “
4) MD’s Non-Respnose response and Western Seminary
After this whole thing broke, here’s MD’s initial non-response response by announcing … get this … Western Seminary will open a campus on Mars Hill. MD peppered his video with all sorts of churchy vocabulary about loving God, and secular vocabulary about bringing “accredited” seminary education to Seattle, never mind that Seattle University and Seattle Pacific University both have accredited divinity programs and never mind that many can love God without going to Western Seminary located at Mars Hill. The highlight for me in this video is MD calling himself one of the professors for this program. I thought professors have to contribute to the wider academic world and to the institution in order to get the title. Perhaps, MD is the exception.
5) Moving the goal posts
John Piper of the Gospel Coalition finally calls out MD. In his Twitter, he decries ghost writing. The problem with all this is that Piper is playing the game by MD’s rule. The original problem stemmed from plagiarism. Piper makes it only about ghost writing.
6) Mars Hill PR response
Mars Hill eventually responded after about two weeks since the story broke. The premise basically says that this was an in-house mistake originally meant for congregational consumption but was eventually published into a book. The blame also comes in a backhanded comment about the research assistant in Mars Hill who could help MD produce thousands of pages of content per year to allow for the ministry to flourish. The question remains whether in-house plagiarism and ghost writing to help a ministry flourish are actually acceptable.
7) MD represents a bigger program about evangelicalism
The above responses leads to a more original interpretation by Dr. Justin Tse who has the most interesting and insightful response. A geographer, a practicing Christian and an expert on American religion, Dr. Tse demonstrates step-by-step how MD’s case is yet one more instance where the privatization of American religion is falling apart. Whatever the church tries to hide has become public recently from mega-church clergy housing allowance to LA Preachers reality TV show. We used to call the church’s public face “our testimony” but now it’s just called PR.
My Response to the Responses: Issues to Ponder
1) Whatever is published is public, whether it is Rick Warren’s Facebook Red Guard joke (Facebook is the only publishing platform for some people) or MD’s book. If we don’t like this public aspect, we should get out of the writing business. There’re plenty of ways to communicate other than writing. Matthew 18 says exactly nothing to this kind of situation. I’ve already blogged about it. So, I won’t do it here. In light of this present captivity of the church by its own celebrity machine, Christians ought to stop abusing scriptures to make exceptions for bad behaviors. Piatt’s calling the outrage against MD’s trespasses as “witch hunt” clearly misses the point. It is not a witch hunt. It is a passionate public discourse and a public outcry. Publication is a public business. MD gets no special treatment. Whatever gibberish (aka spiritual vocabulary) his fan base and other sympathizers use just makes Christians look that much more foolish. Thus, I agree with Collin Garbarino who said that he would flunk MD. Review of someone’s work, whether it is on radio, academic journal or TV, is a public act. Whether we like Mefford’s tone, she did what any radio show host would do in this challenging situation. Whatever we write in published form will get reviewed. I’m a published author. I know how the game is played. Just because someone disparages my books in a journal, I do not have the right to tell that person to shut up or tell that person’s boss to tell him to shut up. To do so violates the very essence of public discourse, Christian or otherwise. I can however choose to give a timely response (which MD has failed to do) if I think that’s a good idea. I agree with the blogger Colin Foote Burch that Tyndale House and the company that owns it cannot be taken seriously if it operates in such a mickey mouse manner.
2) Bad behavior is habitual and not occasional. Yet, if people are famous enough, we enable them to live by a different set of rules, even when we have to abuse scripture to justify our double-standard. If we can prove beyond doubt that the 5 books were plagiarized, then we have a problem of habitual plagiarism. Many are shocked that someone didn’t just stumble overnight. Why? Sins are habitual and they build up until one day they get exposed. The problem however goes beyond MD because he has many enablers around him who are ready to say nothing (aka Christians speaking in love by remaining silent). The silence (or lack of confrontation over sins) of Peter Jones and D. A. Carson speaks louder about the enablers in this drama than any other words can do. Suspicion over Driscoll’s bad behavior is not just this one case, but possibly a few more cases.
3) Evangelicals are great at making up their own rule as they play along. One great game is what I call “goal post shifting”. Although the original problem was plagiarism, many want to make it something else. Piper’s example is only one. There’re others. They try to shift our focus from thievery to substitution. It’s like calling the handball that gives a team a win in soccer a substitution problem. It’s like saying, “It’s because a substitute was played in the game, that’s why the team won.” No, it is not a substitution problem. It is a cheating problem. Just because we are Christians, it doesn’t give us the right to use dubious logic to argue our untenable cases.
4) The business model evangelicals are using to “grow” their churches and organizations to be bigger “to spread the gospel” appears to be backfiring. I want to use the term “business model” because in the case of MD, business is what the whole silencing of his critic is about. Western Seminary must build more campuses to train up Western-style graduates even if Seattle already has theological institutions (not to mention Fuller). Whatever MD has done, we need him and we need to prop him up with many spiritual explanations for the exceptions (aka “grace”) we provide. Western needs Mars Hill. Maybe even the Gospel Coalition needs MD. Yes, the “celebrity machine” is working. Tyndale can lose millions for its partnership with a plagiarist like MD. Thus, instead of cutting ties with MD and cutting business loses from 5 books, Tyndale relies on the system from which it benefits to silence even a radio host. We can’t lose money and glorify God now, can we? Religion is big business. Size matters. Bottom line matters.
My conclusion is that Christian celebrity lives by exceptionism because the systemic evil of evangelicalism. We have bought into the myth that God’s work can’t be done when we are not a big business that has a multimillion dollar bottom line to show for because we worship a God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who cares about how much we make. The church has succumbed to the temptation the devil set before Jesus “All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.” As such, profit will always trump integrity. The idolatry of the bottom line will always supersedes true spirituality. We will serve mammon rather than God. The evangelical machine has become the temple of Baal.
Why do I even write about this? Many of the readers of this blog are church leaders or pastors. American evangelicalism (and evangelicalisms elsewhere that are affected by the American missionary movement) is deteriorating because it goes by a utilitarian or business model. This event and many others like it reminds us to get our philosophy of ministry right. What exactly is the church? Is the church only an organization? If so, this “business” will carry on to the utter detriment of everyone involved. No amount of evangelism or evangelistic meetings will save this mess then.