The New York Times Sunday Magazine's acrostick puzzle August 17th contained the clue, a quote credited to T. S. Eliot: "Young poets imitate; old poets steal." Plagiarism - taking another's words and using them without attribution and in the process leading others to believe those words are one's own - isn't limited to poets. Students from first grade through graduate school, it is regularly reported in the papers, copy swaths of paragraphs from library books and Internet sites, passing them off as their own, assuming the teacher will never note the sudden use of semi-colons and felicitous grammar previously beyond the reach of the student.
Years ago I served on a committee assigned the task of judging whether or not candidates for the ministry possessed "the gifts and the graces" for so demanding a role. The preacher-to-be was required to submit a paper describing his personal theology. I reviewed one candidate's paper. It was quite good... maybe too good. It used accurately a large theological vocabulary, contained interesting insights, and was grammatically immaculate. English was the candidate's second language. His academic record was mediocre. But his paper was worthy of a professor. I checked his sources and discovered that he had copied, without attribution, a couple of pages from a professorial book. When I brought this plagiarism to the attention of the committee, one of the more senior members shrugged off my discovery as of no importance, suggesting that everyone does it.
Whatever happened to the eighth commandment?
My brother-in-law handed me an article cut from a local Westchester paper reporting a recent flap over pulpit plagiarism. A pulpiteer in Washington D C borrowed lock, stock, and sermon barrel from The Rev Thomas Tewell, pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. A member of the plagiarist's flock spotted the thievery, brought it to the attention of the church's council, and a debate rages there as to the word thief's continuation in the pulpit. For his part, he admits, after an initial denial, that, yes, he had borrowed from Tewell and another preacher in Chicago. But he justifies his behavior with the thought that the Word of God, whoever the agent through whom it originates, belongs to the world.
The newspaper reporter seemed to suggest that pulpit plagiarism is a recent event in the ecclesiastical world. Yet I remember my homiletics professor, once the pastor of a Lutheran Church on Central Park West, complaining about the wholesale plagiarism of his radio pulpit sermons by a renowned Presbyterian of that era in Washington D C. That was sixty years ago.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever borrowed my sermons. That may tell you more about the quality of my preaching than it does about the honesty of my profession. But in the unlikely event I should hear I had been plagiarized, I would hope I might retort, "Well, that's OK, everyone is entitled to a good sermon now and then."
The problem with plagiarism isn't what it does to the person plagiarized. It's what it does to the person plagiarizing. How hollow, how empty, he must in his private moments feel about his own soul. To take someone else's words about God and make believe they are the personal evocations of his own faith! And when one aspires to an important pulpit, following in the robes of previous patriarchs, sensing the necessity of having something new and arresting to say every Sunday, because congregants expect it and papers might report it: why that's a heavy burden, like a fellow with expensive tastes trying to make do on a meager budget.
Maybe it's just pride that gets in the way, for all that the person in the pulpit has to do at the outset of his twenty minute oration is to say he has borrowed extensively from So-and-So, who says it so much better.
Either that, or spend more time preparing for the Sunday morning event.