The Ninth Commandment And The New Media (UPDATED)

talk radioThe ninth commandment is still a part of the moral law of God. It requires that all humans tell the truth. It says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” As my dear friend Don Treick always says, “It’s in the Bible.” Indeed it is. Christians should be especially aware of God’s moral law and committed to upholding it because it is grounded in God’s character, revealed in nature, and clearly taught in God’s Word. Believers seek to uphold God’s law not in order to be right with God (moralism) but because we have been freely justified, by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. Our commitment to God’s holy law is a natural and necessary consequence our free justification and our free salvation from the wrath to come.

Nevertheless, in more than a few episodes in recent years an impartial observer would have reason to think that when we recite the ninth commandment in our services we are just kidding. The recent interview by radio host Janet Mefferd of a leading (not so) Young, (still) Restless, and (not terribly) Reformed celebrity became tense when she raised the question his use and documentation of sources. She accused Mark Driscoll of plagiarism. Later she posted evidence that suggested he had plagiarized from other works.  Scholars who study these things have weighed in (see below) and said that the first case was marginal. The other cases, however, seem more solid. What interests me, however, more than the allegations of plagiarism, is what happened next. Mefferd removed the interview and the documentation from her website and issued an apology. Since that time, one of her producers has resigned from her position and posted the following comments:

All I can share is that there is an evangelical celebrity machine that is more powerful than anyone realizes. You may not go up against the machine. That is all.

…let me just say that truth tellers face multiple pressure sources these days…Big Publishing protects its celebrities. The moment hard questions are asked, the negative focus goes on the questioner, not the celebrity, when there is something that needs scrutiny.

…despite the near silence of his Reformed peers and enablers, his brand is damaged, and damaged by his own hand. (HT: Aquila Report)

These comments have since been removed.

A few days ago Carl Trueman wrote of the danger of “sinister” attempts by Christian organizations and leaders to use their influence and market share to silence dissent and criticism. He mentioned an example of such an attempt, where such people attempted to use their influence to have a critic fired. It happens. Like Carl, I know of episodes where powerful interests have used their influence to silence criticism.

We live in an odd time when there is both an information explosion via the new media (blogs, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc) and a corresponding reaction to try to stifle those media when they are inconvenient or perceived to be damaging. Sometimes those attempts work. They succeed because a great lot of the new media is not institutionalized. That is its strength. It is decentralized. It is fleet of keyboard. It is diverse. Silencing the new media, once a story catches on, is like nailing Jell-O to the wall.

The lack of institutional gravity and wealth is also a weakness. It is one thing to threaten to sue the New York Times or the Washington Post. They have entire departments devoted to protecting the paper in court. It is quite another to threaten to sue an individual blogger. A de-centralized media, however, also faces certain inherent dangers. There is a lack of oversight. Anyone can say anything from anywhere. In an institutional setting there are (or at least there used to be copy and news editors—have you read a newspaper lately?) and the potential for catching errors of fact or overstated claims. This review process often doesn’t exist in the new media. As the old media continues to collapse, however, they are eliminating editorial controls to cut costs so perhaps it all comes out in the wash. Caveat lector.

Part of this episode is about criticising and reacting to criticism. Listening to Mefferd interview Driscoll was uncomfortable. She blindsided him and he whined. She was a little unfair. Yes, his publication was in public and if an author doesn’t want public criticism, he shouldn’t publish. Nevertheless, it would have been kind of her to give him a heads up so that he could formulate a response. At the same time, he should have said, “Thanks Janet. I appreciate your calling this problem to my attention. Clearly I should have indicated how closely I was following my source there. I will talk to the publisher about revising it immediately.” He didn’t respond quite that way.

Nevertheless, she didn’t have an absolute responsibility to talk to him privately first. There’s an etymological link between public and publish. Sins and errors committed in public are eligible for public criticism. When a matter is public Matthew 18 cannot be used as a cudgel to silence criticism. Nevertheless, in the instance Mefferd raised in the interview, it wasn’t crystal clear that Driscoll was guilty of plagiarism. It was a borderline case. It was lazy. He gave a reference to a source and then paraphrased that source rather freely, at length. Apparently the source on which Driscoll relied was not offended. I haven’t seen the PDFs that Mefford posted (then removed) alleging extensive plagiarism from other sources in other books but some of those who have are troubled (more coverage here).

As a writer and teacher I must be aware of plagiarism. When a term paper is poorly written and documented and then suddenly becomes fluent and well documented, the antennae go up. As a writer, it’s essential to keep a notebook with quotations and sources clearly indicated and to communicate those connections in print. So, I sympathize with Collin Garbarino’s judgment about why people plagiarise. He’s exactly right. It’s down to laziness and ignorance. It’s also a form a theft, which gets us to the eighth commandment: “You shall not steal.”

Andy Crouch makes a good point, that the real problem isn’t Driscoll’s use of sources. He says it is the idolatry (his word) of the evangelical celebrity machine.  The “real problem,” says, Crouch, is that ‘Pastor Mark Driscoll’ was named as the sole author of that Bible study in the first place.” He was never the sole author of the Bible study material and he said so early on, but by the time the material got to print, the documentation, which the research assistants had provided disappeared, along with their names as contributors. Why? Publishers appeal to “industry standards” but Crouch remains dissatisfied.

Finally, this whole episode also raises questions about celebrity pastors publishing books. As Darryl Hart recently noted, some people just aren’t cut out to write books. Perhaps they are visionary, big-picture types but whatever the case, writing books is about details and there is reason to think that Pastor Mark isn’t interested in details. For example, in Death By Love (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008; p. 170) Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears wrote the following:

James Arminius was John Calvin’s son-in-law and greatly appreciated Calvin. He said that, after the Scriptures, he believed Calvin’s writings to be the most profitable study for God’s people. Therefore, the acrimony that sometimes flares up between Calvinists and Arminians need not be so if the examples of Calvin and Arminius are followed by their followers.

This is historical nonsense. Calvin married the widow Idellete de Bure in 1540. She brought to the marriage two children, a son and a daughter.1 Jean and Idellette were married for nine years. In that time she bore him a son, Jacques, who, in 1542, died in infancy.2  Idellete herself died in 1549 leaving Calvin a widower. Even if he had a surviving daughter, she would have been born in the early 1540s. Arminius was born in 1560. Calvin’s hypothetical (biological) daughter would have been about 47 when Arminius married. That’s unlikely and, as it happened, contrary to fact. Arminius married the daughter of a prominent merchant in 1590.

There are solid biographies of both Calvin and Arminius, so there’s no reason for such sloppiness.2  I’ve been waiting for someone else to say something about this blunder since it was first brought to my attention in 2011. So far as I know, only two other people have said anything about it. Why so?  Perhaps it’s the case that the people who would know that Arminius didn’t marry Calvin’s daughter don’t read such books? 3

Whatever the case, it is the obligation of Christian writers and publishers to pursue and to tell the truth, in love. They must also be willing to hear the truth when it is spoken to them. We, who write, who publish, and who sell should be marked by a concern for the truth.

UPDATE 12.13.13 UPDATE: Stephen Prothero discussed Driscoll in yesterday’s WSJ (HT: Chuck Tedrick).

1. T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 72.

2. Ibid, 101–02.

3. Ironically, an Arminian critic of Driscoll, who also notes the improbability of the claimed marriage, repeats the claim that Theodore Beza (1519–1605) married Calvin’s daughter. This is also incorrect. Calvin had no surviving biological children. Beza married twice, once in 1548 and again, in 1600 but in neither instance did he marry anyone related to Calvin. This claim, apparently repeated in Arminian circles, that Beza married Calvin’s daughter seems to be the most likely source of the mistake by Driscoll and Breshears. They substituted Arminius for Beza and piled error on top of error.

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  1. Sloppy scholarship. Reminds me of those at the head of the Emergent “conversation” since the early 2000s. Some of the things they were saying about church history were absolutely ridiculous.

    On a side note, I had a history teacher tell my class in high school that Calvin believed in predestination, meaning that you didn’t have to have faith, you just had to be elected.

    I knew enough at the time to be skeptical, but not enough to challenge her. Frustrating that this stuff goes on.

    • MY history teacher knew enough to tell us that Calvinism was about election, but he put no emphasis on justification by faith. So the impression he gave us was that you had to make sure you were elect by your works. To his credit, he then turned it into a discussion with the whole class. We were about 13 or 14 years of age at the time. However, it is a little sad that not one of us went any closer to the truth than he had (Of course, I couldn’t – I was C of E, ignorant of both articles and catechism, and my embracing of agnosticism was yet to come). The school is a Public School (This side of the pond, that means a long established fee paying private school with entry not restricted to sons of clergy) with C of E ethos.

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