I have always liked Mark Driscoll, pastor of the Mars Hill mega church. I read his Confessions of a Reformission Rev and I liked the angry young prophet who built a church in one of the most secular areas in the country. I liked his no-nonsense style. I liked him even more when he broke from the herd of emergent churches to take a stand on doctrine, so that there was a difference between the Mars Hill in Seattle (Mark Driscoll) and the Mars Hill in Michigan (Rob Bell) and it wasn’t just the size of their jumbo tron. I really loved the straight talk he gave young guys about putting down Call of Duty and stepping up to being more than “boys who can shave.”
So when I heard that Driscoll had been accused of plagiarizing at least three of his books, manipulating the book market to get the coveted “New York Times Best Seller” label added to his bio, and authoritarianism at Mars Hill, I found myself uttering the words of the little boy in W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe who responding to Shoeless Joe Jackson’s Black Sox scandal by exclaiming: “Say it ain’t so Joe.”
“Say it Ain’t so Mark.” And just like that Billy Graham is still the only pastor to appear on CNN who didn’t have a scandal attached to him.
This is the lenten season. So perhaps it will be instructive to reflect on what this saga of sin and repentance can teach us. First, let me say that after examining the evidence, I don’t think Driscoll is guilty of willful plagiarism in the first degree. Didn’t know plagiarism had degrees? Take it from someone who regularly gets essay answers on midterms that are simply cut and pasted from sources on the internet (without even the courtesy to remove the bold print–a dead giveaway) there are degrees. First of all, I don’t think Driscoll was a country mile from the text in question when the aforementioned lifting of text occured. On this I agree with Andy Crouch at Christianity Today:
Let’s give the research assistant who was at the time writing under the name “Pastor Mark Driscoll” a break. Given the volume of writing that “Pastor Mark Driscoll” needs to be seen as doing, such mistakes are bound to happen. They require no witch hunt and certainly no attempt at defense—just prompt correction and apology when they emerge, and efforts to make sure that they do not recur. The measured and calm statement from InterVarsity Press (full disclosure—my publisher) struck exactly the right tone: no outrage, no vitriol, just a calm statement that improper use had occurred and needed to be set right.
Driscoll employs a company called Docent Research and heartily endorses their seminary-trained research assistants who help pastors with sermon illustrations, social research to connect to the audience, and help pastors “speak to culture savy congregations.” That’s right. For an admittedly cheap price, you too can sound hip.
As Douglas Wilson points out, there is a difference between being responsible and being guilty. Driscoll is not guilty of plagiarism in my opinion and its unfair for college professors to compare what Docent did to a freshman term paper exclaiming that they would “Flunk Driscoll.” Driscoll’s Bible study guides and his books are about as much like a college term paper as Darren Aronofsky’s new movie Noah is bible study material . Driscoll’s books are more like a group project in a class. Lots of different people contributing.
But I do hold students responsible for what they allow in their group projects. I expect them to own what they present to my class. That means Driscoll may not be guilty but he is responsible for his name is on the cover.
There is a larger cautionary tale here about ghost writing. Here’s Kevin Deyoung at Gospel Coalition:
Every book is, in some degree, a collaborative process. But the simple fact is that for 99% of the reading public they assume that if your name is on the cover of a book that you wrote the book. If someone took your ideas and worked them into prose, then at least there should be a “with so-and-so.” If someone heavily edited your sermon transcripts into a well-crafted book, they should get some serious mention in the acknowledgements. And if research companies are writing whole chunks of our sermons and our written materials without any attribution, well, this is plain unacceptable. Writers gotta write their own stuff.
Yep. And if your name is on the cover, you own it.
And, by the grace of God, it seems that is what Driscoll did. He wrote a letter to the Mars Hill community which inexorably made it to Christianity Today. Driscoll sounds contrite and offers us all a cautionary tale about Christian celebrity. Here’s the bullet points from CT:
- Driscoll is voluntarily retracting his claims to “No. 1 New York Times bestseller” status, because he now sees the marketing campaign used for Real Marriage as “manipulating a book sales reporting system, which is wrong.”
- Driscoll regrets how the recent “significant turnover of key staff members” was handled. “I am deeply grieved and even depressed by the pain we have caused,” he writes, and expresses hope for reconciliation with former staff who have recently “chosen to air their concerns online.”
- Driscoll says his “angry-young-prophet days are over.” He plans to “reset my life,” starting with quitting social media for the rest of 2014 (and maybe longer). “The distractions it can cause for my family and our church family are not fruitful or helpful at this time,” he writes.
- Driscoll will likewise do “much less” less traveling, speaking, and writing in order to focus on being a local pastor. “I don’t see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor,” he writes, “and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter.”
Having never experienced celebrity, and knowing what a ham for the spotlight I am, I can’t imagine what its like to be in Mark’s shoes so I will pray for him that God will restore him. What about you, dear reader, what do you think we can learn from Driscoll’s time of troubles?