Politics, Preaching

When Are My Words Not My Own?

It’s Tuesday morning, and in a little while I’ll take off to a weekly appointment, my preacher group. Every Tuesday morning, we meet to discuss the Revised Common Lectionary passages coming up the following Sunday. The Lectionary is a three year cycle that takes us through most of the Bible, and each week offers up an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, an Epistle reading and a Gospel lesson. In theory they have some thematic connection, though some are more glaringly obvious than others.  Most stories come up every third year (we’ll have the woman at the well this Sunday), but because many stories about Jesus appear in 3, if not 4, gospels, we have to find new ways to talk about them fairly often.

So every Tuesday, four or five of us meet to talk about the upcoming passages and to talk about how we might preach them. What is the Good News in them? Where are the challenges? And what do we, and the people we serve, need to hear in our particular time and place in order to be faithful to God?

We brainstorm, and anything we talk about is available to all of us. By Thursday or Saturday, I may not remember if that was my idea or L’s or G’s, and if they are building on an idea of mine, I’m not sending a spy to their churches to check on it. We inspire each other, by the grace of God.

Years ago, two members of the group met later in the week to work out sermon ideas in greater depth, and I’m told they often preached if not the same sermon than nearly the same. They collaborated.

Preachers, like politicians, talk about the same ideas over and over again. Preachers, like politicians, seek new ways to say something everyone has heard before.

This morning I’m thinking about Deval Patrick and his assistance to his friend, Barack Obama.

I have given a whole sermon away, with permission to use it, without attribution. It was a gift, and it felt appropriate to the circumstances.

Talking about ideas with someone you know personally and agreeing that a certain way of expressing them is very effective and appropriate is not plagiarism. Plagiarism is stealing, unawares, the ideas of others and passing them off as your own. Plagiarism is finding the obscure book in the college library and "quoting" from it without quoting. Plagiarism is looking up a topic on the Internet and cutting and pasting into your Word Document, then turning it in as your own.

Please don’t think I take it lightly. When I’m writing a sermon, I won’t read other people’s, because I don’t want to unconsciously walk off with their ideas. In my young days, that was plagiarism, too, and I remain sensitive.

In college, I testified at the honor trial of a friend who plagiarized on two term papers after the distress of an unplanned pregnancy and the shock of an abortion. She really did it, and the Honor Court really did punish her, but they also took the context into account and did not expel her.

Now, this is too bad for Barack Obama. I’ve been watching the video of Deval Patrick saying the same words, and I prefer Patrick’s delivery. I would have advised Obama to use the idea but massage the catch phrase, make it his own. But there are some ideas so deeply embedded in the culture that they are impossible to plagiarize, really. That the same people who snicker about the current President’s lack of articulation, and believe me, they do, would say that using words well does not matter is ludicrous. Of course it matters.

Subtle barbs are being traded by Camp Clinton and Camp Obama, and that is perhaps the way of the political world and unavoidable. I could do without the allusions to Sen. Clinton being "periodically down." (She’s no doubt past that anyway, boys.) But to accuse the other of an offense against honor is to damage the party’s chances, and I find that intolerable. Call him unoriginal, if you like. Call him glib. But don’t call him a cheater, especially when your candidate is married to one of the most notorious cheaters of all time, a man who has been forgiven for offenses much worse than talking to a friend about how to respond to the accusation that you won’t be able to get anything done if you’re elected.

Don’t call him a cheater.

13 thoughts on “When Are My Words Not My Own?”

  1. Yep. I can certainly see how it’s strategic. “His strength is in speaking? Then that’s what we go after.” But this particular instance seems ludicrous.

  2. After seeing several days of Clinton and Obama ads here in WI mostly debating not debating prior to this latest attack; I feel like I’m watching two kids bickering and I think “Would you two grow up and act Presidential!” I finally saw my first John McCain ad. It showed him as a war hero, honorable, mature. And very Presidential looking.
    Now I’m worried.

  3. P.S. Under the circumstances, I should point out that I learned of Frank Lockwood’s blog through Kelly Fryer’s blog. Which I think I learned about through the LutheranChik’s blog.

  4. Simpleton, good move!
    Phantom, I wondered what you would think about all this.
    co, thanks for reminding us that we are always buying image, whether we want to admit it or not. Someone in my clergy group raised the experience question this morning, and I responded by saying if we’re going to go by who has “earned” the Presidency, neither of them would qualify in the traditional sense. It would clearly be McCain, war hero and longtime Senator. And *that* is scary.

  5. don’t we want to be sharing good ideas? using a phrase or 2 that someone else has said in a very good way is not plagerism — and i think that is especially true in certain contexts.
    for academic purposes, quotations and citations are very important. and in the legal context, correct citations to court opinions are extremely important.
    but for the odd phrase in a public speech, when that phrase reflects well a broad idea already in the public discourse? attribution is ideal, but i don’t think it is cheating if some phrases first expressed by another come up.

  6. I’m right with you on this. The “periodically feeling down” comment really pissed me off, because I’ve heard and seen that line of attack before, back when I was working corporate. But this is just as problematic, and I wish they’d quit.
    We see plenty of sniping on the public side of things, but this makes me wonder (and worry) what sorts of conflicts are occurring that we’re NOT seeing.

  7. I do believe he answered the mud slinging with his decisive victory in Wisconsin. Oh, but they’ll just delve back into their mud chest to see what else they can sling.

  8. Okay, I’ll be upfront and say that, first of all, I’m not an Obama supporter. Sorry, but no, he has not earned my complete trust and respect yet. Not yet.
    I think it’s fair for Obama to take some hits on this. Thus far, Obama has received nothing but accolades for the artistry and poetry with which he endows his speeches. And I think it has been interesting and enlightening to see that this artistry and poetry sometimes come from other sources – not just Deval Patrick but also John Edwards.
    For too long now, I think that a lot of the reporters and pundits have been dazzled by Obama – they’ve been carried away by his personal charisma. But if Obama is going to continue to be a candidate on the national level then he is going to have to be much more careful with his words – and not just stylistically, but substantively. I, for one, am glad to see that the reporters and pundits are paying closer attention to what Obama is actually saying and how he is saying it. In this way, the American people may be better able to measure the true value and worth of his candidacy.

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