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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Augustine on Sermon Plagiarism

In every preaching class I teach, the crucial question always comes up. What do you think about sermon plagiarism? A junior high boy still lives inside of this man, so I offer a one word response. “Bad.” I teach at the graduate level, so my students won’t accept easy answers to complex questions. They want to know why I think plagiarism is “bad.” I’m not going to spell out my rationale here, since my thoughts on the issue are not really the issue. If you want to check out (or pick apart) my convictions, check out this article I wrote a while back:

I am writing this article as a student not a professor. I want to probe one of my preaching professors on the topic of sermon plagiarism. The only problem is that my professor has been dead for more than 1500 years. He did, however, address my concern in his writing.

My professor is St. Augustine. I was recently reading, for about the tenth time, his book IV from On Christine Doctrine. This 4th century theologian treats sermon plagiarism in a unique and hard-hitting way. What does Augustine think? He writes:

“For those who steal take what does not belong to them, but the word of God belongs to all who obey it; and it is the man who speaks well, but lives badly, who really takes the words that belong to another. For the good things he says seem to be the result of his own thought, and yet they have nothing in common with his manner of life. And so God has said that they steal His words who would appear good by speaking God's words, but are in fact bad, as they follow their own ways. And if you look closely into the matter, it is not really themselves who say the good things they say. For how can they say in words what they deny in deeds? It is not for nothing that the apostle says of such men: ‘They profess that they know God, but in works they deny Him.’" (chapter 29, paragraph 63).

Did you catch how Augustine defines plagiarism? He does not condemn the preaching of someone else’s sermon, as I often do in class. According to Augustine, if we preach someone else’s sermon but we’ve submitted our lives to the reality we preach, we avoid plagiaristic theft. This does not give us license to preach someone else’s sermon without giving that person credit. A few sentences before the section cited above Augustine writes, “Now, if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception.” “Without deception” is Augustine’s way of saying “give credit to whom credit is due,” to the one whose thoughts drive the sermon you preach.

What is plagiarism, then, according to Augustine? Sermon plagiarism happens not simply when a preacher preaches another person’s sermon. Sermon plagiarism can happen even if we preach our own original words. But if our lives do not align with the reality we preach, we plagiarize. In other words, plagiarism is a form of hypocrisy in which the preacher proclaims what she does not live. So, if I preach on the importance of submission to God but don’t practice it, I am a plagiarist. If I preach on giving generously to the poor but remain as stingy as the young Ebenezer Scrooge, I am a plagiarist. If I call people to racial reconciliation based on Gospel convictions not political conventions but embody exclusion, I am a plagiarist.

Augustine’s take on plagiarism is refreshing, because it’s unusual and more thoughtful than most. After the refreshing wind of his words hits my face I am struck by the loving slap of his challenge. Augustine is not asking us to be perfect. He is calling us, as far as I can tell, to be preachers who strive by grace to practice what we preach. If we don’t we are the worst kind of plagiarist.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Sermon Conclusions: Putting a Cherry on Top

I recently enjoyed the four-course Festa Italiana at the Olive Garden with my wife and some friends. The meal included an appetizer, unlimited soup and breadsticks, an entrée (Smoked Mozzarella Chicken for me), and a dessert. All of this was only $14.99! A steal of a deal if you ask me. I tried to convince Amy, my wife, to get the same deal but she resisted. Oh well, her loss.

The Crispy Risotto Bites started the meal off with a bang. After an appetizer like that, my expectations for the entrée were high. I was not disappointed. The dining experience, up to this point, was delightful. Although my belly button was now flopping over the waste line of my jeans, I couldn’t wait to conclude with a delectable dessert. There’s always room for dessert, even when there’s not. The Festa Italiana included dessert and I didn’t want to be a bad steward of God’s money. I ordered the chocolate mousse which, in my estimation, is the ideal way to conclude an excellent dining experience.

Then it happened. The waiter brought to the table our desserts of choice. I thought it was a joke. My chocolate mousse came in this tiny, I don’t know, glass thing. That’s the best I can come up with since the “tiny glass thing” was too small to be called a bowl, dish, or cup. I finished the chocolate letdown in two bites. My wife, who resisted the Festa Italiana four-course “deal,” sat there gloating with her super-sized piece of Amaretto Tiramisu. My tip for the waiter was going to be “make the dessert better and bigger,” but I resisted and gave him money instead.

The joy of the first three courses was diminished by the disappointment of the final course, the dessert. I left the restaurant fairly full but with a taste of disappointment in my mouth. The conclusion soured me a bit toward the entire experience.

Preachers are sometimes guilty of doing to listeners what Olive Garden did to me. We leave a bad taste in the mouths of listeners during the conclusion of the sermonic meal. The introduction might be appetizing and the body a theologically substantive and contextually relevant entrée. But if we fail to finish of the meal with a delicious dessert, the entire meal will be diminished.

Let’s learn from Olive Garden’s mistake. Here are some things to keep in mind as you seek to finish the sermonic meal with a cherry on top:

-Avoid Summarizing: The goal of preaching is not merely to provide people with memorable information but transformational inspiration. If we preachers have done our job during the sermon, people will know more information about the Bible, to be sure. But when it comes to the dessert, the sermon’s conclusion, end with the sweetness of inspiration not merely the spinach of information. The American Church, as far as I can tell, seems well-informed but uninspired to apply what they already know. Try to overcome the advice given to the past few generations of preachers to, in the conclusion, “tell em what you told em.” No, tell em something that will inspire them to embody the Gospel. Summaries never inspire.    

-Don’t Manipulate: Most of us have experienced the painfully extended altar call, the one that forces people out of their seats in hopes that the preacher will shut up and conclude the sermon. The long drawn out altar call is one form of manipulation that occurs during the conclusion. Here’ another. I call it the bait and switch. The preacher will say, “With heads bowed and eyes closed, just between you and God, raise your hand if this sermon applies to you.” The listener raises her hand thinking she made a private acknowledgement. The preacher led her to believe that. Here comes the switch. The preacher says, “Now, if you raised your hand, please come forward to the altar.” Listeners want to be challenged, not manipulated. Sometimes the line between the two is rather thin. If the preacher crosses it, the meal will be spoiled.

-Land the Plane: The conclusion will determine, to an extent, how the listener perceives the entire sermon. Think through the finish. Make it concise and compelling. Don’t wing it or you’ll end up hovering over the landing strip. I remember a bad experience flying into Chicago. I’m not sure why, but for some reason the plane hovered over the landing strip for about 20 minutes. Perhaps there were some issues on the ground. I was frustrated, angry even. When the preacher hovers, refusing to land the plane, listeners become frustrating and angry. The listener will be finished with the sermon, even as the preacher keeps flying. This puts a bad taste in the mouths of listeners. Unless your conclusion is crucial to driving home your focus and extremely engaging, land the plane quickly when the strip is in sight.  

I will keep going to Olive Garden and hungry listeners will keep showing up on Sunday mornings to feast on a word from the Lord. When they do, we must carefully and creatively develop a powerful conclusion. A disappointing dessert can diminish a good meal. But a delicious dessert can improve a mediocre sermon.