The gateway drug of ghostwriting

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There’s a lot of talk these days of ghostwriting, brought to the surface by the allegations of plagiarism facing Mark Driscoll. Ghostwriting is a serious issue—one that seems to be pretty clear cut, and yet many don’t see it that way.

Ghostwriting is the practice of writing books or other material where another author—usually someone who’s public notoriety can sell books, even if they’re incapable of actually writing them themselves—receives full credit. This is a pretty standard practice in publishing, one many don’t think too much of. In fact, if you’ve read an autobiography of an actor or politician, chances are you’ve read something that’s been ghostwritten.

And if you’ve read a book by a pastor, sadly, there’s a decent chance a ghostwriter’s been involved, too. A number of notable Christian pastors and leaders—among them Driscoll and John Maxwell—have employed ghostwriters over the years.

Writing a sermon and writing a book are entirely different animals. The only thing they have in common is they’re a form of communication. They require words. But how you write a sermon is not remotely like how you write a book. I remember being involved in a conversation with a big-name Christian pastor who admitted he has a really hard time sitting down to write—not do sermon prep, but actually write. It takes courage to admit that. And when he finally did release a book, he credited the person who helped shape the book, taking his sermons and making them actually make sense, as his co-author.

It takes integrity to do that.

Unfortunately, many don’t do this. They fall on the “accepted practice” clause, but fail to think through their actions biblically. The Bible doesn’t say, “thou shalt not employ a ghostwriter,” but it sure does say, “do not lie.” And using a ghostwriter and failing to credit them is lying. This is the same point Kevin DeYoung made just yesterday when he wrote:

Whether in sermons or in print, it’s not okay for pastors to take credit for something that is not theirs. Granted, the lines can be blurry. But that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. And just because it feels like the sin of sloth more than the sin of theft doesn’t make it less of an error.

Randy Alcorn is even more forceful in his rebuke of what he calls the scandal of evangelical dishonesty. He reminds us that lying only begets more lying—ghostwriting is the gateway drug to larger integrity issues:

If we teach them it’s okay to lie by taking credit for a book they didn’t write, why should we be shocked if we discover they lied when they claim to have graduated from a college they didn’t, or to have fought in a war they didn’t, or to have done a job they didn’t? Isn’t it ironic that Christian publishers would consider it an ethical breach if they discovered an “author” gave them a resume containing false information, when the same publisher has knowingly led the public to believe this person wrote a book he or she really didn’t write? Which is the bigger lie?

Alcorn is quite clear: ghostwriting is lying. Period. In writing this, I realize I’m dangerously close to violating Paul’s admonition that the younger man should not rebuke the older. My goal here is not to do that. Instead, I want to ask the older men, particularly those who’ve employed ghostwriters: Why is this okay—and what does it teach those of us who are coming behind you?

To the younger, particularly those of you who are writers, I don’t have a rebuke, but I do have a plea: If someone asks you to be a ghostwriter, say no. If you have been ghostwriting, please stop. I know it pays pretty decently, but is the money worth the cost of your—and others’—integrity?

She’s done the impossible

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This weekend, Mark Driscoll broke the Internet in half. Again.

It wasn’t because he put his foot in his mouth (this time)—but because of a rather heated interview on The Janet Mefferd Show where the host spent the better part of 15 minutes accusing him of plagiarism due to insufficiently crediting Dr. Peter Jones for his considerable influence on portions of A Call to Resurgence (reviewed here).

And then things got a bit crazy online. Some Driscoll defenders declared Mefferd a liar. Some of his critics seemed ready to form a lynch mob. (Incidentally, probably the most balanced piece of coverage has come from Jonathan Merritt.) I found myself in a weird place listening to the interview. Here’s what I mean:

1. I was glad to hear someone willing to ask a high-profile Christian author challenging questions. Too many interviews I’ve read (and even conducted) have been full of softball questions. They don’t really get to the heart of a concern, but come across as the sanitized questions of someone hoping to start a bromance. Or maybe the questions you’d ask on a first date.

As interviewers, we need to do better—and a big part of that is asking meaningful questions. Let’s stop with the silly platitudes and actually deal with concerns. The benefit is you may give the interviewee an opportunity to correct himself if he’s said something in error, or you might receive beneficial clarification.

There also appears to be a disturbing lack of accountability for some pastors and authors, which desperately needs to change, something Carl Trueman points out well. Regardless of whether or not there’s an issue in their churches (and in some cases I wouldn’t be surprised if there were), those of us on the outside must be careful not to treat high-profile people as untouchable, if for no other reason than it reveals we may have a nasty case of idolatry on our hands.

2. I was surprised Driscoll lasted as long as he did on the call. Mefferd says he hung up. Driscoll says he was still there. Regardless of who is right, if it were me—and I say this as someone who has appeared on Janet’s show and had a very positive experience—I likely wouldn’t have stayed on the call as long as he did. While I get, and even agree to some degree, with Mefferd’s concern in addressing the citation (I think he could have been far more clear than a single footnote), he did something pretty unexpected: he said he’d look into it and correct the error if one was made. In fact, he said he’d do it four times.

After the first time, you’d think they could’ve moved on. Instead, it went on far longer than it should have—and I don’t believe either side will come out looking better as a result.

3. Sometimes it’s just easier to think the worst of Driscoll. This is the thing that was most troubling to me—there are a lot of people out there who, no matter what he did, no matter how sincere his apology, nothing Driscoll could say on anything would ever be enough. Some people just want to see him as the villain.

Driscoll’s done himself no favors in this area. He’s said and done, and continues to say and do, some pretty bone-headed things, even in this book (I noted some of my more significant concerns in my review). But you know what I found myself struggling with listening to this interview? The temptation to write off his comments as mere platitudes, instead of taking his statements as genuine. And that’s not okay. If Driscoll is a brother in the Lord, shouldn’t we be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt?1

At the same time, it’s clear not everyone has this reaction. In fact, I’ve been surprised to see a number of folks, not exactly rush to his defense, but show sympathy toward him. I think Joe Carter summed it up well in one of the many debates I saw (and the only one I engaged in), when he said Janet Mefferd “has done what many people would have thought was impossible: She makes people feel sorry for Driscoll.”2

In the end, I’m not entirely certain the “did he or didn’t he” question is even the right question to be asking in the whole Driscoll/Mefferd dust-up. Instead, maybe our question should really be: how do we fix the problem of “celebrity-ism” that’s seeped into the church?