Thursday, June 11, 2009

May I Drop a Footnote?

I’ve been grading papers in my masters degree program classes, and I constantly run up against a recurring problem: students don’t know when and how to document their sources. The academic world insists on honesty and integrity in writing and, therefore, has come up with a system for vouchsafing it. It’s called the footnote. The footnote tells the reader that what follows is not his own, that he’s borrowed an idea from someone else, but in the interest of honesty and fairness, he’s acknowledging that fact.

With the move toward casualness (and irresponsibility) ubiquitous in our society, footnoting has become a lost art. Students now think that if they lift a line from someone else’s work without appropriate attribution, it’s quite all right. But in the academic world, it’s not “quite all right.” It’s plagiarism, which is "education speak" for stealing.

But move that same dishonesty into the pulpit, and it’s no longer deemed plagiarism; it’s just preaching. I’ve actually heard preachers say: “When a better sermon is preached, I’ll steal it!”

I know; it happened to me. It happened when a story I told in a sermon at First Baptist Church in Raleigh got lifted and used by someone else as though it had happened to them.

Years ago, when I was pastor of First Baptist Church of Raleigh, an incident happened to me that shook me to my soles. I came home and told Cheryl about it, it bothered me so. Some weeks later, looking for an illustration for a sermon that drove home the point that everything we do matters, I remembered the incident and told it in a sermon. The incident was this.

I went to the Save-A-Center near our home in Raleigh one night to pick up a few things for Cheryl – some coffee and breakfast cereal, stuff like that. I don’t know why, but it seems that they always wait until there are eleven people standing in every check out line to send the checkers out on their breaks. And so there we all were, standing in the check out line that wound its way down the aisle, round the frozen foods, past the breakfast cereals, to the paper towels.

At the front of the line was this woman with two little boys, looked like twin boys, about four or five years old. She looked tired. Watching those boys in the check out line, I got tired. They were into everything. “You boys leave that candy alone!” “Did you hear me?” “You better leave that gum alone!” I felt sorry for her.

She just had a few items to check through – a package of hot dogs, a few cans of something (I think it was green beans), a loaf of bread, and two cucumbers. When she got ready to pay, the checker said: “That’s $6.50 please.” The lady looked into her purse and took out two food stamp coupons, one in a five-dollar denomination and the other a one-dollar denomination. “I’ve only got six dollars.” she said. It was awkward. The checker was obviously embarrassed for her – we all were – and finally she said: “Uh…Ma’am, what do you want to do?” The boys were still picking at the candy and chewing gum and taking all the magazines off the shelf. This lady was so embarrassed and now she was panicked, desperate to do anything to get out of there. I was standing right behind her in line, watching all this, trying to keep out of those little boys’ line of fire, jingling a pocket full of change nervously.

I started to reach into my pocket and take out 50 cents for the cucumbers and offer to pay for them myself: “Ma'am, would you let me buy those cucumbers for you?” I almost had the words out too, when I started thinking: “You know, what if she’s. . . ? I mean, she doesn’t know me. What if she thinks I’m patronizing her? ‘Yeah right. The busy businessman condescends to help the poor woman. Thanks, but no thanks. I can do just fine all by myself, thank you very much.’ I mean, I didn’t want to be offensive. Besides, she’s a woman; I’m a man. What if she thinks I’m hitting on her! Yeah, wouldn’t that look great in the Raleigh News & Observer: ‘First Baptist Pastor Soliciting in Supermarket!’ Besides, it wasn’t any of my business. You can’t just lose control like that, can you?”

Finally, the woman said to the checker: “Put the cucumbers back." I thought: “Oh no, lady. Don’t do that.”

It was only a minute or two, but it seemed like an hour! I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. My God, I didn’t say anything!

I felt real bad. I felt real bad about it.

Well, I put my coffee and cereal on the counter and threw down a twenty-dollar bill. The checker sacked my stuff, looked at me and said: “I’m sorry you had to wait.” I muttered, “That’s all right.” Then, I gathered my sack and walked out into the night air. But as the doors opened in front of me, I had this…this feeling that somewhere, Someone was watching.

That was the story. I’ve used that story repeatedly through the years to illustrate the point that there are no “blow off moments;” that everything matters; that somehow, somewhere, Someone is watching…keeping score.

And then, some years ago, a former colleague at the college where I was a dean (you know who you are!) heard me tell that story and decided to tell it in a sermon
as though it had happened to him. What he didn’t know was that I was preaching at the same church the following week! When I got to the point in the sermon where I started telling that story, I noticed a stunned look on the congregation’s face. Then, when the service was over, the associate pastor dropped the other shoe. He told me how my colleague had preached at that church the week before and had told the same story as though it was his! Fred Craddock, to whom this happens a lot, quips: “There’s a Greek word for this kind of thing. It’s hard to bring it over into English. But roughly translated, it means “lying!”

And it’s so unnecessary! All you have to do is to drop a footnote in the sermon. Just say, “A friend of mine tells this story…” and you’re off and running without anyone believing that you’re talking about you. The story is just as effective, and you haven’t violated the eighth commandment.

Footnotes in sermons. In the interest of honesty; in the interest of integrity; in the interest of not shaming the Gospel we preach…I recommend them.


Rich Mayfield said...

Ernie Campbell tells a similar story. Here is mine...I subscribed to a well-known preacher's newsletter. I remember being particularly moved by a sermon he wrote regarding the death of his father. It began..."I stood by the body of my father and anointed him with oil..." About two weeks after reading his highly personal story, I was visiting a church in Northern California and the preacher began..."I stood by the body of my father and anointed him with oil..." I was furious at his larceny. By the end of the service I was so mad I was ready to give up on Christianity altogether. Walking out of worship, my wife said to me, "That was one of the best sermons I've ever heard!"

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks for your comment, Rich. I am confident that ours isn't the only profession in which our colleagues, from time to time, disappoint and embarrass us, but it somehow seems more egregious when a minister does it...doesn't it?

Country Parson said...

A contributing problem is the popularity of sermon aids that provide suggested stories and quotes as well as a exegetical outlines. When I hear a preacher quote two or three obscure authors in a row, I'm fairly certain that he/she has read none of them and has simply lifted a few lines from a denominationally approved sermon aid, or, perhaps, an entire sermon.

Dianna Woolley said...

I often quote poets, authors, theologians, philosophers in my blog posts but I rather turn myself upside down making sure my readers realize that my mind and my post has been tweaked and inspired by another's thoughts - not my own. I cringe to think that I would be "caught" in plagiarism.

I did come upon an issue several months ago in that I quoted a poem, complete with the quotation marks, and with credit at the bottom of my post and was subsequently sent a comment from the author's foundation that I was using copyrighted work and that I should have included the actual "copyright statement" from the author. I felt like a thief - was I being one in your opinion?

Dianna Woolley said...

One more thing - your story about the grocery store was what I believe we're all about as "trying to be Christians". It touched my heart deeply. Sometimes we want so badly to do the "right" thing and then we are held back by our fears of being misunderstood and paralyzed into saying, doing nothing. But you haven't done "nothing" with that experience, you've given it to others through this post and it will make a difference in my life as I view myself and others and maybe have the courage to do the "right" thing as the right time. Thank you!

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Not on my view! It seems to me that you demonstrated honesty in documenting and appropriately crediting ideas not your own. I just wish preachers were as honest in their oral communication as you were in your written.

I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me that there are two issues here: honesty and profit, and they are not the same. Plagiarism (literally "kidnapping") is the dishonest attempt to pass off someone else's ideas as their own. This is chiefly an issue of the academy, not the marketplace. Of course, publishers and copyright holders are also concerned about compensation.

When someone quotes one of my published works and appropriately attributes it to me, I am both satisfied and flattered that anyone actually read it!