The Scandal of Pulpit Plagiarism

A few quick thoughts I shot off to an inquiring friend this morning, on why Litton’s sermon borrowing/plagiarism is unthinkable to someone like John Piper. None of it based on private conversations, all simply what I know from his books, particularly his latest trilogy.

  • A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (2016)
  • Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (2017)
  • Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship (2018)

For Piper, authentic preaching (like authentic Bible reading) is not ultimately about discovering true comments on the text, finding its outline, inner logic, picking up on grammar cues, or accurately stating the text’s intent. No. It starts with the text, but soon goes beyond interpretive accuracy. The end of the biblical text is to disclose a divine glory. Scripture, in this sense, must be transfigured (as Alastair Roberts puts it). Or we must experience the telos of the text, its divine glory (as Richard Hays puts it in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [1989], 137).

This point is developed at length in Piper’s trilogy on the nature of Scripture, its reading, and its preaching. Scripture, in Piper’s words, is a window. And the goal of Bible reading and sermon proclamation is not to marvel at the window (the text) but to freshly see in and through the text, as seeing through the window, to behold and encounter the glories of the divine reality explained by the text.

This dynamic (for Piper and Roberts and Hays) stems from the complex text of 2 Corinthians 3:7–4:6. The net result is that, unveiled to Christ by the Spirit, every Bible reader can see more than words on a page but, through those words, we see and encounter the divine reality itself—its glory—Christ himself. When this happens, each of us, unblindfolded, beholds the same divine glory, but we see it from different and unique angles. We each come away from our encounter with Christ having seen and felt something we then work to put into words so others perhaps can see it, too. This encounter is essential to what the preacher brings into the pulpit on Sunday.

Of course, this holds true for daily Bible reading, too. So here’s Piper on what an ideal encounter with God in daily Bible reading would look like, all leading to a sermon.

I would resolve every day in reading my Bible to push through the haze of vague awareness to the very wording of the text. I would push into and through the wording of the text to the intention of the author’s mind, both human and divine. I would push into and through that intention of the author to the reality behind all the words and grammar and logic. I would push into that reality until it became an emotionally experienced reality with emotions that correspond to the nature of the reality. I would push into and through this proportionately emotional experience of the reality behind the text until it took form in word and deed in my life. I would push through this emotionally charged word and deed until others saw the reality and joined me in this encounter with God. (APJ 1197)

But back to the trilogy, here’s a paragraph from book one, A Peculiar Glory (2016).

As I said at the beginning, the Bible has not been for me like a masterpiece hanging on the wall of an Alpine chalet but rather like a window in the wall of the chalet, with the Alps on the other side. In other words, I have been a Christian all these years not because I had the courage to hold on to an embattled view of Scripture, but because I have been held happily captive by the beauty of God and his ways that I see through the Scriptures. (18)

And in his second book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally (2017), he explained why in his pre-pastorate years as a New Testament scholar he didn’t spend much time defending inerrancy. Instead,

mostly, my energies were devoted to looking through the inerrant window, not at the Bible’s “inerrancy” itself. I loved pushing students’ noses against the window pane of the first epistle of John, and the first epistle of Peter, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the Gospel of Luke, and doing all I could, with prayer and modeling and asking good questions, to help them see the glory of this Christ-dominated landscape. (29)

Later in the same book.

All Paul’s letters—indeed all of the apostolic witness of the New Testament—bear the marks of this divine authority. These writings as a whole—not just a slice of them called “gospel”—are our window onto the glory of God. And through this window we see the peculiar glory of God by reading. (84)

A passion for Christ, by the Spirit, “is the key that throws open a thousand windows in Scripture to let in the brightness of God’s glory” (248). And in case this all sounds mystical or divorced from the text, it’s not, because “God’s glory does not float over the Bible like a gas. It does not lurk in hidden places separate from the meaning of words and sentences. It is seen in and through the meaning of texts” (299).

Finally, here’s a quote from the preaching book, the capstone, Expository Exultation (2018):

Preachers do not aim to draw people into their excitement with the shape of literary windows, but with the reality seen through the windows. We aim to draw our people’s minds and hearts to the world of glory, through the window of the Scriptures. The aim of preaching is that people experience the God-drenched reality perceived through the window of biblical words. Beware of making textual structures (whether microgrammatical structures or macrocanonical structures) the climax of preaching. Always keep before you the summons of the reality factor. (162)

All that to say, to borrow and copy from others shows a fundamental disconnect from the purpose of preaching. The preacher is to look in and through the window of Scripture, to encounter the glory there, and then to put this to words so that others (by the Spirit) are brought into the same encounter. To copy is to simply echo what others have seen. It’s a shortcut. But it’s inauthentic preaching, because it fails to originate from fresh seeing.

Thus, it’s rather easy to see why Piper finds it “utterly unthinkable” that “authentic preaching would be the echo of another person’s encounter with God’s word rather than a trumpet blast of my own encounter with God’s word.” Preaching is “expository exultation”—truth and explanation leading to exultation. The preacher is actively worshiping from his encounter with God. On the other hand, copied sermons “expose a failure on the part of the preacher to see the beauty of truth and feel the value of truth. He is having to go to someone else to see what he ought to see in the word. He is having to go to someone else to express the feelings he ought to feel when he reads the word. This is a symptom of something gone deeply wrong and in need of quick remedy in the preacher” (APJ 829).

Borrowing from others, whether blatantly plagiarized, or by announcing that you’ll be reading from a nineteenth century homily (sorry Alastair!), or by constructing your sermon as a patchwork of citations from other sources, simply means you failed to look through the window for yourself into the glorious reality of divine glory that gives the sermon its ultimate telos, its final reality, its glorious Object, and provides the fuel to sustain a man in worship over a text for forty minutes.

Easter Changes Everything

Are you ready?

Christ’s resurrection from the grave changed everything. Seriously. Everything. Easter marks a cosmically epic moment in time — and yet the celebration enters and exits our calendars too quickly. So several years ago I slowed my life down in order to really soak in the implications of what Christ’s victory over death means for this world and for my life.

In the spring of 2009 I gathered up my favorite quotes on this important theme for my personal meditation in the month leading up to Easter. A year later I posted the quotes online for others to do the same. Friends who used the collection later encouraged me to expand the document with more of my findings during the intervening years. So I did.

The final product is a short book you can download here: Easter Changes Everything: A Theological Devotional.

Enjoy!

easter

Ray Bradbury on Space Travel

In the course of my tech research I found the following video of Mike Wallace interviewing Ray Bradbury in the wake of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Here’s the video:

Here’s the transcript:

Wallace:
This is Ray Bradbury. For me, the most evocative, the most persuasive of the science fiction writers. He has gone to space — he’s lived in space — in his fertile imagination off and on since he was a boy of nine. Is this the way that you wrote the script? I think it is. Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury:
Yes, and a lot of other people before me. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, the great uncles and grandfathers of all of us. When I was down in Houston a few years ago, I discovered in meeting the astronauts that they had read Jules Verne. They had read H. G. Wells. And in a few cases they had read some of my work, which made me feel very good at the time.

Wallace:
But it is astonishing, really, because they are following a script that seems to have been written by various writers over a period of the last half century.

Bradbury:
Yes. Well, I look upon the function of the science fiction writer as being the romantic who starts things in motion, and the astronauts are the actors who come along and flesh it out and put bones inside the dream.

Wallace:
You have said that a single invention, the rocket, is redesigning mankind. Would you elaborate on that?

Bradbury:
Well, it’s redesigning in us in the following ways. I’m willing to predict tonight that by the end of the century, our churches will be full again. That’s redesigning mankind back in the direction of God again.

Wallace:
Because of space travel?

Bradbury:
Because of space travel. Because when we move out into the mystery, when we move out into the loneliness of space, when we begin to discover we really are three billion lonely people on a small world, I think it’s going to draw us much closer together.

Wallace:
Some people suggest that the very fact that we have now gone into space and have been on the other side of the moon has proved that there is no . . . well, the Russians themselves have said that proves that there is no God up there.

Bradbury:
Well, they’re welcome to use any clichés they want to use. And in turn, I hope to be allowed to use my newer clichés. I believe firmly, excitingly, that we are God himself coming awake in the universe. In other words, we exist on a very strange world that we know nothing about. Our theologians have tried to help us understand this. Our scientists have tried to help us understand this. We know nothing. We start in ignorance.

Wallace:
Can man ever feel at home elsewhere than on earth?

Bradbury:
Yes, and he’s going to make himself at home first on the moon. Then we’re going off to Mars. And then we’re going to build ourselves large enough ships to head for the stars, and when we do reach the nearest stars and settle there, we will be at home in the universe. That’s what the whole thing is about. This is an effort on the part of mankind to relate himself to the total universe and to live forever. This is an endeavor to . . .

Wallace:
Wait a minute. Live forever. You mean . . .

Bradbury:
. . . to live forever. This is an effort to become immortal. At the center of all of our religions, all of our sciences, all of our thinking over a good period of years has been the question of death. And if we stay here on earth, we are all of us doomed because someday the sun will either explode or go out. So in order to ensure the entire race existing a million years from today, a billion years from today, we’re going to take our seed out into space and we’re going to plant it on other worlds. And then we won’t have to ask ourselves the question of death ever again. We won’t have to say why existence, why life, why anything. We will stop questioning in those fields.

Wallace:
Well, of course, but as individuals we will die.

Bradbury:
Oh yes.

Wallace:
The race will be immortal, you’re suggesting.

Bradbury:
The same process that goes on in families today will exist for the whole race in a few . . .

Wallace:
You’re a man of peace, obviously.

Bradbury:
Very much so.

Wallace:
What, though, are the military implications of what we’ve seen tonight?

Bradbury:
The military implications are as following. We have finally, after thousands of years of search, found a substitute for war, which I think is beautiful. The rocket and the exploration of space can be as exciting as war, can be as masculine as war.

Wallace:
A moral substitute for war.

Bradbury:
It can be the wonderful moral substitute we’ve been searching for. We’ve always wanted something to yell and jump up and down about. And war is a great toy to play with. Men and boys loved war. They pretended at times that they don’t love it, but they do. Now we’ve found a greater love, one that can bind us all together, one that can fuse the entire race into one solid mass of people following a single ideal. Now let’s use this thing. Let’s name this ideal and let us eliminate war because the proper enemy is before us. All of the universe doesn’t care whether we exist or not, but we care whether we exist. Now we’ve named the universe as the enemy and go out to do battle with it. That’s the big enemy. And this is the proper war to fight.

Wallace:
Conquer the universe.

Bradbury:
Absolutely.

Mike Wallace:
And conquer it peacefully.

Bradbury:
Peacefully, with these fabulous tools that we’ve been watching tonight on TV.

The Slow Death of Cinema

These days I’m down on cinema, so it’s probably not the best time to be interviewed on the topic. But I was, by two journalists (Cody Benjamin and Chris Hayes) for their upcoming book: What About the Movies? Exploring Cinema’s Place in a World Full of Screens, Streams, and Smartphones (March 2020). And given permission to post the full interview here.

What is it about movies — both past and present — that you believe makes them so captivating, especially in comparison to other media?

Since the first moving picture of a stream train chugging silently right past a camera spooked French audiences in 1895 [L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat], film has been intense, immersive, and thrilling. Our movies are much longer, louder, and complex. And the movie industry has become a dominant center of our cultural mythologies (The Avengers, Transformers, Star Wars, etc.). CGI and 3D and surround sound have all caught up to the imagination of the myth-makers, bringing to life imaginary worlds, amplifying those worlds to truly superhuman proportions.

Countless people in and around the movie industry point to two main reasons for the theater’s longstanding relevance — (1) its tech-fueled experience, which you can get at home (big screen, surround sound, etc.) and (2) its physical, communal space. Do you foresee those factors maintaining their influence amid today’s media landscape? Why or why not?

Once subwoofers, surround sound, and 60-inch TVs moved into the home, the personal theater was destined to become the epicenter of video consumption and the cinema was doomed to stagnation, now reflected in domestic profit growth lagging behind overall economic growth. Theaters have tried to incorporate 3D and various digital surround systems with proprietary names. But to this point most of the technologies that attract moviegoers into the cinema can be replicated at home to significant effect.

For cinemas to break from this stagnation they will be forced to incorporate more and more extraneous value-adds: Freestyle touchscreen soda machines, foodie-level dining delivered to your seat, over-21 screens with alcohol and waiters walking through aisles of La-Z-Boys with electric recliners. New ways of attracting moviegoers will have less to do with the movies themselves or A/V advances.

Would you go so far as to suggest that physically going to the movies (where we are prompted to “disconnect” and focus our attention on what’s literally in front of us) could be beneficial to our health, at least in some senses? Why or why not?

Movie theaters are public entertainment, like major sporting events. I don’t see any inherent virtue in them. I guess the question would be which setting fosters greater personal interaction to love others, and for me personally I know my experience with my family is that we typically feel more together at home, pausing for breaks, and talking about things immediately. For obvious reasons a theater intentionally stifles conversation, so we try to hold off our thoughts until we can get to a local restaurant in order to talk over what we just ingested whole. I do think there’s advantages to going to the theater on special occasions, but I engage with others more at home.

Being someone who’s researched and reported on digital media, technology, etc., what do you believe are the biggest pros and cons of theater-going, both in general and in comparison to at-home, on-demand media consumption?

The biggest cultural con is that theaters have notoriously been targeted by agents of mass violence. It’s really hard to break that stigma.

I think theaters will thrive around major holidays, with families seeking to go out and see new blockbuster releases together. Otherwise apart from pretty significant changes and adaptations to food culture, I don’t know if the theater will thrive, and if they do survive I don’t see them again claiming a cultural center like they once did as anchors in the golden age of the mall.

Looking at the movie theater industry from afar, what do you believe are some of the most promising signs of its survival/future success?

Bringing back historic films, remastered, could draw people back into the theater to relive memories of seeing a movie three decades later. I think the incorporation of live events, like concerts and major sporting events, could be a new way to leverage existing technologies for new purposes. Subscriptions (like, unlimited monthly movies for $19.99 a month) will bring volume up. But no matter what, the industry seems to be in need of major rethinking.

Similarly, what do you believe are some of the biggest challenges for its survival/future success?

Cinema is an incredibly powerful medium for projecting the dominant cultural mythologies of our age. But the video-gamming industry is doing the same thing, and better, by putting us inside the action. If 3D immerses us into a gigantic screen, video games immerse us inside the mythology itself. Action role-play video games move us from merely spectating a mythology to actually becoming a star/spectator within it. And it’s incredibly addictive, more addictive than the cinema.

The Netflix film Mowgli (2018) was a game-changer for me. I streamed the film with my family at the same time it was a new release in local cinemas. Theaters have gotten used to holding proprietary rights for a movie for a certain length of time before those films go to streaming services. And if this continues, as large media streaming services fund their own large-scale sitcoms, dramas, and feature-length movies, this will continue to blow up the big studio/cinema marriage we have come to assume. And as streaming giants find themselves in a foot race for proprietary content, this will continue to undermine theaters.

If you had to take a few guesses (educated or just for fun), what are some ways you believe movie theaters — the industry, the experience, whatever it may be — will change over the next 5–10 years? What other technologies might be weaved into cinema? And what is your general outlook on the industry as a whole?

Yeah, I think that’s the problem. The technology has reached its marketable limit. I don’t know many people who decide against seeing a movie because the theater didn’t have Dolby Atmos sound. Tech upgrades at this point are subtle and largely overlooked by the public. So theaters will survive as long as they can each brand themselves as something beyond a theater. It’s very similar to what happened to the brick and mortar bookstore industry, especially Christian bookstores, that could only survive by also selling music albums, Jesus trinkets, breath mints, gum, paintings, and figurines — all the things that have nothing to do with books. Those “book” stores have died off. Cinema is in a similar boat, forced to adopt endless amounts of supplementary offerings.

With or without the physical theater, do you believe movies themselves will survive or succeed in the coming generation(s), considering the more immersive qualities of video games, social media, etc.? Why/why not?

It’s hard to say. What is a movie? What is television? These lines are now blurred. During my formative years of adolescence, live-linear television was the place for a quick hit of sarcasm and slapstick comedy (Letterman, SNL, Simpsons). The cinema was where I went to have my mind blown by immersive CGI, longform storytelling, and thundering audio technology (ET, Star Wars, Back to the Future). But this dynamic has drastically changed over the past decade. We’ve entered the golden age of television. I remember a time when you’d never see a Hollywood actor soil their reputation on television unless they were promoting a film. Now television has incorporated many of Hollywood’s well-known actors, along with all of its CGI and audio tricks. Today, it would be really difficult for me to determine if the first season of Netflix’s Lost in Space (2018–) is a 10-part television series or a 10-hour movie. I honestly don’t know. I lean toward seeing it as a 10-hour movie. It offers all the CGI and acting you’d expect from Hollywood. All the lines are blurring.

Hollywood operates by a time limit of about 120 minutes. People don’t want to sit there any longer. So movies need to fit inside this attention-window. That was an impressive feat in the 1980s. And people came away satisfied in the 120-minute storyline. But now the length of how long people will engage with a cultural mythology exceeds 50 hours! People have changed. Media has changed people. Television has made our minds more complex, better able to follow multiple plots over longer periods of time.

Studies have demonstrated this historically. Dragnet (1951–59) was a television series about LA cops. It featured one plot per episode, beginning to end. Real clean. Simple. Each episode works A to Z as a standalone storyline. Starsky and Hutch (1975–79) was also a television series about LA cops. It featured two plots, one at the beginning that is picked up at the end, but a second, major plot filled up the middle. Each episode also tied off cleanly. Hill Street Blues (1981–87) came along, another police drama, but this one featured around eight plots per episode, relatively clean plots, rarely overlapping, some carrying over to later episodes. And then of course you come to The Sopranos (1999–2007), the hit mobster crime drama. It featured around ten plots per episode, overlapping one another, scenes where two or three plots are concurrently developed at the same time, unfinished plots carrying over from one episode to another episode, and some plots dropping out for multiple episodes, even for whole seasons, only to be picked up later. Very complex storytelling.

In today’s media landscape, to imagine an entirely developed storyline in just 120 minutes is overly contained. The Sopranos drama required 4,300 minutes. Again, this is one of the reasons why the home theater trumps the cinema. No one could watch The Sopranos in a theater. Some will say home theater watchers have settled for something smaller than the cinema. But in many ways this is exactly wrong. Home theater viewers are asking for mega-longform media, the kind of media that could never fit inside the cinema.

And would their survival/success be a good thing? Or, like the act of going to the movies at the theater, would it be no different than any other activity of entertainment?

I don’t know. I hope we continue to attend live sporting events and don’t just watch them all on VR goggles in 3D. But if that’s what happens, I won’t be too concerned. The stadium vendors will find other employment. The same is true of the theater. I’m rather ambivalent. But if theaters become a glorified marriage between the privacy and comfort of our dimly lit living rooms, while we are served a foodie-level menu by waiters from a kitchen with the best chef in town, could we really say that the cinema has survived? To double a patient’s life-support is not to say he’s now twice as much alive. It’s to say he’s twice as much dead.

Buying Your Teen a Smartphone for Christmas? Don’t.

Our kids’ lives are full of progressions: from crib to “big kid” bed, from tricycle to bicycle, and from learner’s permit to driver’s license. We use phrases that mark these milestones: when they sleep in their “own bed,” when they ride their “own bike,” and when they get their “own car.”

But in the digital age, kids face a new suite of technological progressions: from digital media, to tablets, to a dumbphone, and then eventually to a smartphone. As in the case of a new bike, sometimes we buy things for kids and give them full ownership. And many parents have witnessed their teen’s excitement in unboxing their “own phone.”

But I think smartphones call for a different approach. Here’s an alternative route.

Instead of giving a teen their “own phone,” it may be better to speak of the smartphone in terms of a gift, on loan, in the form of an experiment. The phone is purchased by, owned by, and all monthly services are paid by, mom and dad. This arrangement is made clear from the outset. This phone is, and will remain, mom and dad’s phone. The parents lend it out to the child, per agreement, as an experiment.

And since the smartphone is an open experiment to test teen maturity and responsibility, we can then set clear expectations in a written contract to cover a few baseline rules on content, apps, personal behaviors, and family engagement.

At a bare minimum, a contract will make statements like:

  • This phone does not go into the bedroom. While at home, the phone stays in the living room (or in a central charging location).
  • This phone is charged in mom and dad’s room from 7pm to 7am.
  • This phone is not to be jail-broken or hacked.
  • This phone is for limited apps and no new apps will be added without parental approval (something Apple makes relatively easy).

When considering violations of the agreement, you can set consequences out clearly. For example: on the first violation, dad takes back his phone and deactivates it for one week. On the second violation, dad takes back his phone and deactivates it for one month. And on the third violation, dad takes back his phone and the smartphone experiment comes to a halt.

A contract like this will be unique to each child and you’ll need discernment on what exactly each child needs to hear. But all of these negotiations are made possible because of language you use from the start. No, we did not buy our teen his or her “own phone.” We are conducting a trial, an experiment to see if our teen is mature enough for such a powerful technology.

This approach puts the burden on the teen, and gives you opportunities to talk about what is and is not working as the teen learns to navigate such a complicated new landscape. This framework also gives you an “out” clause if the experiment explodes, or even a “wait” clause if you need time to rethink digital media in their lives.

So if you think your teen is ready for a smartphone, don’t buy them one for Christmas. Buy yourself a redundant new phone for Christmas and lend it out to them. Love them and guide them through this powerful life progression. Like bicycle training wheels and parking-lot driving lessons, give them the tools they want with the safeguards they need.

Why God Cannot Be Tempted by Evil

James 1:13 —

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.

Jonathan Edwards’ lecture on James 1:13 (April 1733) —

It’s impossible [that God be tempted to sin] because it’s impossible that God should be in want of anything or be capable of having his happiness added, he that has already an all-fullness in himself, and is infinitely happy. It’s impossible that he should desire to be more happy. For there is no such thing as more happy than infinitely happy. There can be no addition to that which is infinite, that which cannot be exceeded.

But if it be impossible that God should desire to be more happy, then it’s impossible for him to be tempted with a view to his own interest, for that is to suppose that he has a view to an addition to his own happiness, when at the same time he desires no addition, nor is capable of it.

Men are liable to temptation because they have an inward craving of happiness. They are tempted by some object to allure that craving. But he that is self-sufficient is not liable to any such temptation nor capable of it. It’s impossible that he should have any such prospect.

Men are tempted to do evil from a view at some profit or pleasure. A view at being in some way added to by it. But it’s impossible that he that is infinitely happy and blessed should have any such temptation to do any evil or unrighteous thing.

But then if it be inquired how it appears that God hath such a fullness in himself that he can’t be added to, the answer appears by this: that he cannot receive any addition from any other because all others have all from him. It appears God has all fullness in himself because the whole creation have all from him. He is the fountain of the good that is received and enjoyed in the whole creation. Every creature has all that he has from God. . . .

Therefore it is evident that God can receive no addition from or by the creature, or by anything in the creation. If the creation be happy, that makes no addition to God. And if the creature be miserable, that makes no addition to God. Therefore God cannot be under temptation to wrong creatures or to do unjustly by them from any expectation of getting anything by them.

[Editing note: All contracted ’tis-es changed to it’s-es.]