Mark Driscoll has been living with accusations of plagiarism for the last three weeks. A radio host spotted some suspicious passages in his latest book and asked him to make sure they were properly credited in future editions. Then she found some cut-and-paste passages in another of his works. ( Christianity Today has a blow-by-blow account of the controversy .)
What has been Driscolls reaction to these allegations? Well, not much of anything. In the initial interview, he says that hell look into it, but he takes an aggressive tone and accuses the interviewer of having the wrong spirit. Then, silence.
Yesterday, InterVarsity Press, who published one of the books that Driscoll plagiarized, voiced a complaint. Mars Hill Church quietly removed the offending material from their website and replaced it with this message:
In 2009, Pastor Mark preached through 1 & 2 Peter in a sermon series called Trial. To help our small groups, a team of people including a research assistant, put together a free study guide that was produced in-house and was never sold. About 5 years later it was brought to our attention that it contained some citation errors. We have discovered that during the editing process, content from other published sources were mistaken for research notes. These sentences were adapted instead of quoted directly. We are grateful this was brought to our attention, and we have removed that document from our website to correct the mistake. Additionally, we are examining all of our similar content as a precautionary measure.
Ive been disappointed with how Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church have handled this issue. A few years back, Lisa B. Marshall wrote a helpful post about handling a media crisis. This affair could have been a non-issue if Driscoll had followed this common sense approach. Lets look at this situation in light of her advice.
1. Be first and fast. When confronted with an awkward situation, you need to control the narrative. Its been three weeks, and weve heard nothing from Driscoll on this matter.
2. Be honest. We havent heard from Driscoll yet, but the message posted on the Mars Hill website fails this test. They never admit the problem. They try to explain away the plagiarism. They try to mitigate its seriousness by claiming that the material was never sold, a claim that Jonathan Merritt notes is untrue. Let me add that lack of financial gain in no way excuses plagiarism. Plagiarism is about the credit.
3. Be responsible. Lisa B. Marshall writes, Apologize for errors. If you were wrong, say you were wrong. If you or your company caused injury, apologize sincerely. This is the time to be human, not professional. Neither Driscoll nor Mars Hill Church has done this. Moreover, they throw an unnamed research assistant under the bus. The study guide said, Introduction by Pastor Mark Driscoll. He put his name on it. Hes responsible for it. He needs to apologize. Sincerely.
Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church created this media crisis. Things would have been different if Driscoll had managed some humility during the initial interview. (I know Janet Mefferd badgered him, but from a public-relations standpoint he should have kept his cool.) After the interview he should have issued a statement. He should have apologized for sloppiness and said that he would do better in the future. It might have ended there. It certainly would have robbed his critics of the power to shape the narrative.
But he didnt do those things. Time and time again we see politicians, celebrities, and athletes botch media crises. Unfortunately, Christians usually dont do much better. This is ironic since Marshalls rules for dealing with a media crisis have much in common with Christianitys ideas about confession and repentance. Shouldnt Christians of all people be getting this right?
Ive seen this situation play out too many times. When faced with a crisis, Christians batten down the hatches, circle the wagons, and stick their heads in the sand. Local churches and national denominations hide from scrutiny. Christian colleges avoid commenting on theological, financial, or ethical problems until too late. Now we can add the Christian publishing industry to our list of Christian institutions that want to ignore crises. We need more transparency in our Christian institutions. If we really have truth and light on our side, why do our institutions hide so much? Christians ought to be the most talkative and forthcoming with information. If we are doing things right, then we need to let the world see our witness to truth. If were doing things wrong, then we need to openly confess our sin as a witness to truth. Either way, we need transparency.
UPDATE (12/10/13, 3:30 pm):
Warren Throckmorton posted a link to the research notes that Mars Hill used in preparing their study guide. The notes in question are bracketed in quotation marks and followed by a footnote. Driscoll must not have noticed as he prepared the introduction. It’s obvious that Driscoll used this research assistant as a ghostwriter, most likely without the research assistant’s knowledge. It happens. People get sloppy, but he should have owned up to it from the beginning.