Bart Barber Defends Ed Litton: “God Inspired Mark to Plagiarize Peter”
This is the weakest argument I’ve yet heard in defense of the Southern Baptist Convention’s new president, the serial plagiarist and liar, Ed Litton.
The narrative is changing.
Originally, the claim was: No! Silly! Ed Litton hasn’t been copying other people’s sermons for years, with no attribution.
(After all, who has time to read any of the articles proving it, when those articles are written by unpopular people?)
Next, the claim was: But Ed Litton told the original preacher that he liked his sermons, so that sort of counts as permission, right?
(Who cares about whether Litton was deceiving his own congregation for years about where the lessons were coming from!)
Another cherry of an argument came from Bart Barber. He acted as if a pattern of surreptitious sermon-swiping was simply no big deal:
@EdLitton is not the SBC pastor or the SBC preacher; he’s the SBC president. The task of the presidency consists precisely of appointing committees and conducting the annual meeting in such a way as to protect the will of the messengers. Litton has not transgressed the Baptist Faith & Message, nor has he committed any malfeasance of his office. If he were outside the boundaries of our statement of faith or if he were abusing the power of his office, I would call for him to resign. He is not. Thus I am not.
New month, new argument! How far will Ed Litton’s defenders go?
This time the argument is: Plagiarism isn’t always bad! There is good plagiarism and bad plagiarism!
Barber’s argument would be laughable, if it were not also disrespectful toward the sacredness of language — and toward God himself.
Barber seems to think that the term “plagiarize” can be thrown around and applied to God. He wrote:
“…God inspired Mark to plagiarize Peter. Which wasn’t sinful. Which didn’t compromise His holiness.”
No. God did not inspire Mark to plagiarize Peter. Are you kidding me? And God certainly did not inspire Mark to do anything like what Ed Litton did.
Well, this has been fun. Back in the real world, were I to preach other’s sermons without attribution I’d expect the people I shepherd to be shocked, perhaps angry, and certainly cheated. If the use of other’s sermons included presenting illustrations as if they were my own …
What Does Bart Barber Get Right?
In the interest of fairness: Barber did make a few rational points. He correctly noted that there are areas in which it would be a judgment call to decide whether someone is relying too much on the intellectual work of someone else.
For instance, when a Sunday School teacher summarizes the gospel, he will probably do well to deliver a framework he learned from his pastor or from a trusted book, but it is not always necessary to mention where the specific wording came from. Granted. The context of the communication makes it clear that the Sunday School teacher is delivering a message that has been heard elsewhere and is now being relayed.
But where is Bart Barber going with his argument?
Is he trying to use that non-mysterious truth as part of an argument that Ed Litton’s sermon swiping was no big deal?
Litton’s actions are not similar to those of a Sunday School teacher. Litton conveyed personal stories and anecdotes as if they were his own, when these personal experiences were simply pulled from the sermons he was copying. That is lying. Litton’s frameworks and specific bullet points and application points were taken word-for-word from other sermons. (See this resource collection.) And his congregation never knew. That is lying.
And now Bart Barber has shown that he is willing to associate God himself with the term plagiarism in an attempt to diminish Ed Litton’s lies.
Is there any truth to what Bart Barber is saying?
A friend observed the debacle on Twitter and asked the following:
What’s a good response to Bart Barber’s talking point that the Gospels don’t cite or attribute portions to each other? I don’t buy Barber’s conclusion about Litton, but could you help me see how the practices of the Gospel writers are distinct from modern plagiarism? Is there a principled way to distinguish the Gospels copying each other’s passages and modern plagiarism? Is it just the fact that in the 1st Century there was no expectation that one’s work would be fully original?
Here is how I replied:
This is a topic that is well-understood. The lack of citations in ancient works and the occasional duplications across accounts are not commonly taken as being cases of plagiarism.
What Bart Barber is doing is astonishing. On the basis of a misunderstanding of the role of differing conventions in ancient times, he seems to be arguing that present-day violations of present-day conventions could be acceptable.
Communication takes place in a context. When a convention exists, to ignore it can be to deceive or to act disreputably (even if the action would not have been disreputable in a different context).
Conventions matter. There is a range of options about what conventions should be accepted by a society. But the need for conventions and expectations that will define an act of communication is ever-present. It is an objective need.
The options about the conventions that a given society will need to use always fall within a range, and they are established by an objective assessment of the situation.
First-year Bible students learn about these topics.
Any student of the Bible will learn about how the canonical books relate to each other and to non-canonical books. Some of the books pull from shared sources. Some of the books refer to sources not included in the canon. Often, writers borrow well-known phrases or statements without citing them. Sometimes, quotations are given imperfectly. (When the writer is translating a quote between languages, there is not one perfect translation.)
The gospels are compilations of eye-witness testimony, each created as a resource for specific people in four specific locales. The context of the creation and use of these four books is not the same as the context of a book being published and marketed today. These were books custom-made for a custom use, by people who knew where the material came from and what the use of it was to be. Mark knew his readers would not have assumed he was claiming Peter’s words were his own words.
That is exactly how the Ed Litton situation differs. Litton represents his material (the frameworks of his sermons, the analysis of Scripture, and the specific wording of the application points) as being his own, when they are not. He allows his audience to assume the work is his. It is not. The work is simply copied word-for-word from someone he has not named. He even represents personal anecdotes and experiences as being his own.
In his context, as a preacher in the 21st Century, we have a convention and an expectation that a teacher creates his lessons — or that he names where he found them. And, clearly, the convention and expectation is that he not lie, claiming to have had experiences he has not had.
Were Ed Litton a stand-up comedian, the expectation would be different.
During an act, a comedian can make up stories and relay them as being true, even if they did not happen. The audience knows the comedian is delivering an act, not necessarily relaying historical facts.
For years, Ed Litton has been treating his sacred task of teaching the Bible as if he were a comedian or movie star and as if he were not there to convey a reality, but to deliver an act. But Litton does not even measure up to the standards of the comedians. It would end a comedian’s career if he continually swiped entire acts from peers. For Ed Litton, it was no concern.
That Bart Barber chooses to compare this fraudster to the gospel writers and the Holy Spirit is sickening.
The Bible’s use of words is not the same as Ed Litton’s use of words:
The Gospels are composed of first hand reports and compilations of eye witness testimony. Three of the four gospels report on the same events, generally. They use at least some of the same sources. Redundant reports and compilations of eye witness testimony will almost necessarily contain duplications of wording.
When seeking to recount the words of eye-witnesses or secondary witnesses, the goal is fidelity to exactly what has already been said. What does Bart Barber think the Gospel writers ought to have done in order to escape his classifying them as plagiarism?
Should one of the Gospel writers have gone through the wording of another Gospel writer and re-adjusted the phrasing and words of the first-hand report so as to make it appear to be original to him, the way an amateur plagiarist today might open up his thesaurus and try to switch one word for a similar word? That is no way to respect an existing first-hand report. In fact, it would disrespect it.
If you understand that the Gospels are compilations, and you understand that citations were not always considered necessary in ancient times, the claim that the Gospels are plagiarism dissolves.
Plagiarism means “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own” (Google). The distinct quality that makes a piece of writing plagiarism is not simply that it contains the same words as those found elsewhere. Rather, the distinct quality is the false portrayal of the work — claiming it is your own when it is not. The Gospel writers did not do this. Ed Litton did.
The Gospels are not 21st Century sermons.
They are ancient historical narratives. As such, they make free use of phrasing from trusted eye witnesses and from other trusted historical documents — often without citation. The context was different, and the facts in that different context led to a different, yet equally rational, set of expectations for communication.
Consider how the context differed at the time the gospels were written: There were fewer writings being made at that time, and fewer readers. The writer and reader may have known one another locally, or they may have known one another through a messenger with whom they were both acquainted, as in the case of the New Testament epistles. If a writing survived from one generation to another, the new generation would have understood the origin of a writing simply by means of the oral tradition that came with its transmission.
Important writings were known to the general population by the practice of public readings and discussion. Notice how Paul cites Greek poets (Acts 17) and does not bother naming them. He expects his audience to already know the names. This pattern is likewise found in the way New Testament writers cite lines from the Old Testament. Typically, their readers did not need to be told the name of the book in which a line could be found.
In the case of the four Gospels and other kinds of ancient writing (including the epistles) the writing was created by a known writer for a known reason, and given to a known individual or group. The smaller context of writers and readers and the different technological context made it so trust came from first person knowledge of where the document came from and what was contained in it. It was not yet necessary to develop the conventions we have today, which are designed help us track a much greater volume of information.
Today, the situation is different.
In our context, with vast populations, mostly literate, and a vast amount of literature having been collected over hundreds (and even thousands) of years, and with the rise of the modern book publishing and academic industries, society has developed conventions that look different from those upheld by the Gospel writers. This does not prove that the conventions are arbitrary or subjective. It proves that conventions are based on reality, and that those who would respect their hearers must respect the conventions developed in the era in which they live.
To ignore those conventions (and especially to portray oneself as the originator of an idea or first hand account while speaking it publicly) is to convey a falsehood.
What has Ed Litton been doing, if not lying?
And what is it that Bart Barber is defending, if not lying?
It is a sad day for the Southern Baptist Convention when men like Bart Barber and Ed Litton are cheered on by pastors and seminary presidents.
But that is where we are.
To a man like Bart Barber, I have to say this:
What you are doing is simply perverted. You attempt to diminish the dishonesty of Ed Litton by associating his sin with God Almighty.
Paul said it best:
“You son of the Devil, full of all deceit and all fraud, enemy of all righteousness! Won’t you ever stop perverting the straight paths of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10)