Thursday, December 18, 2008

Three to Go: An Excursus on Writing Sermons

I finished up three sermons yesterday. Granted--I used some heavy borrowing from myself. Hate having to do that, but as Christopher Orr suggested below (in the comments) it's all borrowing and copying one way or another.

When I was at the Seminary, the homiletics professors squirmed a lot on this point. Being academics--and ethical types, anyway--they were loathe to admit that sermons should borrow anything--at least unattributed. It's the ethical way to be. On the other hand, they admitted that the Gospel is not copyrighted and if the pastor is inventing new ways of looking at it, understanding it or interpreting it, he is wrong. The pastor's--the theologian's--job is not to invent new things, but to be faithful to the Gospel as it has been handed down to us.

How do I handle this? When I borrow, I quote or attribute. Last Sunday I mentioned Eugene Petersen's idea that no congregation wants a pastor who is a "yes-man." They may still kick him out, but on a fundamental level they want someone who will speak the truth to them, even if they don't like it. This is Petersen's idea. Not mine. I gave him credit. I've never read this idea anywhere else, at least phrased like that. To my knowledge this is one of his unique insights.

On the other hand, I've made reference to things Fr. Stephen Freeman wrote concerning the human heart without giving him an attribution, at least not directly. Why? Because he was passing on what the Fathers and Elders have said through the centuries. Additionally, those observations have become mine through prayer and meditation about them--albeit in a puny, half-confused way.

Look, plagiarism is what we're talking about, and it's not an easy thing to put your finger on. You can't copyright the Gospel, nor the Apostolic teaching. You can't copyright facts, either, making the biographer in a worse position than a preacher. And sermons are not presented or intended to be creative, original texts. Not mine. It's part of why I don't publish them here. I don't write for publication, I write to proclaim--once.

Preaching is kind of like writing music: you have a chord progression-- a chordal pattern, a key, a time signature, a rhythm. And it cannot be copyrighted. It's not copyright-able. Fact. But the melody you sing is a creative, original element. Likewise the words. The chords for "Twinkle Twinkle" are the same chords used for 33.3% of all pop songs written in 1956-1966. Three chords and the truth. Ok, the statistics I made up, but they sounded good. And most blues songs feature the same I-IV-V progression with a half-dozen variations and turn-arounds, but no one is stealing from anyone else unless they take the words and melody. Or their band name begins with "Led" and ends with "Zeppelin." (see here, Zep-heads)

Likewise in preparing a sermon you have the structure, the key signature, the rhythm given to you. Sometimes you even have the melody provided--or maybe just a refrain. The preacher's task is to make the words fit the melody and the feel of the song. It is possible to sing "Amazing Grace" to the tune and chords of "House of the Rising Sun," but it may not be a good idea to do it. It could be a bad sermon.

Of course, this is all a big digression from my main point--I copied from myself. All my members who read this will now be bracing themselves to see if they recognize what I say. I doubt it. I wrote new introductions, and some new concluding paragraphs, copied in a few body paragraphs, but will probably even phrase them differently when I beging practicing them out loud. By the time it is proclaimed it may not even be familiar to me.

It's more like Jazz improv, maybe.

Ok, on to the next three!


  1. orrologion said...

    OK, that's too far. Enough with the heresy.

    We all know that Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham made a pact with the devil in exchange for fame, fortune and talent. That's where the got their songs from: the Devil.

    Now, if someone else wrote some of their song then it is probably because those musicians sold their souls and music catalogues to the devil for something or other themselves and then he gave the songs he owned to Led Zeppelin.

    Perfectly legal.

    On a more serious note, I chalk such things up to creativity in the way that Shakespeare 'stole' all of his stories - as did the Greeks playwrights. The art is in the telling, the arrangement of the details and particulars - not in plot point, character names, etc.; not even in time signature, chords, etc. Such intellectual property rights are a bit of a stretch in my mind - especially when they were all totally high back then and couldn't remember where they lived half the time.

    Congrats on 'crafting' new sermons from old.

  2. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    The simple fact is that we are impacted by the things we read. . . when we come across good theological ideas, of course we are supposed to use them. We are teachers. We teach what we have learned. Tinker and shape it to fit Redeemer for you or Zion for me.

    Now, as long as one is "tinkering" and not creatively finding ways to not worry about taking the time to study and write sermons. . . oh look, cut, paste, and my sermons through July are done in two hours.

    Led Zepplin is fine - just don't become Vanilla Ice.

  3. Pastor Sharp said...

    "No plagiarism in service of the Gospel."

    - Owner of the 'Fro Shop.