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Friday, February 23, 2018

Plagiarism

   No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 
-Luke 6:43-45 (NIV)


So it turns out that William Shakespeare plagiarized his works.
     Well, no. That’s not right. It isn’t that he plagiarized. But a writer and self-taught Shakespeare scholar in New Hampshire used plagiarism software to identify a previously unidentified source that Shakespeare apparently used in 11 of his plays. 
     Dennis McCarthy used the software to identify words and combinations of words Will used that also appear, often in the same order, in a work from the early 1500’s written by George North, a minor court official of Queen Elizabeth. North’s work, A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels, shaped the opening soliloquy of Richard III, (“Now is the winter of our discontent...”) “He keeps hitting word after word,” McCarthy says. “It’s like a lottery ticket. It’s easy to get one number out of six, but not to get every number.”
     McCarthy shows that the Bard not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In one passage, for instance, North uses six terms for dogs to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in King Lear and Macbeth.
      In Henry VI Part 2, Shakespeare describes a rebel, Jack Cade, who he says he was starving and eating grass before he was finally caught and dragged through the street by his heels and his body left to be eaten by crows. All of those details are present in a passage from North in which he condemns Cade and two other famous rebels. Mr. McCarthy argues that Shakespeare used those details to make Cade into a composite of the three.
     Given a little thought, though, it isn’t at all surprising that Shakespeare used sources to help develop and flesh out themes and characters in his plays. No writer sits down to write without bringing influences and sources to the table. Sometimes it’s intentional. Most often, it’s unconscious: wording a writer hears or sees that comes out unbidden later, syntax picked up from another source that finds its way into an author’s work. It isn’t plagiarism, not really. Not when influences affect the heart and make themselves known naturally and freely.
     Something like this influence is what Jesus has in mind when he says “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” 
     If there was software to see the sources from which I “plagiarized” my words, I wonder what it would identify. I wonder what would be on my list? 
     Would there be vocabulary from the language of political debate and partisan loyalty? 
     Would my syntax be influenced by the tone of media and pop culture?
     Would you hear echoes of racism, classism, and ethnocentrism in the things I said?
     Would my words be full of obscenity, and innuendo? Would those around me hear the influence of people whose language insults, belittles, or objectifies? Would I speak like the bullies who control much of the world’s corporate and political wealth and power? 
     Or…
     Would my words be full of innocence and purity? Would those who heard me speak detect the influence of Scripture, the language of blessing, encouragement, and kindness? Would I speak with the humility of those who have changed the world through sacrifice and service?
     Would my words resound with acceptance, tolerance, and grace?
     Would the things I said be formed by the worship and prayers of the church?
     Would the vocabulary of love, unity, and peace be easily detected?  
     It’s a good reminder for us, isn’t it, that the things that come out of our hearts when we speak don’t just happen to be there? It’s good to remember that expecting the things we hear and read the most to not influence the way we think and the things we value and, thus, the way we speak is as ridiculous as expecting to get figs from thorn bushes or grapes from briers. It’s as silly as expecting a bad tree to produce good fruit.
     So maybe it’s helpful for all of us to do the plagiarism software exercise. What are your sources? What do the people around you hear when you open your mouth? I don’t mean what do they hear in those moments when you curate what you say: in work meetings or church services or formal social occasions where everyone is on their best behavior. I mean what are the sources they’re most likely to identify in those times when your filter isn’t engaged and what’s in your heart comes immediately and directly to your lips? Do they hear the media? Politicians? Do they hear echoes of social media? Or do they hear the words of Scripture? Prayer? Worship? Kindness? 
     Jesus?
     If you don’t like the answer you’re coming up with, then you know that there’s something you can do about it, right? Yep, that’s right: get different sources. If you don’t like what’s happened to your heart as you’ve fixated on what comes out of Washington, or Hollywood, or what’s pumped into you through your broadband connection, then make a change. Start seeking out different sources. Read the Bible more, and some of the authors who write about living as a person of faith. Worship more. Spend more time with the songs of faith that the church has composed over the years. Memorize Scripture — that’s become kind of a lost art, but there’s no better way to get it into your heart. Pray more. Spend more time with the church so you can be influenced by others who are living lives of faith.
     This is a long-haul fix, you understand. You might not change everything overnight. But if you’ll seek out the Lord in the sources that influence you, then I promise you that you will change. God’s Word is powerful, living, and at work. The Holy Spirit is active. And the Word made flesh will teach you as you take his words into your mind and heart.
     Go ahead and plagiarize from him. To your heart’s content.

     

Friday, February 2, 2018

Among Us

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made….  
     The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 
-John 1:1-3, 14 (NIV) 


Guillaume Ouimet likes hockey, apparently. 
     You can tell because he gets up at dawn so he can have the outdoor rink in his neighborhood (which apparently they have in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec!) all to himself. On January 9th he was working out as usual when a car rolled up and a guy got out with a hockey stick, skates, and gloves. The new arrival asked him from across the ice if anyone else was coming, and Guillaume said no. So the guy sat down in a snowbank and started lacing up his skates. 
     You can tell Guillaume likes hockey because he recognized the guy almost immediately. As his impromptu workout partner skated out onto the ice, Guillaume went over and introduced himself to Sidney Crosby, NHL legend and captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
     Crosby was taking a short vacation with his girlfriend in the Mont-Tremblant area and happened upon the rink.
     Crosby and Guillaume played and practiced for over an hour. At some point, Crosby’s girlfriend showed up and said they had to go. Twice, Crosby replied, “Ten more minutes!” She took some photos of Guillaume and Crosby together and later sent them to him. Good thing, too, as up until they saw the snaps his friends hadn’t quite believed him.
     Well, can you blame them? It’s kind of hard to imagine, isn’t it, that a perennial NHL all-star would show up unannounced at a little rink in middle-of-nowhere, Quebec? Imagine LeBron James shooting baskets with you at your YMCA gym. Jordan Spieth hitting with you at the driving range. Tom Brady walking on to your high school field and telling you to run a post while Giselle screams from the car that they’re going to be late. You could see how someone might doubt a story that starts with, “A couple of weeks ago, Sidney Crosby and I played one-on-one at the rink down the street.”
     It’s hard to believe because, in our experience, one of the results of fame is a disconnect from the world of “regular people.” Sidney Crosby doesn’t practice at neighborhood rinks with Junior AA players because he doesn't have to.
     That being the case, it’s no wonder that the story of Jesus has always been a little hard to believe.
     The church exists because of this story — not a collection of theology formulated by academics and clerics, but this story: that in Jesus God was doing something unheard-of and unimaginable. John begins his Gospel, his telling of the story, by invoking God’s Word, always with God and inseparable from him. This Word, John reminds us, is the “Let there be light” power that created, well, everything. You can’t conceive of this Word as existing apart from God. And yet…
     John says something remarkable. God’s Word “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” 
     While most religions provide some path by which people can come to the Divine — through obedience or sacrifice or enlightenment or whatever — Christianity has the traffic moving in the other direction. Human beings don’t come to God — at least not initially. Instead, God comes to us
     The proposition that begins John’s gospel is that he’s about to show us what it looks like when God takes on humanity and comes to us. What will he care about? What will he say? What will he do? John tells us that he comes to bear witness to truth, to bring light in darkness, to show us the way to God. And he does this by turning around suffering and death so that it becomes the way to glory and life — for him, and for those who believe in him.
     Hard to believe, yes. And so John shows us what happens when people take even those first, faltering steps toward belief.
     The church wrestled with that story for centuries, trying to describe it and quantify it, categorize by inventing vocabulary and creating documents that purported to be the final word. In some ways, we’re still wrestling with it. For some of us, Jesus just came to die on the cross for our sins, and the way to salvation is just to acknowledge that happened and thank him for it. But John and the other Gospel writers say much more than that in their retellings of the story. For them, those years between his birth and his death and resurrection mean something. 
     For some of us, Jesus is a good teacher, chiefly useful because his words can be made to conveniently fit whatever we’d like them to fit. But the story isn’t about using his words to support our own opinions, but that he is God’s Word to us. We aren’t supposed to use his teaching as much as we are to hear it and live it.
     The anonymous author of the letter we call Hebrews says that God is a God who reveals himself — always has been. He goes on to make the case, though, that of all the ways God has chosen to make himself known to us, his last revelation through his Son is the most complete, most significant, and most clear. So, he says, “We must pay the most careful attention to what we have heard.”
     Paul pointed to this story when he told the church in Philippi to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” by having his love for one another and choosing to forego their own interests and ambitions to instead look out for each other. He tells the story of Jesus giving up his equality with God to empty himself, become a servant, and to humble himself to the degree that he accepted the execution of a common criminal. In this, Paul points out, we believe that Jesus found glory. And in following him, he says, the church would “shine like stars in the sky” as they “hold firmly to the word of life.”
     We, church, are supposed to carry with us the snapshots of our encounters with Jesus. When people have a hard time believing this story, we’re the evidence. When we think and humble ourselves and empty ourselves out of love like Jesus did, we answer the doubts. We respond to those who think it isn’t possible with proof that it is. That Jesus did come to us. That he lives with us, that we’ve met him. And that they can too.   

     May we be found faithful.

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