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Celebrity jeopardy

Driscoll accusations highlight the dangers of an evangelical celebrity machine

How do celebrity pastors produce and market books? That question surfaced again over the past month as talk show host Janet Mefferd first criticized Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll for plagiarism, then under pressure removed evidence from her website and issued an on-air apology for the way she handled an interview with Driscoll—but without retracting her accusations.

The controversy began on Nov. 21, when Driscoll appeared on “The Janet Mefferd Show” to discuss his new book A Call to Resurgence, published by Tyndale House Publishers. Mefferd maintains Driscoll’s representatives initiated the request for the interview. As part of her preparation for the interview, Mefferd had encountered several passages in Driscoll’s book that turned out to be verbatim but not-in-quotation-marks passages from writing by Peter Jones, scholar in residence at Westminster Seminary California.  

Mefferd confronted Driscoll in what quickly became an awkward and contentious interview on her radio program, syndicated by the Salem Radio Network, the nation’s largest Christian radio network. After the interview and in part as a response to criticism that Mefferd had unfairly criticized Driscoll for a “mistake” that did not rise to the level of intentional plagiarism, Mefferd put on her website more examples of Driscoll’s uncredited use of other people’s material. 

On Dec. 4 Mefferd took down that material and became publicly silent on the matter. This fed numerous blogosphere comments that Tyndale House or other organizations had pressured her or Salem. Tyndale House issued a statement defending its author: “Tyndale House takes any accusation of plagiarism seriously and has therefore conducted a thorough in-house review of the original material and sources provided by the author. After this review we feel confident that the content in question has been properly cited in the printed book and conforms to market standards.” 

But InterVarsity Press, publisher of the New Bible Commentary, released a statement saying “several paragraphs” of Driscoll’s book Trial: 8 Witnesses from 1 & 2 Peter “improperly” used the IVP commentary “without quotation or attribution.” Mars Hill—Driscoll’s church and publisher of Trial—pulled the book from its website and issued a statement saying in part, “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.”

Many questions remain. In a day when many celebrity authors use ghostwriters, they may not have the close contact with development of their work that makes plagiarism less likely. Others only use researchers and do the writing themselves, but (as in the children’s game of post office) it’s easy in the course of transferring files numerous times for quotation marks and citations to disappear. Plagiarism suggests lying but ghostwriting suggests deception, and sometimes an evangelical celebrity machine leads to a mix-up of the two. WORLD had a cover story on this subject in 1993 and plans to revisit it in 2014.

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