Who can forget that memorable line from M. Night Shyamalan's best movie, The Sixth Sense? In the film, an emotionally disturbed child confesses to his psychologist that he sees ghosts. The movie turns dramatically at this shocking moment. Here, the film gives its strongest hint yet that the lead character, played by Bruce Willis, is not what he seems. He is actually dead.
In the last few weeks, the evangelical and Reformed world was given an inside glimpse of the process of “ghostwriting” when a massive plagiarism scandal broke out in full public view.
For the sake of Christian charity, I will omit the names of the key players and the publishing house(s) involved. Astute readers will already be aware of the circumstances, and they need not be repeated here.
In full disclosure, I am personally acquainted with one of the men in the center of the controversy. This makes what I am about to say even harder.
This article is not about the errant citations that fell through the cracks somewhere in the editing process. I regard the term "plagiarism" to be unnecessarily hyperbolic and even inflammatory.
The books attributed to this well known author are generally footnoted extensively. I have several of them on my shelf. In some, literally hundreds of academic citations are provided. But there is a far more significant problem lurking below. We must now say "the books attributed to..." the writer.
Perhaps I should define the term. 'Ghostwriters' are usually relatively unknown writers, researchers, and scholars who write substantial portions--or even all--of the books that are actually credited to better known leaders.
So far as I can tell ghostwriting, which has been called "the standard practice of the industry" by the publishers, might possibly be supported by any of five possible reasons.
However, none of them seems morally justifiable to me. They are:
1. The person to whom the book is attributed is not a competent writer. Response: All writers need substantial editing. Unfortunately, none of us can see all of our own errors in print. But no one pretends that writing and editing are actually the same thing. Hiring another person to do the actual work of writing and composing while taking the credit oneself on the cover seems to me to be the moral equivalent of singing a solo with the vocal track of another performer playing on the sound system. In both cases, the clear intent is to deceive the audience. If one cannot write well, he ought not pretend that he can.
2. The person to whom the book is attributed does not have the time to write the work himself. Response: Writing requires a great amount of time and work; far more than most realize. However, when a known leader employs others do this work--and yet signs his own name to one or more books every year--he creates an illusion of his own superhuman abilities. He is putting on a show and expects others to buy tickets. When a Christian leader gets to this point, he is actually just selling his own fame. If one has not the time to write, he ought not pretend that he has.
3. The person to whom the book is attributed is not thoroughly knowledgeable about the subject matter on which he writes. Response: None of us are omniscient. All who aspire to write well must do a significant amount of research. Often experts must be consulted. However, having a team of researchers (or a research assistant) do the bulk of the study creates the illusion that the named author is far more knowledgeable about the subject matter than he really is. As with 1 & 2 above, he is creating an illusion about himself that he hopes (and expects) his audience will believe. If one has not the expertise to write, he ought not pretend that he does.
4. Publishers, seeking greater sales revenue, prefer better known leaders to lesser known writers for obvious marketing reasons. Response: Doing business with a view towards making money is not intrinsically wrong in itself. Certainly Christian ethics does not require a business to lose money in order to be considered moral. On the other hand, selling a product--any product--that purports to be something it is not is deceiving to the consumer at best and morally fraudulent at worst.
5. The ghostwriter is not well known and cannot garner an audience of his own at this time; he needs to "get his foot in the door" somehow. Response: Everyone must begin somewhere. Many careers must begin in the "mailroom." Nevertheless, allowing one's own work to be usurped by a more popular Christian celebrity seems to compromise the very integrity of the craft of writing. For this reason, it would seem better not to write at all than to participate in someone else's self-promotion or a corporation’s greed.
Since none of the above rationale seems morally persuasive to me, I am inclined to see a spiritual "deadness" in the entire enterprise of ghostwriting.
I see dead people.
The fact that most Christians (myself included) simply don't know how widespread this practice really is seems more frightening than a horror flick.
My guess is that there are dozens of well-known pastors and Christian celebrities who have availed themselves to ghostwriters that now dread the possibility that they too may be exposed as frauds. Likely, their audiences would be horrified to learn that they write little to nothing of the books that they hawk under their own names.
When I wrote Hold Fast the Faith, my devotional commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, it took me nearly five years to bring it to completion. As an unknown author, almost half of that time was spent convincing a reputable publisher to take on the project. Finally, one did.
I wrote every word, often late at night after my kids went to bed, or very early morning before the coffee pot even finished brewing. I was working full-time in the ministry, pastoring a church of 400 people, while trying to be a responsible father to my children and husband to my wife.
I know what it takes to write a book and pastor a church at the same time. Believe me, I can imagine how great the temptation would be to cut corners if I was ever offered the opportunity to cheat. It would be so easy!
But writing is an arduous task. One pours out his soul with his words. He shapes his sentences as a sculptor shapes marble. Slowly. Arduously. Good books are not stamped out in a plastic mold by "research teams," they are handcrafted.
Can anyone really imagine C.S. Lewis using a ghostwriter? Or Augustine? Or Calvin?
In other words, I would rather grind out even one book that contained my own spiritual DNA—my blood, sweat, and tears--than publish volumes by passing off some other writer's work under my own name.
One’s conscience would have to die before he would be able to participate in such a sham.
--Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. He is the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647.