University students know the seriousness of it. So do journalists, whose reputation stand on their ability to tell the truth. Even literary writers, whose job is to craft fiction, understand the need to be original.
So I was surprised to learn that large swaths of Kong Hee's daily devotionals are lifted from other sources -- without attribution. This unexpected revelation was brought to light by an anonymous blogger who devoted an entire blog called 'Cheat Grace' to exposing Kong Hee's alleged plagiarism of other authors.
I've learnt about this blog a couple of months ago, but as it began to uncover more of Kong Hee's allegedly plagiarised articles, I began to feel a little disturbed. Underestand that I am not talking about copyright infringement, which is an entirely different issue.
While copyright infringement is illegal under all circumstances, plagiarism is not. But plagiarism is still unethical, which is why academics, journalists, and literary writers treat it seriously. Even as a blogger, I do not want to be caught stealing passages from other writers without giving them a nod.
Plagiarism is simply a breach of integrity. Writers who plagiarise are claiming the work of others as their own. It is a form of thievery and deception.
I am disturbed, therefore, that someone would accuse Kong Hee of plagiarism. But read the blog and its allegations for yourself -- which are backed up with solid documentation. The person behind the blog apparently has plenty of time and a deep well to draw motivation from.
The blogger, lets call him Cheat Grace, even muscled in the effort to pour through Kong Hee's devotional book "Renewing Your Spiritual Life Vol 2" -- which is sold for $14 -- to find that it contains the allegedly plagiarised devotionals. Cheat Grace even pointed out that Kong Hee claimed at the back of his book that he is "sharing his insights from the Bible".
The church has been silent on the matter, perhaps because it hasn't generated much online attention -- yet. Church members seemed to have glossed over it, maybe because it is deemed an insignificant and minor offence. But let me proffer another reason: Since everyone is from the Body of Christ, Christians see no need to be uptight about such regulations. After all, if the truth is preached, does it matter where it came from?
The answer, it turns out, is yes. The problem with this reasoning is that even if the other party doesn't mind that his article is plagiarised, the plagiariser is still presenting a false image of himself. It is taking a shortcut to create a good impression. It is still deception.
But I've realised that plagiarism is quite rampant among some pastors anyway, except that their followers don't call it plagiarism. Pastors have been known for preaching each other's sermons as if it is their own. But while some pastors don't see it as an issue, others do. My personal stand is that even insights preached in sermons should be credited. I do not want to receive praise for a sermon I did not craft.
There appears to be a clash of cultures. On one hand, the principle of intellectual integrity demands that the work of others must be credited. On the other hand, church leaders are lax when it comes to intellectual property. Good things, they'd say, are meant to be shared after all. Or perhaps it was never implicit that sermons must be original.
But for reasons that I've mentioned above, I think there should be a sea change in the culture of the church. It is a misguided form of generousity that breeds laziness in sermon preparation. The pastor is in fact killing his own creativity and creating a false impression of himself. It deprives church members of original insights. Intellectual integrity, therefore, should be a prized value in church too.
I don't think ripping sermons is a problem if 99 percent of pastors are okay with it. Ethics and morality are after all community-based. But as above article shows, some pastors do see it as an issue. And even if every pastor in the world is okay with the practice, the context of delivering a sermon is different from authoring a piece of literary work.
Anyway, now that Cheat Grace has so painstakingly brought the truth into public space, it is time the church reveal its side of the story publicly. Since Kong Hee has published the devotional online and sold them in bookstores, this incident cannot be considered internal anymore. Does City Harvest Church believe that there is nothing wrong with such practices? If the church believes so, then declare it out loud.
But if the church acknowledges the folly of such practices, rectifications can still be made before the situation goes out of hand. My sincere hope is that this slight can be resolved quickly, and everyone can learn a lesson and move on.
I don't want a private explanation. This time, the larger Christian community needs to know.
This article first appeared on Irreligious on 18 May 2010, and TOC thanks its author Terence Lee for giving us permission to publish the article in full here.