When the evangelical radio host Janet Mefferd agreed to interview Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll on her syndicated talk show the week before Thanksgiving, she warned his publicist that she would be asking some tough questions. Mefferd, a former newspaper reporter and editor, wanted to ask Driscoll about a recent incident where he’d shown up uninvited at a conference and handed out copies of his new book in the parking lot until security asked him to stop. The bizarre encounter had become a minor brouhaha within the evangelical community. In preparing for the interview, however, Mefferd found a bigger story: evidence, in her view, of plagiarism. She confronted Driscoll on air on Nov. 21, and the fallout of their contentious interview has turned into an ongoing controversy that is raising questions about plagiarism, power, and what Mefferd’s former producer—who resigned last week—calls “the evangelical industrial complex.”
Driscoll is a powerful and controversial figure even among other conservative evangelicals, promoting a masculine vision of faith that strikes some Christians as crude and wrongheaded. (In October, for example, he wrote, “Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist.”) And he leads his growing network of churches with an unusually strong hand. Last year, I reported on an incident in which his church harshly shunned a young member deemed insufficiently repentant. Driscoll wears hoodies and jeans, but do not mistake him for a laid-back guy when it comes to theology. Driscoll holds traditional conservative views on issues like homosexuality and gender roles. His new book, A Call to Resurgence, laments America’s “post-Christian culture,” marred by gay marriage, legalized marijuana, paganism, and a trend toward increased hostility to the faith. It’s a theme Mefferd is sympathetic to: Her show, heard on more than 100 stations across the country, is billed as “a distinctively Christ-centered look at the news and events of the day.” Tuesday’s show included sympathetic interviews with the founder of the Creation Museum and a lawyer representing the Colorado baker facing fines for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding.
But Mefferd was bothered that Driscoll barely credited the work of a theologian named Peter Jones. She flagged about 14 pages of Driscoll’s book that seemed to draw their ideas and themes directly from Jones, with only one vague endnote mentioning him as an “example” of Driscoll’s point. She confronted Driscoll about it on the air, and the interview quickly turned testy. “You’re being accusatory and unkind,” Driscoll told her. “It seems like you’re having sort of a grumpy day.” He emphasized his longtime friendship with Jones, and accused Mefferd of being “un-Christlike.”
Mefferd has been largely quiet since the interview, but she agreed to answer my questions by email. She says she wasn’t expecting the original radio interview to become so hostile. “I was really hoping for some honest repentance,” she said. “I was hoping that if I pointed out that he didn't properly cite Jones in the book, he'd say something like, ‘You're right. I should have done a better job of footnoting those sections. You know what? I'm going to go back to my publisher and make sure that gets fixed.’ Instead, he said he’d apologize to Peter Jones ‘if’ he made a mistake and stressed how many times he'd had dinner with him. But a personal apology isn't a sufficient response when you’ve appropriated someone else’s ideas and insights without proper citation; you also have to make things right.”
After Mefferd’s interview with Driscoll concluded, things turned uglier. She said that he had hung up on her on the air; his publisher distributed an audio recording of his side of the call that seemed to prove her wrong. (She says she couldn’t hear his final statement on her end of the line, and calls the mix-up “the perfect red herring to change the subject away from plagiarism.”) Driscoll’s publisher, Tyndale House, released a statement tut-tutting Mefferd’s “belligerent tone,” and later said the book’s citation “conforms to market standards.” (Driscoll is an important part of Tyndale’s business: A new imprint called Resurgence Publishing, announced earlier this year, will publish all Driscoll’s work starting with A Call to Resurgence, along with five to seven books a year written by Driscoll-approved authors. The pastor’s last book, Real Marriage, became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller.)
For a guy known for his aggressive leadership style, Driscoll is also a master of passive-aggressive behavior. Two days after the radio interview, he posted a long essay about lying on his website. Though he didn’t mention Mefferd by name, it is hard not to see her in the section on “Slander/Libel”:
Case-builders collect information like stones to throw at somebody—just waiting for the right opportunity to impugn and attack someone’s character and integrity. If you’re a case-builder, you’ve decided that someone is your enemy and then justify sinful slander as righteous aggression.
But the “case-builders” continued their work. Mefferd soon posted PDFs online that showed other examples of apparent plagiarism, including paragraphs from an older Driscoll book that were almost word-for-word quotes of material from a relatively obscure Bible commentary—a more serious charge than the accusation that he had improperly credited another writer for using his ideas. Soon, two widely read evangelical bloggers, Warren Throckmorton and Jonathan Merritt, began covering new developments almost daily. Collin Garbarino, an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University and a blogger for First Things, wrote, “I’ve failed students for less flagrant plagiarism. So, it’s my duty, as a member of my professing profession, to give Driscoll an ‘F.’” On Monday, another publisher told Christianity Today magazine that paragraphs from its Bible commentary “improperly appeared without quotation or attribution” in Driscoll’s work.