Month: December 2013

the theology of open access

At least since Natalie stirred the hornets’ nest about plagiarism before Christmas (first HERE and then HERE), I’ve been thinking about open access.

The ethical stance and in-principle commitment it embodies has long attracted me.

It’s why I love this piece (warning: it’s long, but oh so worth it!) by Katharine Viner the Editor In Chief of the Guardian Australia. (Together with The Newsroom, she has me absolutely convinced I want to become a journalist when I grow up!)

Although, even more attractive is the way open access seems to be an ethical position begging for a theological treatment.

Not because it can’t exist without a theological treatment. And not because it’s somehow incoherent or logically inadequate without one.

But because I feel that a theological treatment of the cluster of issues around open access (and intellectual property) could unlock its sense and significance even more powerfully.

Without trying to do too much with thoughts that are still undercooked, let me gesture in the direction I want to move in.

To begin with, you could argue that IP has an antitheological origin. Carla Hesse begins her history of IP, ’The rise of intellectual property: 700 B.C. – A.D. 2000: an idea in the balance’ by noting this:

The concept of intellectual property — the idea that an idea can be owned — is a child of the European Enlightenment. It was only when people began to believe that knowledge came from the human mind working upon the senses — rather than through divine revelation, assisted by the study of ancient texts — that it became possible to imagine humans as creators, and hence owners, of new ideas rather than as mere transmitters of eternal verities.

While I’d want to do more with the very brief caricature of pre-Enlightenment thinking about knowledge and ownership (was there no understanding of authorship in the premodern world?), Hesse’s portrait does remind me of Tolkien’s notion of humans as ‘subcreators’.

According to Tolkien, as creatures, the strongest thing we can say about our human ‘world-making’ potential is that we are subcreators rather than full-blown creators (for only God is the Creator).

As a result, it would certainly be fascinating — not to mention possibly explosive — to follow through the implications of embracing some kind of principled theological refusal to identify human beings as creators in a strong sense.

What would this mean for our sense of authorship?

What about for ownership of ideas (or anything we might fashion)?

And how would this impact the people trying to make a living out of what they fashion — intellectually or physically?

Of course, this would need to be worked out within the bounds of a robust theological account of our creaturely agency — alongside and undergirded by God’s sovereign agency…

I sense a major — and no doubt collaborative — undertaking coming on!

(Or someone could pay me to write a PhD on it.)

so you want to get prophetic at Christmas, huh?

Yes. It’s that time of year again…

My newsfeed is filling up with photos of over-the-top Christmas parties, food, and presents in counterpoint to anti-Christmas jibes, rants or links to fuller rants.

I’m not talking about the Santa = Satan variety of rant (along the lines of “Oooh! Look — you can rearrange the letters … and they’re THE SAME!!!”).

I’m talking about rants that are equal parts anti-Pagan Hijacking Of A Christian Holy Day and anti-consumerist.

(OK. So given the political tilt of many of my Facebook friends, the distance between these two things is sometimes thin to vanishing.)

It seems like everyone either wants to get paralytic or prophetic at Christmas time.

Who knows? Maybe this is a throwback to the early days of biblical prophecy, when it seems like the two came as a package deal.

And hey — I can sympathise with the sentiment here.

I used to be animated by something very similar to it. I would wallow in resentful misery. And, if given the chance, I’d wax wrathful at the whole pseudospiritual-capitalist complex that obscured ’the real meaning of Christmas’.

It would have been like a annual possession, except for the fact that I used to be about as much fun to hang out with all year around!

(Oddly enough, I think the period of my Grinch-y gloom began at roughly the same point in my life at which I had to take responsibility for buying/making presents for other people.)

But then I got Christmas — or rather it got me.

These days, I find myself less in the mood for grim prophecy and more in the mood to celebrate the glory of what Christmas is all about.

Although I can still happily live without the ubiquitous reindeer antlers, I’ve even started to enjoy Christmas carols.

When else does the Australian general public verbally exult in the Incarnation?

And when else do parents and children together rehearse the earth-shattering news of God the Son becoming a flesh-and-blood human being and embarking on the road into the far country as he pours himself out and is crowned with glory and honour for us and for our salvation?

Sure — there’s plenty more thought that people could put into it. And lots of ways in which we could resist the insidious consumerisation of every aspect of Christmas (if I’d had time or been better-planned this year, I would have loved to make more of the presents I’m giving).

I’m not suggesting it’s enough simply to sing songs, give gifts, and dispense Hallmark-ised ‘Season’s Greetings’.

But I do wonder if we’d win more of a hearing if we visibly enjoyed (rather than merely endured) this culturally-sanctioned opportunity to retell and reflect on the story of our Saviour’s birth?

plagiarism and sin redux

A guest post by Natalie Swann.

I freaked out a bit after my more-provocative-than-I-had-intended post on plagiarism and sin. More people than I expected read the post and some people I respect have had some contrary things to say.

So, while I freaked out, I Googled “plagiarism is not sin”. Mostly, I got articles about plagiarism being sin. Oops. But on page 2 of the results I came across this NYT article by Stanley Fish, ‘Plagiarism is not a big moral deal’.

It’s a really good article and you should go and read it. I did. 3 years ago.

It shaped my consciousness for tutoring students about the rules of the citation and referencing game. And then life happened and I forgot the article, but remembered its lesson.

And I didn’t acknowledge it in my previous post.

So I’m on the fine edge of what my own university would call plagiarism — although I’m not sure Prof Fish would mind.

In light of the conversations I’ve had on- and off-line (I’m looking at you Hugh, Simon, Jo, Heather, Marty, Toby, and Rob), I need to make a concession: theft is always socially constructed.

In some places it is OK to help yourself to veggies on a public plot, or a deer from crown land. In other times or places it is not.

And so, because of contemporary understandings of Intellectual Property, plagiarism constitutes theft and it is probably rightly called a sin.

Prof Fish puts it like this:

“Of course every sin is learned. Very young children do not distinguish between themselves and the world; they assume that everything belongs to them; only in time and through the conditioning of experience do they learn the distinction between mine and thine and so come to acquire the concept of stealing. The concept of plagiarism, however,  is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him.”

But I want to stick to my guns for two reasons.

First, what does (and does not) count as plagiarism isn’t self-evident.

All this talk of plagiarism as a sin makes it seem like the ‘rules’ are obvious when really they are actually quite complicated:

“If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game  you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you … that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.”

My own University, the University of Melbourne, provides guidelines for students here. According to these guidelines, plagiarism included “copying ideas, concepts” (like I perhaps have done by not citing Prof Fish earlier) and “presenting as independent, work done in collaboration with other people (eg, another student, a tutor)” which seem to me about as clear as mud.

For example, I have never cited — and I have never seen anyone else cite — a tutorial conversation in an essay. And yet the purpose of a tutorial (at least, in the social sciences) is to collaborate and help students learn to think in disciplinarily acceptable ways. So shouldn’t our students be citing their tutorials?

Ultimately, if the church writ large is going to cry ‘Plagiarism!’, I think we need to be more explicit about what is and isn’t considered OK.

Is it OK to use someone else’s ideas uncredited in your sermons? It would certainly break the flow. Are preachers more like politicians or academics in Prof Fish’s example above?

Is it OK for a pastor’s partner — let alone research assistants and ghost writers (who at least get paid!) — to make significant uncredited input to sermons or written work?

Second, Intellectual Property (as we know it) is a relatively new invention and not necessarily the way things must be.

Calling plagiarism a sin threatens to blind us to this — and stop us imagining other ways of doing it.

Maybe IP is a really great idea. But maybe there are alternatives that the church should be championing.

There is certainly movement in some academic circles to make research open access. Surely it’s even more important that good theology gets out there?

Beyond that, maybe we should ask ourselves: Do Christians really think knowledge belongs to individuals?

I can’t help but feel it’s a perfect example of the interdependence of the church as a body.

And I would be excited if, in light of Pastor Driscoll’s transgression, we could have a conversation about the theological imperative for something like Creative Commons licencing and Open Access.

Admittedly, both Creative Commons and Open Access still value appropriate attribution. But both movements point us towards more collaborative and interdependent models for sharing knowledge. And I find that attractive.

what do the Virgin birth and the empty tomb have in common?


“The Virgin birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus’ life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life, and marked off in the first instance, not by our understanding or our interpretation, but by itself. Marked off in regard to its origin: it is free of the arbitrariness which underlies all our existences. And marked off in regard to its goal: it is victorious over the death to which we are all liable. Only within these limits is it what it is and is it correctly understood, as the mystery of the revelation of God. It is to that mystery that these limits point — he who ignores them or wishes them away must see to it that he is not thinking of something quite different from this.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2: page 182.

plagiarism is not a sin

Guest post by Natalie Swann.


In case you missed it, there’s a wee bit of controversy going on at the moment about the evangelical celebrity pastor, Mark Driscoll, engaging in plagiarism (see this or this, for example).

As someone training in academia, it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Acknowledging your sources is important. I train my students (when I have them) to reference their work.

But I also educate them that plagiarism is not a sin. Rather, referencing is a discipline; it is a unique product of modern Western academic practice.

While many students knowingly engage in plagiarism, there are also many students who live in terror of becoming culpable of it. The terror they feel is a moral one; the fear of a “scarlet P” on a student record has curiously religious overtones.

But nowhere in Scripture is there condemnation for what we understand as plagiarism. The writers of Genesis did not footnote Babylonian creation myths.

Plagiarism is a professional misdemeanour, not a sin.

Perhaps Pastor Driscoll is at fault in not submitting to the rulers and authorities of our age. Perhaps there are real sins at work, like pride or hypocrisy.

But, please, can we stop acting like plagiarism is a sin?