Plagiarism is definitely a problem—sadly, even within parts of the Christian community. However, as I share in this past blog, the talk about the serious sin of plagiarism has helped cultivate a suspicion that’s sometimes unhealthy. The following incident illustrates how easily an unintentional mistake can happen in the process of writing a book—and that sometimes, what on the surface appears to be plagiarism might not always be so.
In my book Money, Possessions, and Eternity, I start out a paragraph with this bolded statement, and then at the end of the paragraph I go on to quote C. S. Lewis:
In the truest sense, Christian pilgrims have the best of both worlds. We have joy whenever this world reminds us of the next. And we have comfort whenever it does not. We have the promise of a new heaven and new earth, where the worst elements of this world—sorrow, pain, death, and the tears they produce—will be gone forever (Revelation 21:4). Yet we also know that the best elements of this world—love, joy, wonder, worship, and beauty—will not be gone but intensified and perfected in the remade world. “Aim at heaven,” C. S. Lewis says, “and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
A couple of years ago, it was brought to my attention that the bolded statement is also in my books Heaven and 50 Days of Heaven—only there it’s a quotation attributed to C. S. Lewis! So years later when I saw it again in Money, Possessions, and Eternity, I thought I appeared to be taking credit for a C. S. Lewis quote, which horrified me!
Wanting to get to the bottom of this, I Googled “Christian pilgrims have the best of both worlds,” which turned up over 300 hits. Most of them obviously were extracted from Heaven and other things I’ve written. Had Lewis said it or written it in one of his books, I was certain there’d be thousands of results. One of my ministry assistants at EPM then confirmed it wasn’t in any of Lewis’s writings by searching in electronic form more than 225 books (including those about Lewis, and not just those by him).
It turns out that in my Heaven books, either I, or one of my editing staff, or my publisher accidentally credited C. S. Lewis with something I wrote years earlier in Money, Possessions and Eternity, after which I quoted something else Lewis actually did say. Then several others put it in their books (like here) and now it’s all over the place, and will probably continue to spread. Among other places, it appears in books, articles, and a number of sermons and online church bulletins. So, ironically, an error in my own books has succeeded in causing others people to falsely attribute that quote to Lewis. I honestly don’t remember writing those words, but since I’ve written over three million words in books and articles over the years, I can’t always rely on my memory!
Of the over 300 times this quotation appears online, the vast majority of them are attributed to C. S. Lewis, and the rest to me. So the other effect of this is that when people see it attributed to Lewis online, then see that I have not done so in Money, Possessions and Eternity and two of my other books that use this statement, Truth and Eternal Perspectives, I will appear to be plagiarizing him!
But I would much rather appear for it to be true than for it to have inadvertently been true. (We sent the corrections to my publisher, but of course there are still thousands of books circulating with the original faulty attribution to Lewis.)
I especially love this:
This proves what one accidental false attribution can do! Actually, it’s fun to see the influence of the Heaven book—but the reason I know it’s for sure had an impact is because of a false attribution! :)
The good news is that I think Lewis would agree with the sentiment of the quote. I trust he wouldn’t have wanted someone else to put those words in his mouth, but I’m sure he’ll not hold it against me when I meet him!
Now, there are in fact many quotations online that are falsely attributed to various people. The most famous quote from Blaise Pascal, for instance, is one that he apparently never said. It has variations, but goes something like this, with the key words being “God-shaped vacuum”: “There is within every man a God-shaped vacuum, an emptiness that only He can fill.”
Years ago I searched diligently for this often-quoted statement from Blaise Pascal—and it just doesn’t exist. (One person suggested that perhaps Pascal’s work with the concept of vacuum led to the misquote.) The closest I’ve ever found is the following. It’s very good, and all the better because Pascal really said it (Pensees, translated by W. F. Trotter, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958):
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.
This is all a great reminder for me and for all of us to go to primary sources when quoting someone, and not rely on secondary sources (including my books, though we do try to be careful). This is something I and my editing staff regularly try to do by searching Google Books in hopes of finding quotations in their original source, but we are not always successful. For more thoughts on this problem, I appreciated this recent helpful post from Thomas Kidd about bogus Christian quotes and how to avoid perpetuating them.
Finally, if you want to see one list of quotes from famous people that they didn’t actually say, see here.
Appearing to plagiarize C. S. Lewis for the glory of God,
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.