Ears To Hear
Listen to “Ears to Hear” by Fred Smith
I pray none of my college professors read this late confession. I went to school in a time that valued citations and footnotes – not so much original thought. I learned this the hard way but over time figured out how to game the system. Here is the part I hope they do not read. If I had something I thought original to say and obviously did not have a recognized source, I would make one up and create a fake footnote. I knew the professor was far more likely to give credence to a published source than a student. I also knew the teaching assistant quickly grading the paper was not likely to check the source. Very creative at inventing authorities, I had to watch myself and not get cute like the staff credits on Car Talk. Remember their law firm of Dewey, Cheetham & Howe or their Chief Accountant, Candace B. Rittenoff? If citations sounded academic and the pages were numbered correctly it worked. Sort of reverse plagiarism.
I have been following hashtags and tweets from recent conferences and am interested in the ideas that have currency with participants. Now and then I read something and recognize it as having been said by another speaker years ago or a modified version of a whole passage from an author long dead. Of course, some authors or speakers are so fixed to particular expressions that it would be impossible to separate them from the material. For instance, imagine using “Ask not what your country can do for you” without attributing it to John F. Kennedy or attempting to make it your own. Yogi Berra, Shakespeare, and C.S. Lewis would likely fall into that same category. They are certainly in the public domain, but their originator is fixed in all our minds. While you could not get away with that you could rephrase G.K. Chesterton, Ovid or Sophocles and feel certain very few people would know. As well, you could misquote Lao Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, and Plato and it would pass unnoticed. I know from experience this is true but please do not press me on that point. In the same way, it would be difficult to attribute a Van Gogh to Jim Carrey or a “Far Side” cartoon to anyone but Gary Larson.
However, I think I am seeing a reversal of what I experienced in college. Audiences want to believe the speaker is the original source and, to quote St. Matthew, believe “he taught as one who had authority and not as their scribes.” My professors wanted scribes and this generation wants authorities using brief but memorable phrases. They do not value footnotes as much as someone speaking with the authority of insight or new idea – even if it is a paraphrase. They do love quotes but especially those not heard before. That only accentuates the originality and creativity of the one quoting a hard to find or undiscovered author. Or it may be a popular author like Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver but the quote itself is obscure. We had to prove our sources but the speakers today are encouraged to be the source in one way or another. I was born too soon! Some authors I have read improve the original and make it even more memorable. Not only that but for many the only source for John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, Jane Austen, Charles Taylor, or St. Augustine will be Tim Keller or a very few others. Ideally, that would encourage us to dig even deeper into those authors. However, even if we do not those who introduce us to them serve us well. They entice us. They stretch us while doing most of the work for us.
Of course, there is an obvious downside to this. It can be dishonest or become outright theft. It is one step beyond doing a “cover album” or reinterpreting an artist. Still, I know these listeners and readers are scribbling and texting these ideas as if they have been spoken for the very first time and, more importantly, perhaps they are listening in a way they would not to the original. They have ears to hear and for that I am grateful.