Ears To Hear

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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.

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  • Avatar
    Mark Neuenschwander
    Reply

    Adam is the only person not guilty of plagiarism. Of course, I’m plagiarizing that. I don’t remember who I am plagiarizing. Or maybe, it was “Adam is the only person to have had an original thought.” I could fact-check it with the Google Machine. Hmm. I like that. Google Machine. If you use it, I suggest you quote me.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      So true…and I have quoted him many times. “ The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

  • Avatar
    Deborah Spencer
    Reply

    The penchant for insight and new ideas is especially troubling when the speaker purports to teach from Scriptures. Novelty is not always a virtue! (For the record, I have never seen you footnote manufactured passages for your own ideas.)

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Deborah. Neil Postman wrote about the importance of distinguishing between what is genuinely new and what is simply novel. I am afraid we chase novelty more often than deliberately pursuing what is new. I gave up quoting myself and using fake sources years ago but I still am insecure about people believing the thought is actually mine and not something I copied from another author.

  • Avatar
    Lloyd Bentsen
    Reply

    For me, your thoughts prove often very timely. as is this case. I leave in a couple of weeks to debate the “future” of a liberal education, or the future of the study of the classics if you allow me. I go every year to a seminar where we read “famous” philosophers or writers selected around a different topic which we debate in the Socratic method. But what has been on my mind these past months, and this seminar is just another intrusion into these thoughts as has your blog, my concern has been the dissemination of facts and how people respond. It can be who won the election to who wants a shot? In a world where so many vocal people seem to abide by a perspective where opinion supplants facts and relativity negates absolutes or truths, I think of the feather, floating above Forest Gump’s head, cast about in response to the slightest change in the currents of the air.
    In these thoughts I constantly return to Jesus, His teachings, the Bible, our Father’s creation and the promise of His return. The hope our Lord and Savior brings to the world. And a belief in the absolute truth of His Word. My struggle is how to reconcile the two…a world a drift and the truth of the Gospel. The struggle continues.
    Your blog is a reminder to me that each page of life has a footnote…a reference to the Author and an acknowledgement of what we owe Him.
    Thank you Fred.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Lloyd. As I get older I am drawn more to the classics and less to what is new and trending. I don’t want to be stuck in a rut but neither do I want to be rudderless in a sea of noise. So, this year I read “Middlemarch” and have begun reading The Federalist Papers all the way through and not just snippets. I am almost stupefied by how these writers expressed themselves with clarity, wit and force. I am not looking for certainty but for maturity and I know reading the classics and learning from them is for me something worth the next decade of life.

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