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Ghostwriting

I’ve been catching a lot of search hits where people appear to be looking for articles mentioning Chuck Swindoll and ghostwriting, so I went to see if there was some sort of scandal that I had missed. I usually catch enough articles on unfolding scandals with the Google Alert “megachurch,” I guess partly because only scandals involving big churches are sufficiently newsworthy most of the time. That would be sufficient if something went wrong for Swindoll, since his current church draws some 4000 per Sunday [link], so it qualifies as a megachurch.

I did, however, discover a reprint of an old article about ghostwriting by Larry Witham [link] from the defunct magazine Insight on the News [link] with the title “Ghostwriting Haunts Christian Publishing.” It’s from August 2000, so it’s 10 1/2 years old, but a fair amount of the article is still worth reading:

For years, top ghostwriters in the industry have penned works that fill the evangelical best-seller firmament — unknown professional writers have penned books by Pat Robertson, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, megachurch pastor Bill Hybels and marriage guru Gary Smalley. Insiders estimate that 85 percent of the Rev. Billy Graham’s books have been ghostwritten.

It would of course be helpful to know who the insiders are here, and whether the Graham quote refers to total books or total pages.

Yet pangs of conscience have struck Christian publishing since the early 1980s, when the evangelical monthly Christianity Today decried the practice. Masking true authorship, the magazine held in an editorial, “is a canny but this-worldly approach to life, a playing of all the angles, a cunning attempt to skirt the edge of moral forthrightness.”

This latter quote I think brings the issue into focus: Christians are supposed to be different from the world around them, and that goes for Christian leaders, too, no matter how pressed they are for time.

The issue was highlighted again in a 1993 World magazine expose by Edward E. Plowman, a veteran news writer for Christian publications. Nearly every form of Christian writing is “grist for ghosts, grinding away for people long on reputation but short on time, self-discipline, or writing ability,” he wrote. But Christian publishers will continue to use celebrities as “marketing gadgets” until readers kick the celebrity habit, he predicted correctly. “There are gifted but lesser known writers out there with something important to say” he added. The article raised some dust in publishing circles, Plowman recalls, and did change things slightly. “More publishers are willing to use `and’ or `with’ on book covers to credit the ghost-writer,” he says.

Christian publishers often view ghostwritten projects as “team writing” — helping the well-known minister package books, his “original thoughts” so readers may benefit. Yet the day may come when a Christian work “is a celebrity preacher’s ghostwritten book of ghostwritten sermons bearing a ghostwritten foreword by another celebrity and ghostwritten endorsement blurbs on the dust jacket by still more celebrities, none of whom has read the book” complains Plowman.

This latter quote from Plowman is standard-issue scare story passed off as example, but it opens up the question of ghostwriting to include sermons and blurbs.

I honestly don’t know how widespread the practice of high-profile preachers delivering ghostwritten sermons is; there was a persistent rumor at Liberty that Harold Willmington wrote Jerry Falwell’s sermons, but I have no way of knowing if that was actually true. Jerry did use Mel White as a ghostwriter for his book If I Die Before I Wake, and I suspect lived to regret it, but for other reasons.

A few best-selling Christian authors write their own books, including Philip Yancey, a Colorado-based essayist and stylist. “He writes every word” says Cryderman. “To us, that’s the ideal.” The Rev. Charles Swindoll, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, has crafted best-selling books from his sermons and has felt the need to defend their authenticity. “I have no writing staff or team of researchers who provide me with historical and illustrative material or serve as my `ghostwriters,'” he asserted in his 1992 book, The Grace Awakening. “Every word comes from my own pen through the age-old process most authors still use: blood, sweat, tears, sleepless nights, lengthy stares at blank sheets of paper, unproductive days when everything gets dumped into the trash, and periodic moments when inspiration and insight flow.”

Clashes over who truly shed sweat and tears — and got paid accordingly — sometimes erupt after a best-seller climbs the CBA charts. In the early 1990s, Colorado radio minister Bob Larson, whose name is on a novel trilogy that began with Dead Air, sued a woman who broke confidence by claiming she was the real author. The top-selling Christianity in Crisis by radio host and “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff ended in a lawsuit by a ministry staffer who claimed to have done much of the work.

Articles like this aren’t complete without lists of good guys and bad guys, and this one has them: Yancey and Swindoll good, Larson and Hanegraaff bad.

I don’t know what to say about ghostwriting of books generally; I spent enough time in academic circles to know that authoring of some books is as much an administrative effort as a creative effort, and it often pays to beware “instant books” and read acknowledgments very closely. I tend to think that if a Christian is such a celebrity that you can’t go see them and get a sense of what sort of person they are, etc. you’re better off holding their books at arms’ length no matter how well-recommended they are.

 

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