By Chris Hulshof
We live in a sound bite society. Breaking news pushes to our digital devices with attention-grabbing headlines designed to be read in five seconds or less.
Last night’s game is reduced to three minutes highlights as hosts discuss plays that shaped the course of the contest.
Content that is both attention-grabbing and quotable becomes a gateway that leads viewers or readers into information.
One of the best examples of quotable and prepackaged content in our culture is the meme. It’s a form of visual communication that’s high on impact but low on source accuracy.
The prevalence of this kind of attention-grabbing content requires discernment before we repost, hit retweet, use the material on the church blog, or add it to an upcoming sermon.
Before you pass along a quote, ask these two questions about it first:
1. Who said that?
I sat in the first staff meeting of the semester with my fellow academics. Our pastor was delivering the opening address to all the teachers and staff.
He’d chosen to speak about apologetics and how to engage the current generation of students. More specifically, he wanted to address how apologetics speaks to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Halfway through his lecture, he said, “As Josh McDowell once noted, Jesus Christ is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord.”
The group of people around me all looked at each other with expressions that asked, “Did he really just say that? Did he just misattribute one of C.S. Lewis’ most noted apologetic summaries of Jesus?”
The reality is you’ll find this concept in McDowell’s apologetic book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict. But even there, the author is careful to reference the origination of this idea to Lewis.
This kind of quotation misattribution is an error of scholarship. It’s evidence that not enough study went into what’s being presented. Sloppy scholarship tells your congregation you’re at best ill-prepared or at worst too lazy to get the information correct.
However, this error is easy to correct. If you check the footnotes of the books or articles you’re reading, you’ll often find the proper source work for the material in question. This allows you to familiarize yourself with the original work and avoid errors of misquotation.
2. Where did he or she say that?
I frequently see two highly quotable, thought-provoking memes on social media. The first is a supposed quote from C.S. Lewis, and the second is a quote attributed to Charles Spurgeon.
In the former, Lewis is quoted as saying, “We read to know we are not alone.” In the latter, Spurgeon is credited with, “A time will come when instead of shepherds feeding the sheep, the church will have clowns entertaining the goats.”
Here’s the problem with both of these quotes; no record exists of either Lewis or Spurgeon saying them.
The Lewis quote comes from the movie Shadowlands. In this movie, Lewis’ character (played by Anthony Hopkins) does eventually say, “We read to know we are not alone.”
However, there are two issues here. First, the quote originates from William Nicholson, the screenwriter of Through the Shadowlands. He’s the true author of this quote. He wrote these words for a dialogue between Lewis and one of his students.
Second, there’s no direct correlation between this quote and anything in Lewis’ works. In other words, we have no record of C.S. Lewis ever making a statement like this.
Similar issues plague the Spurgeon quote. As best we can tell, this isn’t something he ever said or wrote. The quote is probably the work of Archibald Brown, one of Spurgeon’s students.
In 1889, Brown delivered a sermon addressing “feeding sheep or amusing goats.” The excerpt from this sermon demonstrates how such a misattribution can occur. While it may sound like Spurgeon, it is, in all likelihood, the product of one of his students.
This kind of misattribution is an error of presumption. It’s an error often predicated by frequency of use. People assume it must be correct because it’s widely circulated.
Avoiding this error requires you to pay attention to the attribution of a particular quote. The Spurgeon quote, for example, shows up in numerous books but lacks a proper citation.
When you spot this kind of shoddy referencing, you should be skeptical of the validity of the quote. If you feel the need to use a quote that has sketchy source support, note it in your sermon.
Consider introducing the quote with something like, “Legend has it that so-and-so once said…” Doing this will help your congregation understand there’s some uncertainty as to the actual authorship of the quote, which helps stop the spread of misinformation.
Getting the supporting material correct in your sermon is a matter of credibility. Mishandling quotes may cause your congregation to question if you’re mishandling the biblical text as well.
However, applying these two simple and discerning questions will prevent the unforced error of getting your quotes wrong.
CHRIS HULSHOF (@US_EH) is an associate professor and department chair for Liberty University’s School of Divinity where he teaches Old Testament Survey, Inductive Bible Study, and a Theology of Suffering and Disability. He also earned an Ed.D from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where his research focused on the intersection of disabilities, theology, and church ministry.