Inspiration or plagiarism?
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1.9
Just beginning research for a project on the first great Gaelic hymn writer, Dugald Buchanan... He only published eight pieces but these have traditionally been lauded for their quality and originality. Yet a recent study by Professor Donald Meek and Dr Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiubhairt claims that much of Buchanan's work reflects existing material by John Bunyan and Isaac Watts among others. Should we be surprised? Should this new information diminish the esteem in which Buchanan is held, or should we be grateful for Meek and Stiubhairt for adding to our knowledge and possibly enriching our appreciation of those eight hymns?
At the Teacher in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is no such thing as absolute originality: whatever we humans make involves the use of already created materials or ideas. The implication is that the only truly original creator and thinker is God. Even atheists and agnostics would have to admit to standing on the shoulders of those who have been before, or risk exposing themselves to accusations of hubris. So where is the shame in doing what everyone else does and nobody can avoid?
It boils down to a matter of degree. Academic students must now submit their work to a plagiarism test. A software programme runs through their work and emerges with a percentage figure of what proportion of that work is so close to what has already been expressed by somebody else to be considered as theft - unless, presumably, the student has acknowledged their appropriation of the information through a footnote or quotation marks. But, of course, that does not cover those innocent gestures - be they musical flourishes or literary turns of phrase or allusions - through which we acknowledge appreciation of the insights of those who have proceeded us in the creative process.
There is all the difference between deliberate, unacknowledged imitation and the creative reworking of existing ideas and materials in order to produce something which otherwise would not exist. Back in the day, Isaiah the prophet detected that the supreme Creator himself was up to something, involving the people he had been working on for centuries already: "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland." (Isaiah 43. 19). Many years later, the apostle John heard Jesus himself proclaiming eternally, in relation to all of Creation: "I am making everything new!" (Revelation 21. 5). Maybe we just have to keep trying new things, acknowledging our debt to those who have taught, inspired and encouraged us - especially the source of it all, as we know him in the ultimately creative collaboration that is the Holy Trinity!