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Open Letter to @prodigalsam from a fellow pastor

I don’t know you Sammy Rhodes. The first time you came to my attention was when I noticed that your twitter feed @prodigalsam would get retweets from both my hardcore evangelical friends and my atheist comedy friends. I found out you had over 120 000 twitter followers from both inside and outside church world. As a lead pastor of a church and a semi professional comedian, I was fascinated, and it was interesting to watch as Mr. Rhodes entertained very diverse groups of people 140 characters at a time. 

My attention perked even more though when Patton Oswalt tweeted this

"Joke thieves like @sammyrhodes have more followers than originals like @blainecapatch. Don't give in to fear." -- Will Smith, AFTER EARTH @pattonoswalt

Not one of Patton’s best jokes( no offense Mr. Oswalt, huge fan here!), but a pretty nasty claim. Now, for those of you normal healthy people who don’t know the comedy world, accusing someone of being a joke thief is the worst thing you could say about someone. Comedians will excuse all sorts of murderous, anti-social, self-destructive behaviour. They will even excuse not being funny, but being a joke thief is worse than being a Presbyterian. A joke thief isn’t stealing just jokes, but the livelihood and art and hard work of a colleague and profiting from it. You can’t underestimate how serious comics take joke stealing. So a public accusation from a high profile and well respected comic like Patton Oswalt is a big massive deal. I couldn’t imagine how you felt when you tweeted

This is not how I envisioned @pattonoswalt would know who I was.

I started to research the issue and came across this tumblr site http://borrowingsam.tumblr.com/ which presents pretty damning evidence that you had been stealing tweets and jokes. There are some tweets that could be what comics call parallel thought, but there are too many examples and too many that are too close to dismiss the entire case against you. At worst, you’re guilty of knowingly stealing and re posting tweets without attributing the original authors, at best you’re guilty of being woefully ignorant of the cultural standards govern this weird comedy and twitter culture. 

I want to be clear, Sam, this isn’t personal. I think you’re a good guy. If we got together we would share a beverage (do you do adult beverages?) and talk about our mutual dream of meeting Tim Keller and John Mulaney in the same Manhattan Starbucks. But as a brother who also navigates the dangerous worlds of both church and comedy, you screwed up in the worst way you could screw up.

I think part of what contributes to this problem is a differing standard of plagiarism within evangelical culture. I remember reading in Billy Graham’s autobiography how it was common at that time for he and his colleagues to share outlines and to preach each others sermons. You can still buy many books of canned pastoral illustrations and it’s not uncommon for a pastor to insert himself (or herself, generally him) into a story that wasn’t his for the sake of a more engaging sermon. 

This carries over to the Christian comedy world. I was once part of a lengthy discussion in the Christian Comedy Association’s Facebook group on how one could ethically take another comics material and use it as your own. For the record, you can’t. There is no ethical way to take another comic’s material. But there were many in the conversation not nearly as clear on that issue as I was. 

Regardless of the source of fuzzy plagiarism definitions, you can’t deny the way your alleged actions have been perceived. Jeb Lund put it this way in his blog (http://www.mrdestructo.com/2013/05/twitter-theft-and-how-huffpo-and.html

He stole tweets repeatedly from people more famous than he, people with bigger followings and verified checkmarks by their names. In the meantime, his follower count blossomed into six figures. ... harvesting followers with the work of others.”

Even worse were the occasions where you took tweets from people with fewer followers and even less famous than you, using their work to boost your own growing audience. (again, see borrowingsam.tumblr.com) 

Patton Oswalt has a bit on his “Finest Hour” album about an invisible anus floating above him. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uau-nAmULU8 ) He asks the audience to imagine that he sincerely believes in this invisible anus; and that if he is not kind and helpful and generous to the people around him this invisible anus will swallow him and he will be painfully devoured by piranhas. He says that if this ludicrous belief in an invisible anus actually resulted in kindness and generosity and goodness for other people we would applaud and encourage this insane belief even as we thought he was dumb for believing in the stupid invisible anus.

It’s a silly bit, but Mr. Oswalt is making an argument that sounds very familiar. 1 Peter 2:12 says “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV). Peter tells his readers that as outsiders to the world around us, we will be measured by our actions, and if our actions are beneficial, they may encourage us and even honour a belief they think is silly. As followers of Jesus we are ambassadors of a coming Kingdom, even in the ridiculous worlds of comedy and twitter.  Where it doesn’t violate our first allegiance to Christ and his will for us, we adhere to the cultural standards around us. Even if we don’t agree that you were stealing by not attributing his tweets we can’t argue that you failed, in this case, to follow Peter’s advice for operating in a potentially hostile world. 

But Sam, there is a way out here. It’s the way out whenever Christians screw up and the first word of the gospel. Repent. 

It’s not going to be easy, and people will mock you and you may lose some followers, but go back through all 11 634 tweets and repost everyone that you could be accused of stealing with proper attribution. Fill your feed with them, dozens upon dozens of them, blow the critics out of the water with your repentance and apologize. I’ve got a hunch that if you showed the world repentance, even Mr. Oswalt might tweet a thanks to your Invisible Anus. Show us what genuine repentance looks like, you might be pleasantly surprised by some genuine grace. We don’t have many examples of coming clean and we need some. You can be that. 

For the record, that was my wife's idea. She's smarter than I am. See how easy that was?

You’re still a funny guy. This tweet 

I miss when churches chose names that sounded more like their town than an X-Men character.

was awesome. I literally loled at that one. Keep doing that. 

Even if you lose 100 000 followers, most were robots anyway, and you’re still way ahead of my 146. 

Blessings brother,

Dan