Who Owns That Prayer?

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Ken Cedeno / Corbis

A 43-ft cross stands at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can...

...and, while You're at it, enable my heirs to serenely withstand claims that I didn't write this prayer — which, it should be remembered by all, was not composed with a byline in mind.

On Friday, the New York Times broke a story about the famous "Serenity Prayer," part of which is cited above. For decades, it has been routinely attributed to the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He wrote it, according to most accounts, for a sermon he gave in the summer of 1943. So certain is his daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, of its provenance, that she put out a book in 2003 about its connections with her father's views on peace and war. But the Times reports that an article in the Yale Alumni Magazine by a law librarian and quotation expert there will present his discovery of versions of the prayer unattributed to Niehbuhr from as early as 1936.

So who wrote the iconic prayer — and should we care?

The first question seems not immediately answerable. Sifton, Niehbuhr's daughter, says that her father preached around the country in the 1930s and could have introduced the prayer in his travels, prior to '43. The Yale Alumni article's writer, Fred Shapiro, told the Times he felt Niebuhr might have unconsciously lifted it. Quizzed on its origins in his lifetime, the theologian said, " "Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don't think so. I honestly do believe I wrote it myself." You decide.

It's our answer to the second question — should we care — that will establish us very much as creatures of our own era and its mind-set.

The Serenity frenzy, if one may call it that, is not unique. In May the Religion News Services ran a similar article about the devotional poem "Footprints" ("One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord..."). The RNS recorded that the son of a woman named Mary Stevenson brought suit in May against two women he claimed were inappropriately claiming authorship of the poem, which he said his mother had written in the 1930s and copyrighted in 1984. He asserted that the women had each received more than a million dollars in royalties for its use. Neither of them had renounced her own claim on the poem at the time of the article.

Both these cases — the page-one treatment in the paper of record and the lawsuit — are very much a piece with an environment where the web and data banks make it ever easier to compare texts — and we generally take a fairly hard line on plagiarism in journalism and the publishing industry. But the Serenity and Footprints controversies raise the issue of whether we could or should apply a different standard to similar questions if they involve religious texts?

Stephen Prothero, the head of the religion department at Boston University, says that the controversies would not have made the front page (or the front papyrus) in the past. One reason for this is that the concept of ownership of intellectual property is only a few hundred years old. The other is that the real author of pious art — whether literary or artistic — used to be considered to be God, who may require fear, awe or compassion, but not royalties.

Prothero brings up what is perhaps the foremost example of this kind of tolerance. Most modern critics regard the Gospels of the new Testament as being mutually dependent. "Did Luke rip off Mark?" he asks. "Probably." That is to say, Luke probably incorporated Mark's gospel into his own. Did it matter? Certainly not to the early Christians, who put four different and arguably contradictory accounts in their Bible. "Piety," notes Prothero, "trumped authorship." Besides, the real author reigned in heaven.

Two trends in Western thought eroded this attitude. In the Renaissance, the concept of individual "genius" developed as part of a larger project of extracting individual identity out of the medieval communal ideal; during the Romantic age a couple of hundred years later, when individualism reached a level close to fetishism, the importance of authorship grew correspondingly. The Enlightenment, with its fascination with the precise material origins of everything, also contributed to the Google-gotcha culture we live in today.

Until recently, however, the theological world remained something of a gotcha-free zone. Pastors constantly borrow one another's sermons, usually without crediting them. Megapastor Rick Warren built up much of his "Purpose-Driven" organizational base by putting his sermons up on the web so that others could use them. One of the reasons that Martin Luther King Jr. was granted so much slack after it was discovered that he had plagiarized some of his doctoral thesis (apart from the fact that he was one of the greatest humans our country has produced) was the tacit understanding that when clergymen or pious laypeople write, sing or speak of God, it is God and not their own egos that they are glorifying, even when they crib from someone.

But there appear to be limits, especially when a poem or prayer or image has proven itself as a cultural byword and/or moneymaker; and when the alleged author is old or dead and represented by an heir. The Times reports that Niehbur himself, although convinced of his authorship of the Serenity Prayer, graciously qualified his claim. His daughter, intellectually and professionally invested in her book as well as his legacy, come across as considerably more vehement. Likewise, it was not Mary Stevenson, who died in 1999, but her son who brought the "Barefoot" suit.

And if the work in question falls into the hands of a company, forget it. In his book American Jesus, Prothero wrote extensively about the massively reproduced 1940 portrait of Christ called "Son of Man" by the artist Warner Sallman. He wanted to use it as an illustration in the book. Sallman died in 1968, and Prothero says that the the portrait is currently owned by a religious press (a non-profit) whose price for its use was so high that he opted out.

He wonders whether this is for the best. Certainly, the authors and artists behind religious tracts and art, especially moving into the modern era, have invested increasing amounts of ego into their work. But most would probably have at least mouthed the platitude that they were as much messengers as auteurs. And since the faith awakened or sustained by their work was its most important attribute, they probably would have hoped for maximum exposure — which can be at odds with free market economics, portracted lawsuits, or the bitter taste that accompanies literary bickering. "Well gosh," says Prothero of the Sallman portrait, "that image could be preaching the gospel more effectively if it were available to everyone."

In some cases that no longer seems to be the prime consideration.