Sunday, April 17, 2016

Stott "updated"

John Stott's Basic Christianity was, for me, an extremely helpful introduction to Christian doctrine alongside Lewis's Mere Christianity. I have given it away. I have used it as a study text for Christian high school students. I have re-read it. Its publisher, Eerdmans, (update: apparently Eerdmans was not responsible. See below.) decided that it needed updating. Barton Swaim, in "Stott Bowdlerized", ("Bowdlerize") thinks that they haven't done a very good job:
Recently I bought a copy of John Stott’s brief and famous exposition of the Christian gospel, Basic Christianity, which I intended to give to a friend. The book was first published in 1958 and has sold several million copies. It is at once simple and refined, gentle and uncompromising, and many people in the Anglophone world can trace their conversions to reading Stott’s little masterpiece. If any “spiritual classics” were published during the second half of the twentieth century, Basic Christianity surely is one. ....

My curiosity aroused, I went through the new book and compared it, sentence by sentence, with the old one. The sheer amount of revision is startling. Two out of every three sentences, I estimate, involve some new wording.

Of course, the general masculine pronouns are gone: “all other men” becomes “everyone else,” and so on. This and other alterations are relatively innocuous—they do no violence to Stott’s meaning—but they lower the quality of the writing. One example among scores: Whereas in 1958 Stott had written, “In brief, we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, the one earthly and the other heavenly,” the 2008 version has it, “To put it in a nutshell, we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, possessing dual nationality, the one earthly and the other heavenly.” Are we to believe that “To put it in a ­nutshell” improves on “In brief,” and that adding the term “dual nationality” better conveys the idea to a ­modern audience? ....

Clearly the editor wanted to introduce a new generation to Stott’s beautiful book; his intentions were noble. But the project was a mistake. The Basic Christianity people are buying and reading today is a bad imitation of the original. The editor and publisher had no right to transform Stott’s book as they did, whether or not the author granted his permission. Good books are precious things that belong as much to their readers as they do to their publishers and even their authors. That is doubly so in the case of Basic Christianity, a work that has engaged its readers at the most intimate levels. ....

.... Anyone who picks up Basic Christianity today will do so because he wants something altogether different from the products available in his own age. He wants something from the past. What he gets instead sounds almost as if it were composed yesterday: chatty, choppy, bereft of much difficulty, with an improbable hint of political correctness.

In a sense, then, the updated book is a metaphor for the modernizing urge so typical of contemporary religiosity. Nothing achieves irrelevance quite so consistently as the feverish attempt to stay relevant.
I'm happy to have a few "unimproved" copies of the book.

Update on 4/20: Eerdmans has responded to Swaim's article quoted here: "Setting the Record Straight on John Stott."