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Vandals vs. the Book [Updated]

[Update: The editor-in-chief of Eerdman's Publishing, James Ernest, writes here stating that Eerdmans did not commission or carry out the revision in question. Rather, that was apparently routed through IVP-UK; Eerdmans merely publishes what it gets from IVP-UK. Ernest says a lot of other things, such as that Stott's executors believe that this was done with Stott's approval. However, the very quotation that Ernest gives (and that I give in an early comment in the thread) from Stott's own new introduction indicates that Stott stated that the book was in some ways a "period piece" which "reflects the culture of its day" and "needs to be allowed to remain itself." It is flatly obvious that the radical changes made in the book do not follow that rubric. So in essence the major piece of information that James Ernest gives that is something other than opinion (and the relaying of the opinions of Stott's executors) is that apparently the publisher who actually put out this revision in the first instance is IVP-UK rather than Eerdmans and that Eerdmans just has to print what it gets from IVP-UK. I'm happy to issue that clarification, and readers should feel free to read both the full quotation from Stott's new preface (see comments) and Ernest's editorial.]

Via First Things comes the news that the evangelical publisher Eerdmans has issued a mangled revision of the late John R. W. Stott's Christian classic, Basic Christianity. In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the book in 2008.

I suggest that if you are a lover of language and learning you read the First Things article only after taking your blood pressure medicine.

Barton Swaim, the FT author, was even willing to concede the "need" to alter Stott's use of the generic "he" and "man" to avoid "causing offense"! To which I say, nooooo way. I will come back to that in a moment. But Swaim was appalled at the wholesale rewriting of the book, which included cutting out Stott's quotations of hymns, poems, and older authors like Richard Hooker. It also included hacking up his prose literally everywhere, not merely for reasons of political correctness but apparently just because. Just because the rewriter, one Dr. David Stone (whom may the gods reject) thinks he's a better writer than Stott? Or perhaps because Dr. Stone thinks that a sentence like, "In brief, we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, the one earthly and the other heavenly" is just too hard for a 21st-century audience to understand and is in some way better if written as, "To put it in a nutshell, we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, possessing dual nationality, the one earthly and the other heavenly."

The new edition even adds a (probably) apocryphal "quotation" from the Emperor Napoleon. Not content with attacking Stott's prose, the revisionists thus undermine his scholarship at the same time.

The publishers and Dr. Stone should be ashamed of themselves for respectively commissioning and carrying out this heinous and unconscionable act of butchery upon a Christian classic.

What all of this shows (as Swaim says and as I said independently when hearing what had happened) is that the publishers fundamentally misunderstand what a book is. The very essence of a book is that it is a product of a particular person's mind (or several people's minds, if jointly written), of a particular time, and of a particular set of ideas, written in the language of that person and that time. It is in this way that books connect men to other men across time and space. This is the glory of a book. This is what a book is meant to do.

In C.S. Lewis's introduction to a translation of the De Incarnatione of St. Athanasius, he writes famously about old books:

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.


Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

The gentlemen at Eerdmans seem to believe exactly the opposite--that we should turn old books into not-old books. We should "correct" the old books by completely rewriting them so that readers shall not, God forbid, be met with the ways of thinking and speaking of any age other than their own, which might be too much for their delicate sensibilities, but shall be able to sit comfortably listening to the chatty cadences and theology of their contemporaries even when reading what purports to be the fiftieth anniversary edition of a classic work of the Christian faith.

This brings me back to the point about the pronouns and the word "man" which Mr. Swaim was (though reluctantly) prepared to admit the "need" to change in Stott to avoid causing offense. No. Again, it is part of what a book is that it is written in a particular language. The fact that Stott used the normal English with the generic "he" and "man" is woven into his writing. It is not the prerogative of later editors to "detoxify" his writing by making it fit for delicate modern ears, trained by feminism to take offense at such usage. Rather, let modern ears learn something by encountering someone who was able to write better than modern men are able to write precisely because he could avail himself of the generic "he" and "man." (Swaim states openly that the quality of the writing suffers when these are eliminated and that this is why he himself prefers them.) How could it possibly be allowable in later editors to make Stott's writing worse while still presenting it as Stott's writing, just because the special snowflake readers might be offended by better writing?

The generic "he" and "man" in Stott's writing and the possible "offense" they might cause are part and parcel of the interaction between author and reader across the ages. Let that interaction happen, or do not pretend to be issuing an edition of a book as opposed to vandalizing a book.

Three things are shocking about this story, even to me, cynic that I am: First, that Eerdmans had the legal right to mangle the book this thoroughly. Not even "just" changing the pronouns or "offensive" language but literally rewriting the whole book with the apparent intention of making it sound like it was written in a radically different time period. Of course, I don't know what the legal arrangements were. Did they have to get special permission from Stott, or was the ability to do this implicit in a contract? (Clarification: The edition was published in 2008, and Stott died in 2011. So this may have been done with his permission. Evidently Swaim does not know, though Stott did write a new preface some time before his death. I find it difficult to believe that Stott would have given his permission for something this radical had he known it would be this radical.) This should make every author tremble in his boots when he considers signing away his publication rights to a press. (I am very happy to say that I am absolutely confident that the gentlemen at DeWard Publishing, the press with which I am about to sign a contract for my undesigned coincidences book, would rather be cut into a million pieces than do such a thing.)

Second, that a publisher should be this wrong about what a book is. Publishing books is what publishers do, but Eerdmans evidently doesn't even know what books are. Indeed, they seem to think that the more useful and famous a book is, the more right they have to make it into something different from what it was to begin with. The idea seems to be that a real Christian classic mysteriously turns into a jointly-written project between the original author and whoever happens to acquire the legal ability to tamper with his text and reprint it. In fact, the truth is just the opposite. The more valuable a book was originally, the more people it has touched and helped, the more important it is to continue to make it available as its author wrote it.

Third, that a publisher would want to rewrite a book this radically. Why? Why, why, why? What in the world could motivate a publisher to ask someone to undertake a revision that would include such petty vandalism as turning a sentence about young people from, "They are opposed to anything which savours of institutionalism" into "They are opposed to anything that looks like an institution"? And to perpetrate similar vandalism upon, by Swaim's estimate, two thirds of the sentences in the entire book? Is it money? Do they genuinely believe that a book largely written in actuality by the chirpy Dr. David Stone, whoever he may be, but with the name of John R. W. Stott on the cover will sell significantly more copies than the book actually written by Stott? This seems to me unlikely, I must say--again, cynic though I am.

Hang onto your used copies of Stott's real work. This First Things article should boost their market value considerably. Amazon boasts 86 used copies of the 1971 edition (which Swaim used for his comparison), starting at 1 cent plus shipping and handling. Get 'em before the price goes up.

And if you're an author, consider self-publishing or else putting in your contract a clause that stipulates that your ghost shall have the legal right to haunt into the grave any publisher that bowdlerizes your work after your death.

These days, you can't be too careful.

Comments (4)

The best medicine is to refuse to buy the new version, tell others the same (as you have done), AND TELL THE PUBLISHER that's what you have done.

There is a fundamental lack of humility in this. The publisher and revisionist don't have the moral right to take upon themselves to re-phrase what Stott said and put it under his name, without his express permission. Stott has a right to have his own words be published under his name, not someone else's. And they don't have a right to alter his reputation or conveyed thought as if his very thought and reputation were placed in their hands as owners. Who are they to take over Stott's mouth and tongue and pen hand and issue their preferred version as if it were what Stott said? If they wanted to write their own material, fine: publish it under a different name.

It is, frankly, false attribution and (if performed regularly) it would undermine proper scholarship. "Stott said Xxxx" would become "Stott or his nameless publisher said Xxxx at one time, and he or they said "Yyyy" at another time, and there is no way of knowing which is what Stott actually held."

I've updated and clarified, after getting the years clearer in my own mind. Stott died in 2011, and this edition came out in 2008. Stott must have known an anniversary edition was being made, because he wrote an introduction to the new edition. (Swaim evidently just read it, and this is the first I've heard about it.) So it _looks_ as though it may have been done with Stott's permission, though I doubt that he realized he was consenting to so radical a revision, and certainly it was someone else's revision, not his. Stott wrote a preface and seems to have known about some updating to the language. We don't know what the arrangement was, legally.

It is just as much of a failure to understand the nature of a book on the part of the publisher even if Stott signed something agreeing to some "updating."

From Stott's preface:

It was obviously necessary to update the language, not least by use of a modern translation of the Bible, and to respond to sensitivities relating to gender. We are grateful to Dr. David Stone for taking care of these sensitivities. In many ways a new book seemed to be needed, or at least a radical revision of the original. But I feel I have already made my own contemporary statement of the gospel in Why I am a Christian (IVP, 2004) and do not feel the need to write another, even if I could. Besides, Basic Christianity is something of a period piece. It reflects the culture of its own day and needs to be allowed to remain itself. We hope and pray that God will use it as he has done in the past all over the world. (Emphasis added)

It does not look like Dr. Stone and the publishers stuck to any sort of plan to "allow it to remain itself" as a period piece. Not remotely. While this indicates some degree of consent on Stott's part (which is regrettable), it definitely sounds like it was a consent to a far less radical revision than what actually took place.

Because the editor-in-chief of Eerdmans evidently felt he should (mostly) defend the edition (which, after all, his publishing house is selling, though IVP created it originally), I have written some comments in the thread at the Eerdmans blog post. In the latest comment I question the exceedingly silly idea that this sort of wholesale revision was necessary and justified because the book is "not a literary classic but an evangelistic tool." The comments thread is short, so just search for my comments in the thread if desired.


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