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Bowlderizing John Stott

Category Articles
Date January 19, 2018

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 is surely one.

The copy I bought is a fiftieth-anniversary reprint by Eerdmans and includes a new preface by Stott himself, who died in 2011. I read the preface mainly out of curiosity, not intending to read the book again, and this sentence caught my attention: ‘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.’

The subject of gendered pronouns has of course become controversial in recent years. Although I myself take an old-school view on the question , ‘he’, ‘him’, and ‘his’ for general antecedents, though occasionally ‘his or her’ sounds appropriate to my ear , I was prepared to accept the need to alter Stott’s original text in order to avoid causing offense. The elderly Stott’s ‘not least’ sounded worrisome, but how bad could it be?

Then I read his original preface, the one from 1958, but which, in the new edition, begins this way:

‘Hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ.’ These words describe large numbers of people, especially young people, today. They are opposed to anything that looks like an institution.

It had been many years since I had read Basic Christianity, but somehow that didn’t sound right. Are young people , or were they in the 1950s , really opposed to anything that ‘looks like an institution’? They didn’t seem opposed, for example, to universities back then. So I took down my old copy of the book, a 1971 reprint, also published by Eerdmans. In that version, the sentence reads: ‘They are opposed to anything which savours of institutionalism.’ Hold on. Opposing institutionalism is very different from opposing institutions. You might as well equate opposing nationalism with opposing nations. The editor hasn’t simply updated the text: he has changed its meaning.

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?

A great many of the updates involve syntactical changes that, although stylistically harmless, alter the original’s meaning in odd and unhelpful ways. For instance, in 1958, Stott had written that sexual love is ‘a fulfillment of the divine purpose and of the human personality.’ The updated text refers to sexual love as ‘bringing God’s purpose to completion and fulfilling the human personality.’ The editor seems to have objected to the word ‘fulfillment’ and tried to replace it with ‘bringing…to completion.’ But surely no literate person would be stumped by the word ‘fulfillment’, and in any case the word ‘completion’ introduces the idea of finality or termination that is nowhere in the idea of sexual love as a fulfillment of divine purpose.

Stott was fond of quoting lines from hymns and poems to convey his meaning. Those are gone from the 2008 text. Emphasizing the point that closeness to Christ often results in a heightened awareness of one’s own sin, he had quoted a line from Henry Twells’ ‘At Even, Ere the Sun was Set’: ‘And they who fain would serve thee best/ Are conscious most of wrong within.’ Deleted. Two verses from Harriet Auber’s Hymn ‘Our Blest Redeemer, Ere He Breathed’, lines teaching that personal holiness is the work of the Spirit , ‘And every virtue we possess/ And every victory won,/ And every thought of holiness,/ Are his alone’ , have been dropped from the updated text. In a paragraph on the centrality of the cross in the Christian life, this sentence had to go: ‘What the Emperor Constantine is said to have seen in the sky, we can see ourselves in the pages of the Bible. In hoc signo vinces.‘ A quotation from a 1585 sermon by Richard Hooker didn’t make the cut either:

Let it be counted folly, or frenzy, or fury, or whatsoever. It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this, that the man hath sinned and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God.

In 1958 Stott added, ‘Every Christian can echo these words.’ Now, it seems, every Christian can’t.

Things get worse in the chapter in which Stott discusses Jesus’ claims about himself. In the earlier book, Stott had relayed observations about Jesus by four well-known figures (J. S. Mill, Carnegie Simpson, Alfred Tennyson, James Denny), each emphasizing the uniqueness of his claims. The 2008 text adds a fifth observation, this one by Napoleon. The French emperor, we’re led to believe, said this: ‘Alexander, Christ, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love.’

Well, okay. But unlike the other quotations, Napoleon’s has no citation. A trip to the library reveals that Napoleon’s supposed remarks were originally relayed by Charles Tristan, Marquis de Montholon, the man scholars believe murdered Napoleon by poisoning him during his second exile. Furthermore, the quotation has popped up in defenses of Christianity since at least 1842. Versions of it are everywhere on the Internet. For my own part, I doubt Napoleon said any such thing.

Maybe the most egregious alteration involves the word ‘atonement’. In Basic Christianity of 1958, Stott had written:

But what does this ‘reconciliation’ mean? The same word is translated ‘atonement’ in Romans 5:11 (AV), and an ‘atonement’ denoted either an action by which two conflicting parts are made ‘at one’ or the state in which their oneness is enjoyed and expressed. This ‘atonement’, Paul says, we have ‘received’ through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We have not ourselves achieved it by our own effort; we have received it from him as a gift. Sin causes an estrangement; the cross, the crucifixion of Christ, has accomplished an atonement. Sin bred enmity; the cross has brought peace.

The updated text reads as follows:

But what does this ‘reconciliation’ mean? The answer is that it indicates either an action by which two parties in conflict are brought together or the state in which their oneness is enjoyed and expressed. Paul says that this reconciliation is something that we have received through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We have not achieved it by our own efforts; we have received it from him as a gift. Sin caused a separation between us and God; the cross, the crucifixion of Christ, has brought peace. Sin created a gulf between us and God; the cross has bridged it. Sin broke the relationship; the cross has restored it.

Ignore the numerous and needless small changes, if you can. In the original text, Stott connected the word ‘reconciliation’ to the word ‘atonement’ by reference to Paul’s use of it in his Letter to the Romans. That connection is enough to jar any modern reader, who likely thinks of ‘reconciliation’ as a general feel-good sort of bringing together and ‘atonement’ as some ancient rite involving blood and vestments. In the updated text, however, ‘atonement’ is gone altogether. The newer text leaves the reader free (or freer) to think of the reconciliation Christ has accomplished as the sort of therapeutic fence-mending urged on brawling high-schoolers by their guidance counselors.

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.

One discerns, too, a basic failure to understand the nature of a book. Except in bizarre circumstances, no book on any subject can come close to its original popularity a half century after it was published. Meddling with its text in an effort to make it popular again , dumbing its language down, making its pronouns gender-neutral , can only rob the book of what power it might still have. 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.

Barton Swaim is the author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics. This article first appeared in the First Things magazine and a response from the publisher, Eerdmans, can be found here.

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