By Barton Swain
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.
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.