A response to Swaim’s “Stott Bowdlerized” (Eerdword)

In the Internet era, incomplete research and careless retweeting can lead to false accusations and damaging digital gossip.

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Through the course of my publishing career I have not usually bothered authors for autographs, but as a high-school senior attending the 1976 Urbana convention with my central Virginia youth group, I was eager to do so. Of the various books that I encountered at that impressionable age, I reckon one of the most significant for my formation was John Stott’s Basic Christianity. Imagine how thrilled I was to have my copy signed by the author at that wintry conference!

In light of this backstory, you can imagine my dismay at reading on Twitter that the press I now serve has allegedly insulted John Stott by high-handedly ruining his classic book. Of the tweets I have seen, the most damning, perhaps, is this: “What Eerdmans did to John Stott’s Basic Christianity is an insult to both the book’s author and its readers.” Dozens of others are not so judgmental but nevertheless effectively echo and extend the bad news. All link to the same article.

The source of this Internet frenzy is Barton Swaim’s recent critique (“Stott Bowdlerized,” First Things, May 2016, 17–19) of the third edition of Basic Christianity, published eight years ago in 2008. Upon discovering that the reviser had altered the first sentence of the preface “stupidly,” Swaim undertook a line-by-line comparison with the old edition. His essay notes a number of changes with which he takes issue.

On reading Swaim’s critique, I found myself sympathetic to some of his complaints. I have not had time to repeat his work, doing a line-by-line comparison of my own, so I cannot offer a full critique of my own. Regrettably, however, alongside his criticism — which he has every right to express — there are also a number of important factual errors in this article, both stated and implied, that could have easily been avoided had he approached Eerdmans for information before publishing.

First, regarding the role of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing in this edition: as Swaim might have noticed on the book’s copyright page, Eerdmans is not the originating publisher. Eerdmans stands by our edition; but we did not plan the revision, hire the reviser, or edit his work. The book originates in the United Kingdom with Inter-Varsity Press (not to be confused with its unhyphenated American cousin, InterVarsity Press). Under an unusual copublishing arrangement which has been in place for more than fifty years, both Eerdmans and IVP-US are licensed to sell editions of Basic Christianity in North America. We receive text from IVP-UK. Eerdmans takes care of the printing and binding work for both US publishers. In the case of the third edition, IVP-US Americanized the orthography and designed the interior. We have seen suggestions on social media that the current IVP-US edition contains the older text, but that is a mistake possibly based on the fact that the IVP-US web page for this book (at the time of this writing) erroneously shows the table of contents of the older edition. The current IVP-US and Eerdmans editions have different dimensions and are differently paginated, but they have the same text.

Second, regarding the role of John Stott in this edition: who is responsible for the text Swaim finds so objectionable? Eerdmans, after all, is only licensed to sell what we receive from IVP-UK. When John Stott was alive (as he was at the time this edition was published), IVP-UK’s publishing rights derived from a contract with John Stott himself. Now his role is carried out by a team of literary executors — four people who worked closely with him, knew him and his aims well, and are authorized to carry his work forward. Having corresponded with them over the past several days, I am able to state that in their view the current edition of Basic Christianity was done at John Stott’s impetus, in accord with his aims, and with his approval.

I don’t think knowing this will change Swaim’s mind. He asserts: “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.” Here he cannot be speaking of legal rights, because Stott and IVP-UK clearly did have the legal right to produce a revised edition. He seems to be speaking of a kind of moral ownership that readers may assert when they appreciate the aesthetic and intellectual value of a text. Speaking on behalf of Stott’s readers, Swaim wishes to assert moral ownership of Stott’s intellectual property over against the legal claim of Stott himself and of Stott’s duly appointed legal heirs.

This alleged ownership of texts by readers is an interesting idea. Personally, I don’t think it’s crazy. Any great work of art, and any literary classic, eventually becomes in some sense the property of the ages. But here’s the rub: John Stott did not see himself as the author of a classic. He wanted to — and did — author a little book that served a practical, evangelistic purpose. And, stellar preacher and communicator that he was, he understood that what communicates effectively in one time and place must be changed to communicate effectively in another. Swaim has failed to notice that the 1971 second edition, which he wants to treat as an untouchable classic, was already a revision of the 1958 original (he incorrectly refers to it as a reprint). Stott’s own preface to the third edition notes, regarding the evangelistic sermons on which the book was originally based, that “of course the gospel outline developed as it reflected local situations and as repetition encouraged improvement.” He goes on to say that the book itself, fifty years after its initial publication, needed “at least a radical revision.” At the same time, he believed it was “something of a period piece” and “that it need[ed] to be allowed to remain itself.” It fell to David Stone to work within those ambiguous parameters, and Stott was evidently satisfied that he had done so.

Did Stott review every change on every line? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Could the revision be improved? Certainly. Swaim points out some such places. Should all of Swaim’s criticisms be accepted? I don’t think so. Swaim begins by noting his personal disagreement with use of inclusive language and states that changing from “all other men” to “everyone else,” for example, “lower[s] the quality of the writing.”  In whose eyes? Why? He also expresses affection for several quotations that use language that would be archaic and off-putting for the contemporary readers that Stott was very interested in reaching. Should Stott’s literary executors and IVP-UK consider a further revision (or reversion)? That’s up to them. I know from current correspondence that the executors consider themselves to be the stewards not of a literary classic but of an evangelistic tool. They do not consider the 2008 revision to be a “bowdlerization” (prudish removal of the nasty bits from a literary classic).

I am mindful that it is unusual for a publisher to respond to a book review. When books are published, they ipso facto become public documents, open to public comment. Reviews may be positive or negative, fair or unfair; the publisher does not respond. This instance feels a little different. First Things and Barton Swaim published an essay that appears designed to provoke readers and score culture-war points — all at the expense of Eerdmans’s reputation. They did so without bothering to ascertain certain relevant facts, which we would have gladly supplied if they had asked us. (They did not.) We have close ties to many principals and friends of the Institute on Religion and Public Life (which publishes First Things), have published many books authored by these good folk for many years, and hope to continue that friendly relationship. Two examples: in 1984, Eerdmans published Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s Naked Public Square; just last week the last book by the late Fr. Edward Oakes, A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies, arrived in our warehouse. So we think we deserved more considerate treatment.

Actually, we think everyone deserves more considerate treatment. A basic canon of journalistic professionalism (not to mention Christian discipleship) is that if you are going to publish an article that puts someone in a bad light, you let them know in order to give them a chance to help you correct your mistakes before you broadcast them. “Thou shalt not publish, tweet, or repost carelessly” might be a good fence around the law against bearing witness falsely.

James Ernest
James Ernest. Photograph by Willem Mineur.

I am having a hard time finding my cherished autographed copy of Basic Christianity. I am wondering whether I might have passed it on to a young person who I thought might benefit from reading it. If so, I guess Stott would be pleased. Personally, I honor Basic Christianity as a classic. I also respect John Stott’s decision that his little book should be updated for the benefit of new generations of readers, and I am glad to be working for a company that has a role in the ongoing distribution of his book to North American readers.

James Ernest
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing

[originally published at http://eerdword.com/2016/04/19/a-response-to-swaims-stott-bowdlerized/]

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