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Books Are Being “Updated” In Real Time; Should Christians Be Worried?

Physical books look nice and smell good. That alone is motivation to cling to physical media and resist being swept downstream by the digital revolution. But recent events have demonstrated that such nostalgic yearning is not merely the domain of old-fashioned curmudgeons. Stories and digital media are being edited and “updated” in real time, and people—including Christians—ought to take notice.

Of course, this phenomenon is not wholly unprecedented. In 2014, Apple drew widespread ire for forcing legendary rock band U2’s new album, Songs of Innocence, into every iTunes music library, whether wanted or not. On video streaming platforms, several older films—such as Disney’s Lilo and Stitch (2002)have undergone unannounced alterations to various scenes deemed “problematic.”

Last year, customers who had purchased the Lord of the Rings audiobooks discovered that the classic covers had been replaced by new tie-in covers for the then-upcoming Amazon Prime show The Rings of Power. It was a shameless and invasive marketing ploy, though ultimately harmless, as the books themselves remain unchanged. Yet, these attention-grabbing moments have caused people to recognize the “slippery” slope beneath our feet.

If already-purchased digital content can be altered in minor ways without notification or consent, what would prevent more substantial changes? In recent weeks, that question appears to have been answered, and down the slippery slope we all slide.

Modern Updating

First came the announcement that, following a review by so-called “sensitivity readers,” the beloved books of children’s author Roald Dahl were to undergo hundreds of edits with the intention of making them more appropriate for a modern audience. Mere days later came the news that the upcoming reissued versions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels would receive similar edits, omitting or rewriting passages deemed problematic for a modern audience. Soon after that came the report that R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps books would also be edited (seemingly without the permission of the author). It appears the floodgates are opening.

Setting aside ethical implications or commitments to “artistic integrity,” does it really make a sizable difference whether a character in Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is referred to as “enormous” rather than “enormously fat,” as in the original? Perhaps not. Likewise, will removing derogatory racial terms do much to hinder enjoyment of the adventures of 007? Again, unlikely. Clearly the flourishing of modern civilization does not hinge on maintaining or omitting a handful of words from a children’s story written in the 1960s. Nevertheless, it may be prudent to see the forest through the trees. For Christians—and all people—it is not just about parsing out the significance of each change but about acknowledging the slippery slope and the consequences that wait at the bottom. If there is cause for concern, it is not the changes themselves but the practice of rewriting the past and possessing the technological capabilities to do so with ease.

Rewriting the Past

Like Dickens’ Christmas ghosts, Christianity is a religion of the past, present, and future. We live in the present and look hopefully toward the future. Yet we can only make sense of either in relation to the past. The glory of heaven described in the Book of Revelation is set against the backdrop of Adam and Eve’s original sin in the garden of Eden. Paul frequently referred to his blackened past in order to showcase his dramatic transformation in Christ. The past is—thankfully—not the end of the story, but it is an essential chapter in that story.  

One of the driving forces in the recent trend of “updating” classic stories is a desire to rewrite history. Yet a present-day culture that rewrites the past to mirror its current understanding will become stagnant, lacking context and any metric of growth. Many of the changes currently being made to classic stories are an attempt to keep modern readers from feeling uncomfortable. But maybe we should feel uncomfortable about the past. Maybe we would better understand the brokenness in the world today if we realized what came before us.

There is a degree of arrogance and irony whenever we rewrite history. When focusing on misguided views from the past, present culture positions itself as an almighty authority. We place ourselves at the peak of human thinking, and both the past and future must reorient themselves to align with our enlightenment. While this mindset might pave over some uncomfortable past sins, it may also result in forgotten wisdom.  

For example, while Christians may sympathize with some of the changes, the path ahead might not always lead in a mutually agreeable direction. Derogatory, racially charged terms may be mutually condemned, but what about “outdated” descriptions of traditional sexuality? Or “bigoted” and “exclusive” religion? Many classic books were written in an era when Christianity permeated culture. Will these novels now be altered to be more inclusive of readers of other religions? In a digital world, would anyone even know they had been changed?  

What Comes Next

There has been much handwringing and concern over “banning” books (perhaps for good reason). Yet in practice, a book is difficult to ban. Any time a school library “bans” a book (or is merely accused of doing so), that book immediately jumps to the top of the bestseller charts. As long as the book exists, there will almost always be some channel through which to attain it.  

In some ways, the more dangerous practice is not banning books but changing them. In a digital world where such changes can be made years after purchase, it is easy to foresee the thorny possibilities.   

Do I think Christians should be in a full-fledged panic? No. The amount of pushback to the recent book “updates” suggests that people are not blind to the issue. This process won’t happen overnight. But such is the nature of a slippery slope: you slide down an inch one day, another the next, and eventually you find yourself at the bottom of the hill. And by that point, you’ve grown so comfortable there that you forget what the scenery looked like at the top.

The desire to update the past may arise, at least in part, from good intentions. And yet, in recognizing the follies of the past, we should adopt a posture of humility rather than pride, realizing that the generations who come after us will surely desire to rewrite much of what we champion today. Growth is an unavoidable and foundational aspect of God’s creation. It is beautiful and painful. It is often beautiful because it is painful. We should learn from the past; but to do so, we must preserve it—even when it makes us a little uncomfortable.  

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