Yesterday I received two books at the same time from one of the publishers I review books for. In trying to decide which of them I wanted to read and review first, I thumbed through one of the books only to realize that it looked very familiar. Further digging of its contents revealed that the book had been one I read and reviewed last year under a different title. From what I can gather so far, there are few differences between the book published several years ago and the work published previously. Perhaps, if I feel it necessary, I will try to find any differences between the two works. What is the reason for this apparent mere repackaging of material to create an illusion of there being a new book out from an author who is prolific enough that he does not need to pad his curriculum vitae. To be sure, the apparent newness of the book may attract some people who have not been familiar with the work before, but it would greatly irritate those who already have the book and don’t like wasting precious shelf space on retreads, even if the book is itself a pretty good one. Without knowing the reasons for the repackaging, it is unclear how to feel about it. Was it done for copyright reasons, or because a project of original writing has gone on longer than expected and contractual agreements mandated a release of some kind of work? This is not unheard of when it comes to publishing contracts, but the conduct itself induces suspicion and inquiry to determine where to fix the responsibility for the decision made.
Yet I do not wish to be too harsh on the reworking of a book, as that would be immensely hypocritical of me to do so. After all, just this past Sabbath, after services, I followed up on an announcement looking for writers for a new church magazine for teens. Having written for the previous incarnation of the magazine, despite my difficult personal relationship with the magazine’s editor (who happened to also be my local church pastor at the time), I figured it would be worthwhile to express my own availability to serve as a writer, if it was so desired. To my brief initial inquiry, the editor asked me for some writing samples, and I was able to provide eight published articles for various organizational magazines without having to delve into my extensive back catalog of personal essays that I have published on my own personal blog over the past few years. As it happens, the editor was particularly interested in having me rework one of my articles that I had published for the past magazine  as a way of encouraging service. Ironically enough, this article had been itself a reworking of my last feature for the ABC Times when I wrote about the need for graduates of the Ambassador Bible Center (which I was then studying, in 2004) to continue serving in our local congregations after graduations, and then revised to encourage young adults to serve in local congregations. So, this is a reworking of a reworking of an article, on a topic apparently so evergreen that it is now being revised with a third audience in mind, namely teenagers like the ones who so ably and conspicuously serve in my own congregation and others.
Nor is this the only time where my own writing has involved a reworking of previously written work. When I was in my early 20’s, during a time of intensely prolific playwriting, I became rather fatigued at retelling the same set of vitally important but somewhat tedious childhood experiences in different plays, so I made a conscious point of writing a play that would be more or less a sourcebook of the most pivotal and dramatic scenes of my childhood (at least those that were appropriate for writing or acting) in order to be reworked into different contexts in a wide variety of plays. The exercise served to remind me of the fact that a great deal of the complexity of my own life nevertheless revolves around a fairly small set of pivotal events and circumstances in life that have dramatically shaped me, for better or worse, into the man I am. Reflecting on these connections and ties is a way of acknowledging the importance of those moments. I am familiar, it should be noted, with many ministers who candidly admit their own reworking of previous messages over decades of faithful service in preaching God’s ways to believers. Often going back to a previous message in light of a different audience, or a slightly different context, with the addition of years of living and reflecting, can help to remind of us of our own slight changes over time, or bring out a different balance or point of emphasis in a message that is already familiar, helping to provide instruction and also reminder, without the felt need to build a rhetorical framework from scratch. Reworking provides a scaffolding to help us organize our thoughts about important subjects in a way that reflects continuity with the way that we have spoken or written before.
We find, very ably, this sort of scaffolding done with regards to the Bible. Psalms 14 and 53 are substantially identical, yet slightly reworked version of the same psalm exist in the Bible as a way of reminding us of an important truth, of the folly of denying God or in living as if He does not exist, which is a temptation none of us are immune to . Psalm 113 bears a close relationship to Hannah’s song of praise to God in 1 Samuel 2, even if the relationship between the two is not clear. Similarly, psalms appear as part of the historical prophets like 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, and also appear in slightly different form among the corpus of the psalms of David. It is likely that one of the causes for the slight differences was a reworking of an existing and previously written and performed psalm for a given historical context. At other times, there is evidence of a reworking and repurposing of material originally recorded by the prophet Isaiah for the historical account in 2 Kings during the reign of King Hezekiah, or the similarities that exist between Isaiah 2 and Micah 4. Such a skillful and open use of primary documentation in a reworked fashion demonstrates a coherent body of source material relating to the Bible, and to some level of communication and influence among distinct but interrelated Bible writers. We find, it should be noted, a similar sort of reworking relating to the different accounts of the Gospels, where John appears to consciously fill in gaps left after the writing of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and where the body of early oral and written accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were reworked and placed in different contexts depending on the organizing mind of the particular Gospel author under the inspiration of God, reflecting concern for text and also purposeful writing.
As might be imagined, though, reworking as a process does not always go smoothly. I remember one time as an undergraduate student I was given an assignment of writing both an essay and an editorial about the same subject. I was told, much to my irritation and chagrin, that my two writings were too similar. The teacher that the differences in genre should have produced a much more distinctive essay, while for me the particular nature of my mind and my approach as an author meant that it was much more difficult for me to write the same subject in different ways, particularly where part of my characteristic approach included some passionate feelings about the material at hand. Perhaps the instructor meant to have one essay reflect writing from the head and another to reflect writing from the heart, but for me the head and the heart, for all of their tensions, are intertwined in a complicated way by which the life of my mind reflects a great deal of the longings and preoccupations of my heart, and where the expression of my feelings is mediated through a highly intellectual approach to life, a demanding and often precise vocabulary, and a frequent use of multiple layers of meaning in the same communication. Such complications mean that while I am likely to be able to rework an article with a particular focus and audience, I am less able to rework the vastly more tangled and complicated writings of my ordinary existence, by which I try to make sense of the life I live under the constraints of expression that mark my existence, leaving these modest works to rest like unexploded ordinance on an old battlefield, always prone to be read and understood in novel and striking, and sometimes disconcerting, ways.