“I think, when a man says, ‘I never doubt,’ it is quite time for us to doubt him, it is quite time for us to begin to say, ‘Ah, poor soul, I am afraid you are not on the road at all, for if you were, you would see so many things in yourself, and so much glory in Christ more than you deserve, that you would be so much ashamed of yourself, as even to say, ‘It is too good to be true.'” – Charles Spurgeon
“It’s well known that, at times, Christians struggle with doubt. It’s safe to assume the same thing happens with atheists.”
Yesterday evening, our kids Zach and Lauren headed off on a 12-hour road trip to visit friends in Utah. On top of that, they dared to take along our 10-month old grandson, Jude!
Suffice to say, knowing that they would all be out on dark, distant stretches of highway in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, sleep would not come easy for me.
So, at about 7:00 p.m., I settled in to start reading a book that arrived in my mailbox just a few hours earlier: “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.” The book was written by Christian apologist Larry Alex Taunton.
Hitchens was a well-known atheist who conducted his debates, writings and interviews with a high level of vitriol and disdain for religion. He brought a no-holds barred approach to his endeavors, often leaving Christians and many non Christians blown away by his perceived callousness. Hitchens said it like he thought it.
I recall many years ago Hitchens being interviewed by Dennis Miller. In that interview, Miller brought up the fact that Hitchens was a vocal critic of Mother Teresa. Miller leaned in with his questions, expecting Hitchens to lighten up a bit, but instead Hitchens only went further and deeper with his scathing critique of a woman most people viewed as virtuous. It was classic Hitchens.
About six years ago, Christopher Hitchens life entered a new chapter. Hitchens developed cancer of the esophagus in 2010 and died about a year and a half after the initial diagnosis.
But enough background information. Onto my reaction to “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.”
Before the book arrived, I read a few of the reviews at various websites. What I found interesting was how many people claimed to have not read the book, yet had very strong opinions regarding its content. Some atheists raged in anger because they thought that Taunton was re-framing the image of Hitchens to be much more amenable toward Christianity. And some Christians wondered aloud how a follower of Christ could spend one iota of their valuable time with a person so slanderous of Christianity.
Anyway, I dove in and literally didn’t put the book down until I finished it a little after midnight. (other than to read a few short texts from my beloved wayfarers that read, “Missoula,” “The 15,” “Dillon for bathroom, gas and driver change,” “Ogden.”)
My overall reaction to the book was that I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Taunton has a real gift for flow in his writing style.
The source material for the book was drawn mostly from Hitchen’s own writings, interview and debates, as well as Taunton’s personal conversations with Hitchens. Taunton had spent about 5 years scheduling debates between Hitchens and other Christian apologists. On two occasions, Taunton and Hitchens shared the road on lengthy trips. It is the conversations on these expeditions (one through the Shenandoah Valley, the other through Yellowstone) that really make the book come alive.
Though the book has a lot of interesting aspects, the main takeaway for me was this: the gruff and argumentative Christopher Hitchens of the debate stage wasn’t always so difficult and demeaning in private. Though he certainly could be rude, impatient and arrogant with others, Taunton was able to see Hitchens display some softer edges, as well as display a willingness to have civil, inquisitive discourse about topics that would surprise many.
On one 12-hour road trip from Washington, D.C. to Alabama (the Shenandoah journey), Taunton and Hitchens talked about the ramifications of the Gospel of John. They didn’t fight about it, rather they simply discussed it’s implications and meanings.
My sense is that just like all of us, Christopher Hitchens was more complex and nuanced as a human being than the caricatures both atheists and Christians had created of him. (Not that Hitchen’s didn’t help a lot with that caricature.) Truth be told, we are all three-dimensional beings (although we sometimes seem to present ourselves as having only two or one dimensions).
It is my contention that the best view of a person’s life is the whole view. It’s easy to cherry pick certain portions of their life in order to try and define them, but we almost always miss out on the whole story. Christopher Hitchens wasn’t beyond changing his mind. The events of 9/11 and the Bill Clinton presidency brought about some dramatic shifts to Hitchen’s thinking about politics and war. (And many people were dumbfounded by these shifts, most likely because Hitchen’s dared to jump out of the box in which his followers wished him to remain.)
The goal of the book wasn’t to announce a triumphant deathbed conversion. No, this is simply the story of how one man of faith interacted with a man who claimed to have none. It is a story about an unexpected friendship that drew questions, confusion and disdain from some members of their respective ideological camps.
One thing for sure is this: Christopher Hitchens not only was able to hear the Gospel presented clearly, he was afforded the opportunity to see it in action. And even if it didn’t change his mind about God, I believe he would have to admit that he was the recipient of relational blessings that came from his relationship with some of Jesus’ followers.
At the last debate event that Taunton organized, Hitchens debated Taunton. This was the first (and last) time they had ever squared off. Just prior to the debate, a local news team sat down with both men to get a read on their unusual friendship. Hitchens was asked what he thought about his opponent. Taunton shares in the book that he was a bit taken back (and humbled) when Hitchens made this pronouncement:
“If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton had, we’d be living in a much better society than we do.” ~ Christopher Hitchens
Here’s a quick clip of the author of “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” speaking with Chris Matthews: