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N. D. Wilson

A Collision of Lives

An atheist and a pastor square off—with surprising results.

In a corner room, on the thirty-fourth floor of the Millennium Hotel, United Nations Plaza, I look for a place to sit. There isn't one. Every surface is covered with cameras, laptops, cords, drives, surge protectors, recharging batteries, and, occasionally, other people. I end up on a windowsill, cold glass against my back, traffic far, far below me.

One floor down, my father, Douglas Wilson, is asleep. A few blocks away, I assume, Christopher Hitchens is as well. It's late enough to be early—even in New York—but this room bustles on.

Two cameramen are dumping their hard-drives and backing everything up. Two producers are talking. The director, cross-legged on the floor between a bed and my windowsill, is reviewing footage from the night. He can't help himself. He must edit. He must make something. And he must do it now.

"Check this," he says. "Gangster. Your dad's a gangster."

The room quiets, and the two producers join me, huddling over the director's head. In a small window on his laptop screen, we watch traffic freeze and surge in fast motion. The sun sets on NYC. Old-school rap begins to throb from the small speakers.

And there they are, my father's cowboy boots, moving down the sidewalk in slow motion. And there he is, turning, realizing a camera is following him, grinning in his beard, laughing as he enters the hotel. Cut.

Nothing has happened yet. The cameras have captured only New York establishment footage, and one scene of a pastor from rural Idaho arriving at his hotel.

In May of 2007, Christopher Hitchens published God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Christopher's polemic naturally drew some attention. It was designed to inflame, and it did, while settling in for a long run on the bestseller list. His taunts and insults were delivered in polished and often amusing prose and reiterated verbally in television appearance after television appearance, all as droll and limp-faced as they were acidic.

And then the debates began. Hitchens wanted all comers.

Aaron Rench, a literary agent (he happens to represent Christopher Hitchens' Anglican brother, Peter), watched the skirmishes, and he wasn't impressed. He wanted something different, and it wasn't long until he was presenting Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson with a proposal from Christianity Today—an epistolary debate, giving both men room to throw literary elbows and revel a bit in their prose. Because of the success of that debate, the correspondence was collected into a small book with introductions from both authors, Is Christianity Good for the World?, released in September of 2008. And that's when all this started.

Darren Doane. That's the name of this man sitting on a hotel room floor, pursing his lips and bobbing his head while he cuts footage. When he's done shooting this documentary, he and his crew will be off to California to work on a project with Van Morrison. But for now, it's all about atheism and Christianity. It's all Hitchens vs. Wilson.

Darren has done a lot of music video work. He loves it. He loves seaming narrative to song or song to narrative. He says he doesn't read much, but he lies. He's full of tidbits from obscure commentaries on the book of Revelation. He once mixed a heavy hip-hop background behind an audio version of the Bible (so he could more easily jog to it). Filming an artist backstage after a show, he was asked to provide the assembled band and roadies with the word of the day. His word: epistemology.

When Darren was contacted by a producer about the possibility of working on a documentary on the new wave of militant atheism, he was interested. When they began searching for content, they found one interaction far more interesting than most. The project morphed, and Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson ended up in three cities over the course of three crazy days. Early morning discussions over coffee, a town-hall forum, stories told in limousines, a formal debate at a seminary, an informal debate squeezed into a pub booth with seminarians, late night admissions and confidences, a two-hour, unmoderated finale in a Georgetown tavern, mockery, rebuke, instruction, jokes, laughter, sharp dispute and warm affection.

Their interaction did not disappoint.

Christopher Hitchens is accustomed to getting laughs. He is accustomed to getting nervous, shocked laughs. He favors language that is flippant, scandalous, and extreme. Call Mother Theresa a whore here. Call Christ a village shaman impressing peasants there. Mock the Apostle Paul. Deride the faithful. These things keep opponents on their heels rather than their toes. Where Scripture approaches the tone of condemnation (for the Amalekites, say) that Hitchens himself uses regarding fundamentalist Muslims (or Christians: "It is time to … stone their prophets"), he flings verses at his opponent and perches, nostrils flared, watching for exegetical pussy-footing the way a predator watches for the weakling in the herd.

Hitchens is accustomed to quibbling. He is accustomed to correcting an opponent on petty details for rhetorical effect.

Hitchens is not accustomed to being laughed at. He is not accustomed to being corrected. By his own report, he is not accustomed to an opponent who is unflinchingly unembarrassed by his faith.

In 2003, Douglas Wilson published a book entitled A Serrated Edge. The subtitle: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking. In this small book, he defends the use of humor, laughter, and satire in Christian communication. He defends the hard-hitting but playful voice that makes Is Christianity Good for the World? so distinctive and made his three days traveling with Hitchens such a pleasure to watch. Accompanied with humility, it is that voice which made him the perfect sparring partner for Hitchens, the atheist wit. It is that voice which produced laughs in every venue, some self-effacing, some collective, and some pointedly at Hitchens' expense. More important, it is why the two of them could forget that cameras were rolling and mutually savor a well-turned phrase from a favorite author, or trade jokes in a car on their way to a venue packed with people ready to watch them fight.

Christopher Hitchens, quite honestly, seemed to enjoy getting his nose bloodied. It was novel. He enjoyed my father, and my father enjoyed him.

My father has debated atheists a number of times throughout my life, and I have (at various ages) talked to him about the arguments, rhetorical devices, and outcomes of those debates. In one of the earliest of those discussions (I was in junior high), my father outlined his goals to me in order of priority. As a pastor, his first goal was always to protect and strengthen the faith of those believers who witnessed the interaction—care for the sheep before the wolves. His second goal was to rattle and shake the skepticism of those unbelievers present—till soil and plant seeds. His third goal was to win the opponent himself.

At that young age, as far as I was concerned, winning the opponent was not a consideration at all. Take him out. Cut him off at the socks. Use two hatchets. But that was me, never my father. He never lost sight of that third goal—as infeasible as it generally was—and care for his opponent's soul was always apparent.

Reading the interaction my father had with Christopher Hitchens was a joy for me. Watching him interact personally with Hitchens was a greater joy, especially because only a fraction of the time was spent in formal debate. The majority was spent one on one, with no believing audience and no unbelieving audience to take precedence. There were two men breaking bread, drinking coffee, talking; and I loved watching my father play—and play only—for the man in front of him.

In Martin's Tavern, Georgetown, where JFK proposed to Jackie, I squeeze into a tiny booth in a tiny back room. The place is no longer a forum for debate, the crew is breaking down, and I have to bolt some food before hurrying to the airport.

Darren Doane squeezes in across from me. Three days, loaded heavier than most months, have come and gone. Darren is holding his burger, not eating. He sets it down.

"I don't think I can do this film for a Christian audience," he says. His eyebrows are way up. He seems surprised. "I can't. They'd want it all worldview. This is bigger than that. This is a character story. Two characters colliding."

And that's what it is. Worldviews are in play, no doubt. Ideas bang around. But beyond the abstractions, there is flesh and all that comes with it—emotion, dependency, hope, resentment, faith, anger, peace. This is a collision of men.

N. D. Wilson is a Fellow of Literature at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, where he also serves as managing editor of Credenda/Agenda magazine. He is the author most recently of Dandelion Fire (Random House), the second volume in a trilogy for young readers.

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