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Douglas Wilson

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

Contrarian to the end?

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The title of this book is quite provocative, inviting a potential reader to be unsure what he is going to think about it. Everyone knows that Christopher Hitchens was the champeeeen professional wrestler of atheism—no less aggressive than one of those guys, and quite a bit more articulate. So what could possibly be meant by the faith of Christopher Hitchens? Faith? What faith?

Was this going to be the evangelical equivalent of a kiss-and-tell? A witness-and-tell? Breathless inaccuracies about a death-bed conversion? Or perhaps it would be a self-serving promotion of an apologetics ministry from a Hitchens platform. How well behaved were the Christians in this book intending to be? As indicated, when I picked it up, I was quite prepared to be interested, but didn't exactly know what I was going to think about it.

But now I do know what I think of this book, and I am concerned that I might exhaust my supply of superlatives. This book was written by a man who knows God, knows his Bible, knows the way the world works, and knew Christopher Hitchens. This book is simply outstanding. There, my first superlative.

Larry Taunton meticulously makes his case and does so from the published works of Hitchens himself, his public statements, and Taunton's eyewitness testimony. And as far as the eyewitness testimony goes, I can say that his account rings completely true. The man he traveled with and debated is the same man that I traveled with and debated.

So Taunton makes his case superbly, but what is his case exactly? Whatever else it was, the word daunting needs to enter into it. To begin with, Taunton—very deftly in my view—deals with the legitimate concern that a book like this is in dubious taste. "I did not want to betray any confidences the way it seems friends and acquaintances of celebrities so often do." At the same time, Christopher had been excruciatingly open (which is not necessarily the same thing as being honest) about many matters that are usually kept private, and so if we are going to talk at all about Christopher Hitchens with any degree of integrity, then it will take someone as fair-minded as Larry Taunton to do it.

Taunton exhibits a real affection for Christopher as a man, leaves certain things unaddressed for specified reasons, refuses to airbrush out the marked blemishes he does address, and does everything in the light of the gospel of grace. Fewer things are sadder than the death of a defiant atheist, without hope and without God in the world, and yet Larry Taunton tells this melancholy story wonderfully, with truth in his right hand and hope in his left. I can't imagine anyone doing this better.

The observations that Taunton makes about Christopher's "relationship" to God are dependent on two basic facts—one psychological and the other biographical or historical. The psychological one is the open pride that Christopher took in keeping "two sets of books"—one for his public life and the other for his private life. So let's begin with that.

Taunton dedicates a separate chapter to the theme of these "two sets of books." One of Hitchens' published works was entitled Letters to a Young Contrarian, and the contrarian streak in him is generally well known. That much is expected. It goes without saying that Hitchens would be a contrarian toward whatever he thought were the "smelly little orthodoxies" that Orwell once wrote about. He could outrage the faithful by attacking Mother Teresa, to take one famous example. But he could also from time to time keep the orthodox unbelievers on his own team off balance.

Taunton discusses, for example, an essay entitled "When the King Saved God," in which Hitchens extravagantly praised the King James Version of the Bible—"he loves the language of the Tyndale and King James translations, and loathes any attempts at modernizing it." (p. 32). As it happens, as one who loves the King James myself, after that piece appeared, I wrote Christopher and thanked him for it. He wrote back, "I'm so pleased that you liked it. There are gold standards, and they hold their value." This was the predictable contrarian—an atheist praising the King James Version of the Bible. Take that.

But (keeping the idea of two books in mind) Hitchens was also a contrarian to himself. His public persona was contradicting the conventional views he found all around him, conventional believers and unbelievers both, but that public persona was also contradicting a much more reflective Christopher, one who was considering certain ultimate questions much more carefully than he could afford to let on. As Peter Hitchens once told me, the reason Christopher's city walls were so heavily armed, bristling with weaponry, was that if you ever got past those walls there were no defenses from there to the city center.

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