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Douglas Wilson

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

Contrarian to the end?

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So the biographical element has to do with two dramatic turnings in his life. There were (of course) inconsistencies and contradictions associated with these turnings, but they were still highly visible for all that. The first was his turn away from the political left in the aftermath of 9/11, and his resultant and very public support for George Bush and the "war on terror." This resulted in Christopher being thrust out of his leftist bubble, whereupon he discovered that not all conservatives were idiots. They had better not be, since Christopher was associated with them now.

The second turning followed his publication of God Is Not Great, his famous anti-religion screed. Christopher, to his credit, asked his publicist to arrange for the publicity tour for the book to be one in which he took on all comers in debate. Rather than release the book at some Manhattan soirée, the kind of event that is sufficiently godless already, Christopher issued a challenge saying that he would debate anybody who wanted to debate him. This is how Taunton came to meet Christopher—having arranged a debate between him and John Lennox. Later on Taunton himself came to debate him, and acquitted himself quite well in it. But how is it a "turning" when a notorious atheist simply continues on with his atheism, throwing down the gauntlet for believers to pick up? How is an atheist publishing an atheist rant a turning?

One of the things that Taunton's book makes very clear is that Christopher issued this challenge with mixed motives. One was for the sake of the debates themselves, the kind of event that Christopher "liked having," and that part was plain enough to everyone. But the other motive was that it enabled him to associate with Christians in a way that would simply be impossible otherwise. If you are the enfant terrible of atheism, you can't just start going to Bible studies. It would arouse comment. Your atheist fan club would go sideways. In fact, as The Faith of Christopher Hitchens makes clear, Christopher had to do a lot of explaining even with the ingenious cover he had.

The challenge to debate all comers is how I got to meet Christopher as well. My son-in-law was at that time getting his DPhil at Oxford, and during one of our periodic visits over there, we got acquainted with Peter and Eve Hitchens—delightful Christian people, by the way—who were friends with our daughter and son-in-law. We hit it off, and a few weeks later, my agent responded to Christopher Hitchens' challenge by contacting Christianity Today to see if they would be interested in an online debate between Christopher and me, which they were. Christopher then agreed, and we were off. So within the space of a few weeks, I was engaged with both Peter and Christopher in ways that were completely unrelated. It was almost as if there was a higher power at work. My online interactions with Christopher resulted in a book (Is Christianity Good for the World?) and then a documentary (Collision) was made about our book-release tour together. Part of that involved Christopher and me flying from New York to Philadelphia in a helicopter. I remember telling Christopher that my faith in God was obviously genuine because I was getting into that thing with him. In all these interactions, the same kinds of things were going on with us that Larry Taunton records. As Taunton writes his experiences, I can hear the timbre of Christopher's voice.

And this book is pitch perfect. For anyone interested in Christopher Hitchens' life, this book is a necessary one. For those who have had only a passing acquaintance with his writing, this book will nevetheless be fascinating. Students of apologetics could benefit from it. Ministers will be strengthened and evangelists encouraged. I still have some superlatives left, so I will simply conclude by saying that I wish more Christian books were like this one. Top drawer.

While Christopher would treat certain private things very publicly, he was also very reticent about other things. He really did keep two sets of books. After he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life, in late 2010 I emailed him a brief note, but one that contained a lengthy attachment. I told him that I would not ever know if he read it or not, but that I wanted him to have it. On the one hand, I did not want to harry or harass him. I said, "The fact that someone has a life-threatening cancer ought not to be taken as an open invitation for Christians to act like aluminum siding salesmen on commission." But on the other hand, I told him it would be a shame if he didn't read it because it contained some "really fine prose," as in, some "hot stuff." In that attachment, I laid out the gospel as plainly as I knew how, addressed to him personally, in his condition.

No one is saved because we think it would be grand if they were. Good wishes and pious guesses cannot cleanse what only the blood of Christ can cleanse—and the blood of Christ does nothing for the unrepentant. But from my interactions with Christopher, I did know that it was quite possible I had an attentive audience. From Larry Taunton's book I have received the additional encouragement of knowing that the audience was clearly more attentive than I knew.

Douglas Wilson is pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and a faculty member at New Saint Andrews College.

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