Christopher Hitchens (Barging through the door while smoking a cigarette and drinking Johnnie Walker): The Archbishop of Canterbury has effectively endorsed the adoption of Sharia Law. Sharia means law. Seems redundant to say ‘Sharia Law’, doesn’t it? Anyway, can you believe that? The Archbishop! Whatever happened to a Church of England that believed in something?
Pastor Larry Taunton: Believed in something? Why, Christopher, you sound nostalgic for a church that actually took the Bible seriously.
Hitch: (Considering Taunton and smiling) Indeed. Perhaps I do.
So goes the first encounter that Pastor Taunton had with the legendary Hitchens in a hotel room in 2008. Their first meeting, ahead of a scheduled debate between Hitchens and John Lennox through Taunton’s organization Fixed Point Foundation, took place at the Edinburgh International Festival. Taunton interviewed Hitchens before the event which you can listen to right here. This began a most unlikely friendship and association between a fire-breathing atheist (atleast publicly) and an Evangelical Christian pastor.
The book begins with the scene of Hitchens’ funeral which Taunton described like a wedding but packed with stars and other celebrities. This being an affair described by the author as ‘a celebration of misanthropy, vanity, and excesses of every kind.’ An interesting parallel is that ‘Hitch-22’, Christopher’s autobiography, has the famed atheist beginning his story by talking about death.
The main thrust of Taunton’s book is that Hitchens, of course, was a bombastic atheist publically and hater of religion in general. However, Taunton boldly claims that Hitchens in private was different toward him and other Evangelical pastors (such as Douglas Wilson). His claims involve Hitchens probing about the nature of Taunton’s faith and even, according to Taunton, the consideration of becoming a Christian.
Contrary to reports, Taunton never makes the claim in the book that Hitch converted to Christianity or had a deathbed experience with God. Merely that Hitchens was thinking about the gospel of Jesus after the New Atheist was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Hitchens’ widow, Carol Blue, recounted that in the journalist’s last days the topic of God did not even come up.
Even though I disagree with Hitch on a wide variety of things both metaphysical and political, I would count myself as a fan of his. I have read 3 of his books: “God is Not Great” in the summer of 2008 and mostly in Discovery Park as I was living in Magnolia (Seattle neighborhood) at the time, “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America” where Hitch argues that Jefferson would have been an atheist if he had lived till 1859 (the year of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species”), and “Hitch-22” via audiobook when I was doing my rancid work commute from Edmonds to Kirkland and back again.
Naturally, I was curious about Taunton’s book and his unlikely friendship with Hitch. That is why I’m sad to report that “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” is not great. Taunton’s writing style didn’t capture me at times but what really annoyed me was, what appears on page to be his condescending attitude toward Hitch and his dismissive comments toward some of Hitch’s good friends. Taunton writes that author Salman Rushdie is “the serial blasphemer Salman Rushdie” and Hitch wrote often of Rushdie especially in his autobiography. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, is called “the smarmy little physicist Lawrence Krauss” and Stephen Fry is not a writer and actor (as is true in real life) but is a “homosexual activist”. All of this adding up to a snooty sounding piousness.
On top of that, all throughout the book, Taunton writes like a motherly lecturer against Hitch’s smoking and alcohol use. In a biography, we would definitely expect the author to describe the subject with as much accuracy as possible and Hitch certainly had his vices. However, the overwhelming use of moralizing language in regard to these vices moves the proceedings to sermonizing at points rather than trying to authentically describe his association with the New Atheist titan. (To be fair, Hitch did mention to Taunton that his daughter, Antonia, was mad at him because she felt his smoking and drinking directly corresponded to robbing her of further time with her dad. Hitch died from the cancer when he was 62 years old. These items would be in-bounds of course but Taunton spends to many other sentences driving this aspect of Hitch into the ground.)
In his chapter, “Honor Thy Father”, Taunton’s book turns into irrelevance for a portion. He seeks to psychoanalyze Hitch based on the atheist’s relationship with his father. A couple of points on this: 1) Taunton never knew Hitchens’ father (Eric Hitchens) whom Hitch called “Commander”. 2) Far better to read Hitch’s autobiography to hear the actual man describe his relationship with his father versus someone who may have been a friend but was also a business associate to a degree. 3) It will occur to the reader that most of the conclusions Taunton draws in the father chapter are pure speculation. He has no way of knowing if most of this stuff is true. 4) All of this seems to stray from Taunton’s stated purpose of his work which was describe his relationship with Hitch, not perform a Freudian analysis.
The next chapter finds Taunton dialoging about Hitch’s relationship with his younger brother Peter who is a Christian and member of the Church of England. Describing Peter Hitchens as a private individual, Taunton launches into a not-so-privatized discussion on how this relationship affected Hitch. Again, this seems to stray from the larger narrative which Taunton is attempting to craft.
There is an attempt by the author to make Christopher Hitchens into an American conservative (politically) entirely based on Hitch’s support for the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq. Hitch certainly recognized that radical Islam (he believed Hussein to be a radical Islamist) was a grave threat to the world and challenged many liberals on this point. He famously flipped off Bill Maher’s audience when they booed him for his support of the war. In his heart though (and this according to his autobiography), Hitchens was a Marxist and if he did soften on Marxism in the 2000s, he wrote in his autobiography that the Marxism of his youth came back to him in the wake of the housing crash in the fall of 2007.
Hitch’s politics were complicated further by his absolute disdain for famous Democratic politicians. JFK was a sociopathic narcissist who Hitch says he felt a sense of relief when Lee Harvey Oswald shot him. Bill Clinton was a ‘liar’ and a sellout whom Hitch accused of leaving gays behind (the defense of marriage act) and not having any adequate defense for women accusing him of rape and sexual harassment. While these statements may have warmed the hearts of political conservatives, like Taunton, they need to keep in mind Hitch’s view of religious conservatives as the epitome of hypocrites. The atheist notes in his autobiography that whenever he saw a conservative politician on television pontificating about morality he would make a note and set his watch waiting for the fall or the hypocrisy to be exposed. What I have come away with in reading Hitch is that, while he certainly had Marxist leanings, he was a rabid independent and critical thinker.
The readable parts of the book are back to, what I thought, was the original goal and that is Taunton describing what his friendship with Hitchens was like. Of course, they did the debates together but Taunton also gives us a glimpse into a road trip that he and Hitch took through the Shenandoah Valley on the way to a function. Both men had apparently been speaking about doing a Bible study of the gospel of John together. Hitch was sitting in the passenger seat with a cigarette in one hand, the Bible open to the gospel of John in another and his Johnnie Walker whiskey between his legs. We obtain insights into the conversation which at one point has Taunton describing that Hitchens put the Bible down and recited several John verses from memory. By reputation, he knew the Bible very well.
If the book has a strength, it is the descriptions of the encounters between Taunton and Hitchens. One particularly rich episode is on the road trip through the Shenandoah:
Their car was stopped by state troopers who were checking licenses and looking for drunk drivers. Hitchens had awoken from a nap, saw the patrol cars remembered the whiskey between his legs and exclaimed, ‘Oh, fuck!’ Their car was waved through and they were not stopped like others. Hitch had been diagnosed with cancer at this point.
Taunton: Christopher, I can’t help but see a fitting metaphor in this. Here you are, hurtling toward eternity with blinders on, and I fear that you will have a similarly startled reaction when you finally meet the God you say does not exist.
Hitchens: Why do you think I don’t believe?
Taunton: Do you really want to know?
Taunton: I think that you have established a global reputation as an atheist. It has come to define your public image. And it would take extraordinary courage to admit that you are wrong. I don’t envy that.
Hitchens: (saying nothing)
I wish Taunton would have stayed more focused on the friendship and conversations like these. A pity that he didn’t as there seemed to have been an interesting acquaintance between the two men. For me, I miss Hitchens’ writing and essays. If only he were around to comment on this 2016 presidential election and result. If only.