When he died in 2011, at the age of 62, Christopher Hitchens was the most famous atheist alive. He was also one of the nastiest, having risen to these heights of fame with an international best-seller alternately mocking and excoriating believers under the title: God Is Not Great - How religion poisons everything. (A less venomous, more credible prospectus for a book would have been “How deceitful and corrupt human beings poison religion.”) Christopher Hitchens was also a man of contradictory impulses, and this same polemical malevolence co-existed in him with a graciousness that he could direct – not always but not infrequently - towards ideological enemies, allowing him to form relationships, and even friendships, with the most unlikely bedfellows. (Full disclosure, I am an agnostic and former radical who has also written a memoir of Christopher, a man I knew intermittently for fifty years, and as a friend for the last decade of his life.)
Larry Taunton is the author of a new and deeply appreciative memoir called The Faith of Christopher Hitchens:The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. Taunton is a well-known evangelical Christian whose Fixed Point Foundation organized some of Christopher’s debates with religious adversaries during the final crusade he undertook to slay the dragons of religion, and to refute defenders of the idea that belief in a divinity can open the door to a redeeming faith.
Did Hitchens himself have a faith, as the title of Taunton’s book suggests? Of course he did. An Oscar Wilde mot that Taunton cites and that Hitchens was exceptionally fond of was that a map of the world without Utopia on it was not worth consulting. Like other romantics, Hitchens was inspired for most of his life by a revolutionary faith in a future transformation of the world as we know it. When his faith in the socialist future waned, he replaced it with a faith that reason could be the foundation of a more rationale and humane world order. Hence the crusade against what he regarded as superstitious, reactionary belief.
Because Taunton’s foundation organized some of Hitchens’ debates, the two spent precious time alone together during the long drives from Hitchens’ home in Washington to the venues in Alabama and Montana where the intellectual contests took place. Because the two men were intensely interested in ideas and in each other, the trips resulted in long and intimate conversations about themselves, atheism and Christian belief. Because Hitchens was a man of catholic interests who kept “double books” – which is the way he described his inner contradictions and paradoxical engagements - he allowed Taunton to lead him in a bible study of the New Testament. The result is a remarkable, closely observed memoir of their intellectual encounters, which anyone who has been enchanted or enraged by Hitchens – or both – will not want to miss.
Taunton is an unusually sensitive man and an unusually honest and diligent writer, points that need emphasis because the God debate has aroused such ideological passions that even this circumspectly observed memoir has been dragged into the maelstrom to its detriment. “Of all that can transpire in a bedroom,” begins the New York Times review of Taunton’s book, “nothing can be as titillating to the religious, or those of us who write about them, as a dying man’s conversion. Oscar Wilde’s deathbed baptism remains a coup for the Roman Catholic Church 116 years later, and an embarrassment for those who cherish his legacy of hedonism….The latest controversy about a late-in-life religious turn involves Christopher Hitchens, one of the world’s most prominent atheists. Unsurprisingly, evangelicals have celebrated the book, while some of Mr. Hitchens’s secular friends have winced.”
One of those secular friends cited by the Times is the Marxist editor and literary agent, Steve Wasserman, who is also an executor of Hitchens’s estate. Wasserman, who had not even read the book when interviewed, described Taunton’s work as “a shabby business” in which “unverifiable conversations” are made to “contradict everything Christopher Hitchens ever said or stood for.” This is shameless invention to grind an ideological ax – nothing could be further from the truth. Along with the Times’s innuendos Wasserman’s statement performs a great disservice not only to this remarkable little book, but to fans of Hitchens who might be discouraged from reading it.
The author of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens never for a moment believed that Hitchens, whom he affectionately refers to as “Christopher,” converted. He wanted Christopher to convert because he loved him as a friend and because as a Christian he believed that if Christopher did not convert he would be lost forever and the two of them could never be reunited. But he never once concludes that Christopher did convert. This is the way Taunton ends his book: “For me, the debates, the late-night discussions, and the Bible studies conducted in the front seat of my car were never about winning or losing an argument. Let the bloggers and the people in online forums fight that out … I didn’t need Christopher’s conversion to feel good about myself or to reinforce a flagging faith in the claims of Jesus Christ. I have never doubted them. No, for me it was always about the struggle for his soul because I believe this verse: ‘I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.’”
The rich rewards readers of Taunton’s memoir will reap are an affectionate portrait of a remarkable man at the end of his life, drawn by a religious adversary with an open heart; an informed examination of Christopher’s relationships with his conservative father and liberal mother, and with his atheist-turned-Christian and radical-turned-conservative brother, Peter, along with thoughtful reflections on the way they each influenced Christopher and illuminate his complexities. Finally it is a testament of one man’s religious creed, and his view that grace is the core belief of a Christian faith. Each and all of these elements serve to make Taunton’s book a literary gem, which no honest reader could mistake for an ideological tract.