05 Jun The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, by Larry Alex Taunton, reviewed
My dear friend, Brian Mattson, a Christian apologist and thinker in is own right, alerted me some time back to a book he had received a preview copy of that deeply impacted him. When my group of inner circle friends shares a book recommendation with each other, let alone word of a stellar and compelling book not even in the marketplace yet, Amazon’s cash register rings. If my friends ever wanted to push Amazon’s stock higher all they would have to do is email me the name of 10,000 books I “just had to read”, as rest assured that massive order would get placed. In this case, the book that so moved Mattson was The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton, and as Brian forecasted, I just had to read it all the way through.
My interest in the subject of Christian apologetics, the radical new atheism of the last decade, and indeed, Christopher Hitchens himself, are no small things. My late father was no slouch himself in the world of apologetics or debate against atheism, and one of the tormenting regrets of my life is that my father died in 1995, as opposed to 2008 or 9, depriving the world of his chance to defend the faith against the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, etc. A philosophically cogent and theologically uncompromised defense of the faith is one of the great passions of my life, and much of what the radical atheism of the last decade did was expose how weak so much passing as “Christian apologetics” really was. The fine work of Taunton and his Fixed Point Foundation have continued the cause of a defense of the hope that is in us, and I was naturally intrigued by a book detailing Taunton’s relationship with the famed atheist, Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens himself has always been a source of great interest to me, initially because of his vile hatred for my beloved Ronald Reagan, then for his incredible role in exposing the deep evil of the Bill and Hillary Clinton cabal. Before his post-9/11 conversion (not to the faith, but to the side that recognizes the reality of good and evil in the world), I was stunned at a late 1990’s interview I watched with Hitchens on the old Dennis Miller HBO show, in which he tore to pieces a statist restaurant patron who didn’t believe a restaurant owner had the right to set his or her own smoking policies, Christopher was ruthless to all sorts of ideological opponents. I brought Christopher out to Newport Beach for a large debate with Dinesh D’Souza and Dennis Prager in 2008, a sort of three-way affair that I will comment on more later. Hitchens was, for me, the most talented writer in the angry left, which already made him compelling, and then after 9/11 he became one of the more intellectually intriguing voices in that movement, daring to tell Bill Maher’s audience that “jokes about George Bush’s IQ are the kind of jokes that stupid people have learned to laugh at.” He infuriated his fellow elitist colleagues for (a) not joining the chorus of those blaming America for 9/11, but (b) Lambasting the moral atrocity of doing such. Hitchens was an enigma. He also was a raging alcoholic. And he also was a truly tormented soul. So yes, I am intrigued by Hitchens.
It is perhaps an unsurprising and certainly ghastly development that the atheist disciples of today are so offended by Taunton’s book. What he has done in this masterful little book is walk readers through the documented story of Christopher’s life (using almost entirely Christopher’s own words and writings), and then walked us through their intense time together. He writes charitably, he speaks openly, and he portrays intimately a really intriguing relationship. No reader could possibly read Taunton’s book and infer a nefarious motive on his part, and it is extreme false witness to claim that he implies a sort of deathbed conversion for the late Hitchens. I count over three dozen explicit denials that such did happen- reaffirmations from Taunton that Hitchens never publicly did such, and went to great lengths to make sure that the public would not believe he had. What Taunton did in this book is more threatening to the religious zealots of atheism – he demonstrated the incredible searching Hitehens was going through, and he explored the basis for Hitehens anger and rebellion against a God who had clearly blessed Christopher with extraordinary natural talent.
The casual observer of Hitchens life and atheistic testimony may have believed before reading this book that Christopher’s abusive drinking and disdain for so much of humanity was the result of some deep childhood pain, and I suppose there is no reason to disbelieve that after reading the book. It seems to always be the case with alcoholics that much of their abusive drinking is caused by deep-seated pain, and much of their deep-seated pain is caused by abusive drinking, and this little feedback loop continues until someone dies, either emotionally or physically. Or in Christopher’s case, perhaps both. Interestingly, Taunton doesn’t explore Christopher’s relationship with alcohol as a primary factor in the various developments of his adult life, but rather as an anecdotal part of the puzzle that was his emotional, spiritual, and intellectual journey. I doubt that it was merely anecdotal, but I may just be projecting. Regardless, Taunton gives a better explanation than any I have seen for how Christopher changed in the last ten years of his life: 9/11.
For Hitchens, the realization that political progressivism was morally bankrupt and intellectually fraudulent came in the aftermath of 9/11, where his own ilk were constitutionally incapable of seeing the clash of civilizations taking place right before their very eyes. He felt “horror, shock, and rage at the atrocities”, while his colleagues felt, well, an opportunity to side with the bad guys. The way in which Taunton walks us through this development in Hitchens life, and what it meant to him biographically and intellectually, is worth the price of the book many times over.
In reading the book it occurs to me that nothing repelled Hitchens against Christian theism more than those Christian theists unworthy of the name. I both laughed and cried in reading Hitchens undress the deplorable Rev. Al Sharpton as the fraudulent huckster he was and is, who after denying all Biblical revelation, received this tongue-lashing from Hitchens:
“This is a first for me. I’ve never yet met someone in holy orders who has said that the words of the holy books have nothing to do with God. I know there’s a lot of laxity in the church these days, but it seems to me I could have been pushing at a slightly more well-defended door.”
It is an indisputable theme of Hitchens life that he respected theists who actually believed the tenets of their ideology more than he did those weak timid souls who had not the conviction of their own faith. It actually always intrigued me that in the aftermath of the debate I hosted with Hitchens, he didn’t say a word to me about the merits of the arguments themselves from D’Souza (Christian) or Prager (Jew), but rather how stunned he was by what he perceived to be the inability of Prager and D’Souza to appreciate the incompatibility of their own positions with each other (in other words, he found D’Souza lacking in theological integrity for bring so amenable to the Jew on stage, and Prager for being so open to the Christian). The validity or invalidity of Hitchens beef is not my point; just the sincerity of his disappointment with those who didn’t stand behind their own professed convictions.
I won’t spoil the book or its compelling conclusion. You simply must read it. No atheistic Hitchens fan who worships at his altar should be offended by the book’s conclusion or the way in which its story gets told. And no Christian reader should be disappointed at the somewhat unsatisfactory ending of Hitchens angry and rebellious life. What the book does is tell the story of a gifted and blessed part of God’s creation, who had extraordinary impact on so many people in his orbit of influence, and who “carried two sets of books” on his life. His public and private personas were indeed different (and why should that be such a shock to us?). He was unable to join Peter Singer in his condoning of infanticide, but he also could not find reconciliation between the God of the Old and New Testament (many Christians have the luxury of reconciling the inconvenient truth that this is one and the same God by creating a split personality disorder for God, rather than doing the tough theological work to properly discern God’s covenantal revelation; Hitchens lacked a theological framework for reconciling what bothered him here, and of course, he had the greatest motivation any atheist could ever have for not closing the deal: the persistence of rebellious behavior).
I believe Taunton has done incredible work here for the curious student of Hitchens life, but more importantly for the atheist who actually encourages spiritual searching, and perhaps most so, for the Christian man and woman tasked with loving their neighbor, understanding unbelief, and steadfastly living a life of Christian apologetics.