I was planning to read Larry Taunton’s The Faith of Christopher Hitchens before reading Samuel’s review for us. His review made me push it to the top of my “too read” list. And then I got the thing and read it over two days, such was my delight with it. I’m not sure I recall the last time a book I expected to like enormously still far surpassed my expectations of it.
Samuel’s review (linked above) is where you should start, but if you need further encouragement to get thee hence to a bookstore to pick up a copy, hopefully I can provide the incentive to do so. And so here are three lessons I’ve taken from Taunton’s marvelous book; none of these are particularly earth-shaking, but it is still nonetheless fascinating to see how these things play out in the life of one of the world’s most famous atheists.
Never assume what a person does or does not know.
One of the most interesting moments in the book came when Hitchens was speaking with Taunton and professor John Lennox about the evils perpetrated by Orthodox Christians in eastern Europe. Here’s the relevant section:
Christopher’s hatred for Catholicism cannot be overstated. He also hated the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches. These were, in his view, not so much religious institutions as they were politically oppressive bureaucracies dedicated to nothing more than their own earthly power. His antipathy for them was real and lifelong, but it would be a mistake to assume that this attitude extended to the whole of Christianity.
Once again, we were sitting in a restaurant. It was late, past midnight, and this time the conversation included Professor John Lennox. Earlier that evening, Lennox and Hitchens had debated one another in front of an audience of college students. Now, appropriately, the debate continued offstage. “Christopher, do you really think that you are undermining our position with references to stuff like that?” Lennox asked incredulously. “I don’t doubt that the stories are true. I could add more stories of my own to the ones you have told. But they are not the actions of genuine Christians.” “You don’t consider the Orthodox Church Christian?” Hitchens seemed confident in the response he would get. “Well, it’s not about this or that denomination or what we consider Christian or not Christian,” I began slowly, looking at Lennox. “It’s really a question of ‘What does the Bible say?’”
At this, Hitchens sat up, totally astonished. Apparently, this was not the answer he expected. He turned to Lennox and gestured at me. “Do you agree with that, Professor?” “I do,” Lennox declared. “Christ forbad the very actions you are calling ‘Christian’!” The word forbad, evocative of early English translations of the Bible and spoken as it was, with an Irish accent, caused me to briefly imagine Saint Patrick thundering from a pulpit long ago. “Christ was even more resolute in his opposition to hypocrisy, exploitation, and the use of violence to promote his message than you are, Christopher.” Lennox reached for his water glass, but it was empty. “Perhaps you should be one of his followers?” he added, putting the glass down.
One of the mistakes we can easily make as we talk about the faith with those outside the church is to assume they know a certain fact or have heard a certain argument. As I was reading the conversation it honestly didn’t even occur to me to go where Taunton goes in the conversation, not because I didn’t think of that line of argumentation, but because I assumed that someone like Hitchens would have heard it and would have countered with some line about the problem of interpreting Scripture and how different groups read the Bible in different ways. (In hindsight, that actually doesn’t seem like the sort of argument someone like Hitchens would go for.) But Taunton goes to what seemed far too obvious a place to me and it surprised Hitchens and moved the conversation forward.
As the west becomes even more biblically and theologically illiterate than we already are, I suspect this is going to be an important point to keep in mind. The language of scripture and especially the language of the King James Bible is too hard wired into our language for us to lose this legacy entirely. However, it is also true that many of our neighbors reject Christianity for reasons other than “I know what it teaches and think it’s false.” Those other reasons for rejecting it are not necessarily invalid as reasons, but it’s important that we note this point all the same. Every time a person goes the full Bartlett and starts talking about shellfish in the Old Testament, you can be relatively confident they don’t know their Bible—or at least that they’ve never read Acts 10.
Two things follow from this:
- First, we desperately need, as Christian believers, to be biblically and theologically literate enough to speak intelligently about our faith. This means we need to be reading our Bibles and we need to be reading theology as well.
- Second, we shouldn’t make any assumptions about what a person does or does not know about the faith. If someone like Hitchens can be surprised by such basic argumentation as that quoted above, then so too will many of our peers and neighbors outside the church.
Courage met with love can accomplish much.
There’s one scene in the book where Hitchens, who by this point is dying of cancer, asks Taunton why he thinks Hitchens doesn’t believe. Taunton’s answer is remarkable. First, he asks Hitchens if he really wants to know. Hitchens says he does. Taunton then says that he thinks the cost of conversion is one Hitchens is unwilling to pay as a world-famous atheist.
It’s a hard word, but Hitchens doesn’t dispute it, nor does he break off the relationship in anger at Taunton’s remark. In fact, he goes on a second trip with him after Taunton said this to him. (This story bears some resemblance to that told about Albert Camus in this old piece at CT.)
Later, after this conversation, they would appear together at a debate in Montana where Hitchens would say this of Taunton:
If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton had, we’d be living in a much better society than we do.
What Hitchens found so compelling about Taunton, I imagine, is likely similar to what he found compelling in another of his Christian interlocutors, pastor Doug Wilson. In both cases he met men who really did believe and who also really did care about him. Taunton was clear with Hitchens that he was more concerned with winning him than he was with winning the debate. And this honesty is a thing that Christopher respected.
One of the besetting sins of younger evangelicals, it seems to me, is that we lack precisely this sort of courage. (I will hopefully say more on this in the near future in connection to Alastair’s essay we published earlier this week.) We, or most of us at least, grew up in churches that were either fundamentalist or evangelical in the way so common in the 1990s, given to a strange sort of mimicry of popular culture that led to the sort of Christian kitsch that many millennial Christians now find so embarrassing. As such, we desperately want our non-Christian peers to recognize that we’re not one of those Christians.
In one sense, there can be something good in this instinct. Removing unnecessary obstacles that would prevent someone from hearing the Gospel message is generally a good thing to do. That said, the trouble is that this desire often comes from a sort of cravenness that renders us speechless at the sight of a slightly raised eyebrow from one of our non-Christian peers. Hitchens loathed this sort of cowardice and he admired the way that Taunton and Wilson were not burdened by it.
I cannot recall if the line came in a column or in his book, but Ross Douthat said that Christians should not be surprised by unexpected resurrection. When he said it, Douthat was thinking of the future of the church in America, but the line has broader application as well. If we believe that a man rose from the dead, then surely we can believe that a man like Hitchens (or Camus) could come to faith.
To be sure, Taunton is very clear that he is not claiming anything like that of Hitchens. By all accounts, Hitchens died an unbeliever. The possibility Taunton raises in his book is not that he had a death-bed conversion, but that the man was far more complex than his public persona would suggest. These complexities, in turn, introduce a certain degree of ambiguity and maybe even doubt about how Hitchens publicly spoke about his lack of belief. The point, then, is not that we should think one thing or another about Hitchens faith, but that we should recognize the great complexities of the man and, as Dumas put it, remember that all human wisdom is summed up in two words—”wait” and “hope.”