I’m pleased to publish this guest post by Samuel D. James. You can learn more about him in his bio at the end of this post.
Larry Taunton, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. Thomas Nelson, 2016. 201 pp. $24.99.
“If Christopher Hitchens didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to invent him.” That blurb of praise from the novelist Ian McEwan may have helped to sell published collections of essays, but it turns out to be more true than its source perhaps intended. The late journalist and New Atheist kingpin was not entirely what he appeared to be, and that is the story that Christian apologist Larry Taunton sets out to tell in The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.
Taunton’s remarkable book is neither a salacious tell-all nor a craven attempt to plant a religious flag on “Hitch’s” legacy; both secularists looking for hagiography and believers seeking vindication will be disappointed. On the other hand, readers who want a remarkable account of the intellectual and—yes—spiritual journey of one of religion’s fiercest and ablest critics will be delighted. McEwan was prescient; only God could have invented someone like Christopher Hitchens.
Taunton and Hitchens first met shortly after the publication of the latter’s vitriolic and widely popular God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The story of Taunton and Hitchens’s astonishing and often moving friendship is the heart and soul of The Faith, but Taunton spends much of the first part of his book inside Hitchens’s autobiographical—and perhaps pseudo-autobiographical—testimonies. Taunton frequently casts doubts as to his subject’s honesty. Sometimes this is interesting and revealing, but other times it feels a bit too much like Freudian cross-examination. Whether Hitchens read Marx as a child and whether he was really “contrarian” at boarding school receive more than their fair share of inquest.
The key point in Taunton’s tour of Hitchens’s early years is the idea of duality. Hitchens “kept two books” of his own self, and developed a lifelong interest in keeping his public persona and private nature clearly separated. Citing Hitchens himself, Taunton discerns an unmistakably divided mind in the boy rebel:
…Christopher also uses the phrase “keeping two sets of books” in other contexts, shedding light on later transformations. At The Leys School, for instance, he complains of being made to “sit through lessons in the sinister fairy tales of Christianity,” but then remarks that “I can’t pretend that I hated singing the hymns or learning the psalms, and I enjoyed being in the choir and was honored when asked to read from the lectern on Sundays.”
It is here, interesting enough in the context of religion, where Christopher first mentions the notion of keeping two sets of books. Note that all of these feelings—the hating, the enjoying, and the sense of honor—are all held concurrently and sincerely. In one book, we might say that he recorded his disdain for this “sinister” religion; but in the other book, he confessed to loving aspects of it. (31-32)
Is Taunton making too much of childish bipolarity? Perhaps. But this anecdote, from Hitchens’ own memoir, may very well shed a light on an astonishing moment, decades later, when the atheist would suddenly recite the first chapter of John’s gospel from memory. The man who thundered that religion had poisoned everything was never fully able—and perhaps never fully willing—to exorcise it from his own mind.
Hitchens’s “two books” were radically opposed and irresistibly magnetized. They are as close and yet far apart as Hitchens himself was from his nominally Anglican but militantly English father, a relationship that galvanized the younger Hitchens’s intense dislike and distrust of institutional (read: political) faith (42). The evolution of this “contrarian” identity gets further reflection from his younger brother, Christian journalist Peter Hitchens, in a tender and often sad chapter devoted to the two men’s rickety relationship.
The portrait of personal and intellectual life that Taunton composes demands comparison to that of another English intellectual: C.S. Lewis. Hitchens and Lewis both endured brutality at the hands of boarding schools, and both were sent there by fathers who seemed unable to emotionally connect with them. Like Lewis, Hitchens’s atheism appeared, then flourished, in a culture of academic rigor and religious hypocrisy. Hitchens loved ideas because they could be weapons, and Lewis loved them because they could be beautiful. Both of these English atheists were sons of Christendom, rebelling against its civil religion with reason and passion. And just as Lewis could trace his spiritual transformation back to a late night talk with J.R.R. Tolkien, so too could Hitchens identify a singular moment of intellectual “conversion”: September 11, 2001.
If Lewis’ midnight garden talk convinced him that “true myth” was the faith he was looking for, we might say that 9/11 persuaded Christopher Hitchens that he had believed merely myths. It was that day, and the Western world’s bloody awakening to jihad, that transformed Hitchens from a stalwart of Marxist ideology to an unlikely neoconservative. This moment, writes Taunton, signaled the beginning of Hitchens’ greatest intellectual and personal evolutions.
Hitchens soon discovered that his previous intellectual-political enemies, the conservatives, were his allies. Even more, and much to the confusion and indignation of his previous friends on the Left and to his own surprise, Christopher found that those whom he had previously written off were becoming not just his allies against radical Islam, not just his fellow patriots, but his new friends.
These new friendships forced him to think more deeply about everything. If he was wrong about those on the Right…then about what else might he have been mistaken? (78)
As Taunton quickly notes, it was six years later that Hitchens would publish God Is Not Great. September 11 may not have been have been Hitchens’s Damascus Road moment, but it did much to disarm his innate hostility to those outside his ideological family tree. By pivoting to the right on terror, Hitchens was forced to doubt the categorical identity politics that so often dominate American discourse. This doubt—this shaken faith in the inherited doctrines of the Left—created the space into which Christian friendship, and Taunton himself, entered.
At the center of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is Taunton’s fascinating, frequently funny accounts of their friendship. Of course, the danger of such posthumous accounts is that they necessarily must stand uncontested. Would Hitch provide us with an alternate version of the night he was too drunk to go home? Possibly, but I have my doubts. Even if one is disinclined to trust Taunton’s memory, it is impossible to dispute that Hitchens himself trusted him. That is why it is wise, I think, to believe the author as he tells of Hitchens’s gaping astonishment at why anyone would adopt an HIV-positive daughter, or of the atheist’s intense hatred of those who feigned piety for profit (“I’m convinced he’s an atheist,” he told Taunton about Al Sharpton), or, perhaps most fascinatingly, of his annoyance with fellow New Atheists (a quotation about Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion is an anecdote to treasure).
The power of Taunton’s story is in its simplicity. Hitchens never became a different man. Even as he was studying Scripture in road trips with evangelicals, he was admonishing those closest to him to disbelieve any possibility of a “deathbed” conversion. Two books, two selves, a living antithesis disguised as a brilliant and sarcastic Brit. Taunton has revealed the authentic Hitchens, the one that defies veneration as a secular saint. It’s a portrait that needed to be revealed, and Taunton has revealed it with truth and grace.
What Taunton accomplishes here is marvelous, equally for what it is not as much as it what it is. It is not the melodrama of an unbeliever humbled to submission by either his reading or his inner demons. Neither is Taunton’s work a shrine to the value of apologetics. Rather, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is that most difficult, and most valuable, of memoirs: A record of virtue and of vice, of faith and faithlessness. Taunton has provided us with sincere and moving evidence of what Augustine knew long ago, that the heart is restless until it rests in Christ. It is impossible to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens and not grieve that such a mind and such a heart did not (to all available evidence) finally rest in its Maker. Perhaps that is Taunton’s greatest achievement: He makes us want, zealously, for Christopher Hitchens to believe.
Samuel D. James serves in the office of the President at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Read his personal blog and follow him on Twitter.