Without a Hitch: But Did He Convert? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Without a Hitch: But Did He Convert?

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist
By Larry Alex Taunton
(Nelson Books, 201 pages, $14.99)

It’s legitimate to ask why any writer or reader would be interested in the faith of Christopher Hitchens, or to suspect he had any faith or mission in life other than to épater la bourgeoisie while making a few bob doing it. (With Western culture more or less a smoking ruin these days — and the vandals chipping away at what’s left — la bourgeoisie ain’t so easy to épater anymore.) Larry Alex Taunton answers that question in this stimulating and well-wrought short read.

There’s a fairly small audience, on either side of the Atlantic, for what folks in the peculiar occupation of public intellectual have to say or write. But Hitchens, who was born a middle-class Brit in Portsmouth but became an American citizen, managed to make both a name for himself and a more than decent living as an author, magazine journalist, columnist, lecturer, and debater (not the parallel press conferences that we call debates over here during political seasons, but real Oxford Union type debates).

Hitchens adopted the persona of the articulate and slightly cranky enfant terrible, contrarian, and disturber of the peace. Even the New York Times, whose readers could be expected to be more sympathetic to Hitchens’s body of work than readers of The American Spectator, referred to Hitchens in its obit as pursuing “a dual career as political agitator and upper class sybarite.” Just so.

The prolific Hitchens, who died in 2011 at 62 from esophageal cancer, wrote 24 books, his best known and most commercially successful being 2007’s God Is Not Great. In it, Hitchens gives a forceful presentation of the atheism that he declared when he was 15 and stuck with throughout his life. He was rarely more rampant than when excoriating religion in general and Christianity and Christians in particular. Living through a century in which hundreds of millions died at the hands of secular political delusions such as communism and fascism, Hitchens continued to believe, or at least insisted that he believed, that it was religion that mucked everything up.

Throughout his career Hitchens was a limousine liberal (the limousine came later on Hitchens’s earnings — his father was a Royal Navy officer with no family money), though the Brits would probably use the label champagne socialist. Throughout his career, Hitchens described himself as a socialist and a Marxist, though when the money started rolling in he showed a keen enjoyment of the goods that no Marxist economy has ever produced. He whooped up the concerns of the poor but showed a distinct distaste for their company. You couldn’t get Hitchens into a restaurant that had plastic menus, or didn’t have white table cloths. He considered all but the most expensive liquors — of which he was vastly fond — as paint stripper, unworthy of his attention. He was most comfortable among capitalist swells and the comforts they produce. A dreary hypocrisy for sure, but one he was hardly alone in.

Credit where credit is due. When not being a provocateur — Mother Teresa was just a self-promoter, Henry Kissinger was a war criminal, Prince Charles is a jug-eared dumbhead (OK, maybe he got that last one right) — or not flogging one of his leftist delusions, Hitchens could be a fine, amusing, and insightful writer. Just a couple of his essays to recommend: “Evelyn Waugh: The Permanent Adolescent,” and “P.G. Wodehouse: The Honorable Schoolboy.” Even in his card-carrying leftist days, Hitchens enjoyed being a contrarian in the fold. I’m sure humorless feminists didn’t care for “Why Women Aren’t Funny.”

Comes now Taunton, an evangelical Christian, a pretty fair writer, public speaker and debater himself, to deconstruct Hitchens. Deconstruct is probably not the right word, as Taunton, unlikely as it may seem considering their disparate backgrounds, enjoyed a friendship with Hitchens. He was able to ferret out positive qualities in the man that might not have been obvious to those following Hitchens’s public career, especially those he savaged in debate or in print.

The qualities Taunton would like his readers to know about include a talent for friendship, loyalty, and an intellectual honesty. These qualities may have been late arriving, as the Taunton/Hitchens friendship covered the last years of Hitchens’ life, most of it after Hitchens had been diagnosed and knew he did not have much time left. And listening to a young Hitchens abusing argument to support the Gospel According to the Left, honesty is not the first word that springs to mind.

Taunton, founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the public defense of Christianity, met Hitchens on the debate trail, and the odd couple cemented their friendship on two long road trips together — one from Hitchens’s home in Washington, D.C. to Taunton’s home in Birmingham, Alabama, the other through Yellowstone National Park. During these trips the two men, an evangelical Christian and an atheist, read aloud and discussed the Gospel of John. Hitchens, who read literature at Oxford, has always been impressed with the literary quality and poetry of the King James Bible, but not with it at all as revelation.

The question Taunton poses, but does not answer in his book, is whether at the end Hitchens had decided that Christianity had some merit after all. Or even after a lifetime of disbelief might convert at the end. The events of 9/11/01 had certainly caused an abrupt change in Hitchens’s political point of view. The reflexive socialistic, blame-America-and-the-West-first leftism was replaced by support for America’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The man skeptical of all religions could make distinctions among them, and had a clear-eyed view of the evil and danger of radical Islam. So if there had been such a political change of heart, could there be a religious conversion as well?

There certainly is no record of a deathbed or any other kind of Hitchens conversion. To be fair to potential readers, I find Taunton’s case for the possibility of a conversion pretty thin. To be fair to Taunton, Hitchens was a complex man and made it a lifetime habit not to be pinned down. And Taunton didn’t see Hitchens in the 14 months before Hitchens went on.

Even readers who think Taunton’s hope of winning Hitchens over for God was quixotic can enjoy Taunton’s very well-written memoir of friendship with a man of extraordinary intellectual and verbal skills, but far less than the cuddliest of human beings. And memoir is the right word, not biography, even though Taunton walks readers through much of Hitchens’s life.

And what a life it was. The undersized public school boy who was beaten and bullied learned to use words as weapons and to become a bit of a forensic bully himself, and, this is the tricky part, to make it pay. He was always very ambitious. And, for all the intellectual charges and specifications that can be levied against Hitchens, especially the young Hitchens, those who take Taunton’s trip will discover that he was a good deal more than just a leftist gymnast.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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