Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Clinton Chisholm | Christopher Hitchens: an intellectual post-mortem?

Published:Saturday | July 23, 2016 | 7:00 AM
Christopher Hitchens
Clinton Chisholm
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"[Jerry Falwell] was a petty little charlatan and toad ... . I think it's a pity there's not a hell for him to go to." (Hitchens, 2007)

The book Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World's Most Notorious Atheist, 2016, by Larry Taunton, is a sensitive, respectful and riveting reflection on aspects of the life of an outspoken critic of Christianity and its God by a personal friend who happens to be a self-confessed Evangelical Christian.

To the horror of the followers of Hitchens and the consternation of not a few evangelical Christians in the USA, Taunton, founder of the Christian organisation called Fixed Point Foundation (FPF), and Christopher Hitchens were close personal friends. FPF specialises in producing recorded debates between Christians and sceptics, atheists, agnostics especially, and did several with Hitchens.

I was amazed to read that Hitchens and Taunton went on a few long road trips in the USA before and after Hitchens' diagnosis of oesophageal cancer, and at Hitchens' insistence, too! But get this: On one such trip after the diagnosis, both men engaged in a Bible study of John's gospel.

The trip was from Hitchens' D.C. apartment to Taunton's home in Birmingham, Alabama, and Hitchens' wife, Carol, and their daughter, Antonia, saw them off. Taunton, the driver, says, "Summer suit and Panama hat on, he kissed Carol goodbye, as Antonia and I put his things in the back of my Tahoe. In addition to a small suitcase were a picnic lunch and, predictably enough, Johnnie Walker [Black label] for a battalion. "Have you a copy of Saint John with you?" he asked with a smile. "If not you know I do actually have one." (p.120)

 

King James Version

 

Hitchens was partial to the language of the King James Version and owned a copy. Taunton had chided him two years earlier that he had not really read the Bible 'but only cherry-picked it' (p.120).

Hitchens had his whiskey glass 'nestled between his knees' and periodically drank and smoked along the way. "As I drove, Christopher read aloud from the first chapter of John's gospel. A marvellous reader with a marvellous voice, it all seemed a bit surreal ... . Atheist Christopher Hitchens, spectacles perched on his nose, was reading the Bible aloud in the front seat of my car." (p. 122)

I smiled when I read that on reaching John 11.25-26, mischief and mystery became married. The text reads: "Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this"

Hitchens, according to Taunton, voices remembrance of the text and says, "I did not recall its connection with the resurrection of Lazarus." Taunton says the text is great to which Hitchens says," Yes, dickens thought so," and then, taking his reading glasses off, he turns to me and asks: "Do you believest thou this, Larry Taunton" His sarcasm is evident, but it lacks its customary force.

"I do, but you already knew that I did. The question is, "Do you believest thou this, Christopher Hitchens" As if searching for a clever riposte, he hesitates and speaks with unexpected transparency: "I'll admit that it is not without appeal to a dying man" (p.168).

No, Taunton does not say that Hitchens proceeded to accept Jesus as his Lord and Saviour.

He does say, though, "There is no denying that at the time of his death, Christopher was, as now, best known for his atheism. And while this defined his public image, an intellectual post-mortem indicates that it is not the key to understanding him. This was, after all, the man who admitted to me that he had never read Richard Dawkins' best-seller The God Delusion; who regarded Sam Harris' utilitarianism 'a weak and untenable philosophy'; and who was disgusted by Peter Singer's advocacy of infanticide ... . Christopher did not die the leftist radical of his youth or the militant atheist of his adulthood." (pages 162 and 163)

I concur with atheist Michael Shermer, who says of Taunton's book on the book jacket, "This book should be read by every atheist and theist passionate about the truth."

- The Rev Dr Clinton Chisholm is a theologian. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and clintchis@yahoo.com.