It is always an excellent time to write a sensational, controversial memoir about a public figure after his death, not before. The person is not there to defend himself. Larry Taunton is an avowed Christian and his book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is elegantly written and immensely readable. But, as compelling and compassionate as the book’s argument for Hitchens’ sudden private interest in Christianity is (in which Taunton even suggests that Hitchens considered converting to the Christian faith as he slowly died of terminal cancer), the tale has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Right up until he died, Hitchens never announced any chance of conversion and never changed his militant, atheist stance. For example, in his final months, on the subject of any possibility of his conversion, he is on televised record for saying “fuck that” in a public debate with distinguished clergy. And that is that.
Therefore, anything Taunton has to write on the matter is of interest only because the intelligent reader will want to know why and how Taunton would have the ‘facts’ seductively construed to view Hitchens as a trembling, prospective convert in private, and yet a scourge of religion in public. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, subtitled The restless soul of the world’s most notorious atheist, for all the polished prose and apparent compassion, says more about Larry Taunton than what he can only guess Hitchens’ private thoughts to have been. It says more about a man who, as politely and “gently” as he puts everything, still has an evangelical axe to grind.
Right from the beginning, Taunton keeps referring to Christopher Hitchens as “my friend”. You sense the friendship is special, almost intimate. The reader is seduced into believing that Taunton has some privy information about Hitchens, that they spent a lot of “off the record time” together. Fancy that: the avowed Christian and the avowed atheist kicking off their shoes and having deep, personal conversations.
However, a few chapters into the book you discover that they only met three years before Hitchens’ death. They also did not spend that much time together except for two road trips. This is both clever editing and bad editing. Halfway through the book the reader now has to reassess what this “friendship” is. But there Taunton is never clear. If it is an intimate friendship, then one would be compelled to take seriously Taunton’s alleged knowledge of his “friend”’s private life. However, if the book is read carefully, this is not so.
The image that Taunton wants us to have is of a forlorn Hitchens, nothing like his public image, hunched in the passenger seat on those long road trips with a bottle of whiskey between his knees, incessantly smoking (okay the cigarettes and whiskey are a part of the public image) and asking questions about Jesus, salvation, and reading with great interest the opening chapter of John’s gospel.
Here we are expected to believe that Hitchens was unable to distinguish between Christianity as institution, be they various churches such as the Catholic Church and the Church of England, and a simple, personal, Bible study in which guidance into the relationship between God and believer is made. That Hitchens did not know elementary biblical exegesis, such as the way the opening of John’s gospel deliberately echoes the opening passage of the Book of Genesis, or that John’s image of light is the light of salvation, and a moral light in the Stygian darkness and so forth.
This private Hitchens we are (compassionately and gently) presented with is a naïve and uninformed man. This “Hitch” knows a lot about the history of Christianity as institution (cold, non-spiritual, greedy, with political aspirations), and nothing of Christianity as a spiritual path. The story presented by Larry Taunton is seductive. However, it remains just that: a good, intriguing story with no proof. Such a colossal shift in the private man would have surely had its resonance in the forthright, fearless public figure whose comment on the possibility of a deathbed salvation was “fuck that”.
This is not to say the book is not an intriguing look at the historical context of the (unfortunate) polarity in the argument for and against God. Let me briefly put the book Taunton wrote into that context.
The public debate of no God versus there is God still rages on as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris et al continue to debate leading Christians and other religious figures. I sometimes enjoy the debates and miss Hitchens. Yet surely, as any viewer thinking about what he is watching and why he is watching it would agree, you know it is all a show. The circus is in town and it is a way of making money or to promote a book, such as God Is Not Great.
It is such fun to watch the seasoned minister groping for answers to difficult questions. Or Hitchens’ neat evasions as he turns to rhetorical humour or pretending his microphone is giving him trouble whilst a razor-sharp Christian philosopher paints him into a corner. But, circus or not, the rabbis and priests and imams are not going to change their hearts and minds, nor are the New Order of Atheists.
My bugbear is that only two or three viewpoints are considered in the debate: atheism, theism and perhaps agnosticism. What about all the others, the personal spiritual paths that know no anthropomorphic, monotheistic, patriarchal deity? There are countless. We love to label and thus reduce people to only two or three positions. “Oh, he’s a Christian. How can he believe in hell?” “Oh, she’s an atheist, how can she possibly have any morals or compassion for anti-abortion campaigns?” That sort of polarised nonsense. The point is missed, by both the New Atheists and the fiery evangelicals. What is that point? Oh, everything. I will touch on that later.
Larry Taunton’s position on “truth” is fixed. It is as fundamental and unshakable as any thundering, Bible Belt preacher’s. He leads a Christian organization aptly called Fixed Point. The biblical scriptures as inarguable truth are, or so he avers, an unquestionable part of his faith. Like most Christians he avoids the fact that they are open to a variety of interpretations. That what is said in modern English can only be a vague, easily misunderstood echo of a very ancient culture.
He deliberately concludes his book with a solemn scripture taken from that ancient, easily misrepresented culture, and are allegedly Jesus’ words: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live”. By making this the last sentence of the book, his mission is clear: there are only one of two positions: believe in God or go to hell.
My point then, is this: the enriched life is not about holding on to positions, or rather, dearly clinging to them like a baby to her rattle. It is about opening oneself to broader and ever broader possibilities, not only atheism/theism. They are two mere words with loads of accreted meanings and distortions. They get in the way.
Then there is the issue of what is atheism. I do not have space here, but there is more than one kind. The sort of atheism that Christopher Hitchens and the other “four horsemen” espouse does not do the future of the human race any justice. It is very easy to attack any religion as an institution – it requires little intelligence – as all religious institutions are based on the non-rational, and are a cinch to undermine with empiricism and rationalism. Never mind scoffing at the history of these religions. There, the obvious comes to mind: the Catholic Inquisitions, pedophile priests and the Crusades.
However, the New Atheists have no “solution”, something to put in religions’ place. It’s all attack, moneymaking and preaching to the choir. Of course, even Hitchens shudders, as Taunton points out to him one of atheist bioethicist Peter Singer’s propositions that “surely” follow as a consequence of atheism: parents should be allowed to terminate their babies 28 days after birth. Taunton argues that the atheists do not look further down the road at the horrific consequences of their “beliefs”, that we are all merely “animals”. This is sophistry and I do not have space to argue that here.
However, my point is this: institutions are easy to paint scornful graffiti on but it is impossible to attack a spiritual path. The personal, spiritual* journey is an entirely different matter. The spiritual path, properly and seriously taken with a good dollop of humour, not unlike a healthy relationship between spouses, is private, unobtrusive, and unassailable.
I follow a spiritual path. I know of many who do. It is impossible for anyone to criticise mine or someone else’s as it is an entirely personal affair. This is partly because it is difficult, if not impossible to put much of that journey into words. Not only is the spiritual path no one else’s business, it cannot be anyone else’s business. The arena of public debate is making other people’s business your business: it is a cattle show market.
The private, spiritual journey and quest for truth is noble, unassuming and has no ugly head to rear. Here both the likes of Taunton and Hitchens miss the point.
*For a start, one could easily write a long essay trying to outline what is spirituality.