The Faith of Christopher Hitchens
The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist
by Larry Alex Taunton
Larry Taunton has chosen an intriguing title for his book about the late, well known author, literary and religious critic and polemicist, Christopher Hitchens; in the title he has put the words “faith” and “notorious atheist” to describe aspects of Hitchens’ life. For most readers, linking those words, especially concerning Christopher Hitchens, produces an oxymoron, or a paradox, or an irresolvable contrast – yet they act as a good “reader-hook,” too. The title begs the question “What kind of faith is the author talking about?” Since curiosity is one driver of book sales, the title of Taunton’s publication will bring about plenty of book purchases — that’s certainly why I bought it. But is that all there is to this book – a hook and an expose’ of Christopher Hitchens, whose very name brings to mind insistent, unending atheistic prating? Happily, no.
Larry A. Taunton, author of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist (2016, Thomas Nelson), is a cultural commentator and Executive Director of Fixed Point Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the public defense of the Christian faith. In 2008 Taunton became an unlikely friend to the outspoken Hitchens while spending time with him as Taunton performed the duties of an organizational point man and moderator for a debate between Hitchens and staunch Christian, Professor John Lennox. Taunton writes of their association: “Others viewed our friendship with suspicion. While many atheists would have preferred that their champion heap scorn on me as he had so many others, some Christians were convinced that our friendship must involve an egregious compromise of my faith.” Despite the disapproval directed toward their relationship, and notwithstanding the “angry, bombastic and uncouth behavior” that Hitchens exhibited on numerous occasions, Taunton saw another Hitchens in private, and this person won Taunton’s love and loyal friendship.
Taunton says that initially he did not want to write a book about Hitchens. “I wasn’t interested. I just couldn’t see how writing a book like that would be anything but an exercise in self-flagellation… However, I gradually came to see Christopher’s life in a different light. Redemption comes in many forms, and in this story, it is for the reader. In the final analysis, there’s something to be learned about how we, the living, are to process these lost relationships.” Of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens Taunton says, “[This] book is not a biography of Christopher Hitchens. My objective is not to recount his life, but to give some account for his soul.”
Taunton does give the reader some background on Hitchens, relating general information about his birth in Portsmouth, England, his parents Eric and Yvonne, and only sibling, a younger brother, Peter. He writes about Christopher’s miserable boyhood at boarding school, but also notes that this was where he first learned that he could fight with words, and win. Included also is Hitchins’ career in the United States and his subsequent citizenship in 2007.
Taunton laments that the “primary source for the life of Christopher Hitchens is…Christopher Hitchens…[and]the autobiographical narrator simply can’t be trusted…[My] private dealings with Christopher revealed a much different man than the public Christopher, the confident, bombastic, circuit-riding atheist-pugilist. While I do not quite want to say that the public Christopher was a sham — he said and did things in my company that would lead one to conclude that this public manifestation of Christopher was not the real one.”
One of the identifying characteristics of Hitchens’ personality that was well known to his admirers and critics alike was his contradictory nature. Taunton writes that Hitchens himself declared that he had a divided self. “Nobody is not a divided self, of course,” wrote Hitchens, “but I think it is rather strong in my case. English and American; Left and Right, to some extent; Puritan and Cavalier.”
Taunton says, “These divisions — or some might say ‘contradictions’ — necessitated a keeping of ‘two books’ –a phrase Hitchens would use quite often to describe various aspects of himself, his beliefs, and his relationships with other people. The original meaning of the phrase ‘keeping two sets of books’ refers to a fraudulent bookkeeping method in accounting, where one set of books is public and one is private; the public book is made to appear in accordance with the law, while the private book records all the shady financial dealings behind the scenes.”
A key point in Taunton and Hitchens’ relationship came when the two men traveled together from Washington D.C. to Birmingham, Alabama, by car. The road trip took place five months after Hitchens had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. With less than a 5% survival rate five years from diagnosis, Hitchens knew that his death was virtually assured, but he didn’t want to sit around waiting to die and he had made a commitment to debate American philosopher David Berlinski in Birmingham and wanted to honor his commitment, which he did. Astonishingly, on the fourteen hour road trip from Washington D.C. to Birmingham, the two men read and discussed the Gospel of John, talking in depth about several of the stories in the gospel. Taunton says that at times Hitchens was surprised by what he read, and at other times he was thoughtful and even seemed deeply troubled on occasion. Taunton’s recollection of their conversation shows that the two men had a close friendship, and that they spoke honestly and directly about the text. This was the first of two road trips the friends went on together before Hitchens’ death. During these times of reading the Word and sharing honestly with each other did Hitchens come to see his sinful condition and give his heart to the Lord? No spoilers here – you will have to read the book to learn that answer.
This is what a friend had to say when we discussed The Faith of Christopher Hitchens:
” I have such admiration for people who so fully engage in authentic relationships with unbelievers! I fear I fall far short of having the courage and confidence to do so… “
An honest and revealing comment — and one that probably is true of most Christians. Because following Jesus is important to us, Christians tend to choose friends who share similar Christ-centered beliefs and lifestyles. But it is likely that many Christians know someone who professes to be an atheist, one whose words and actions cause great concern. Taunton’s book The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, can be a source of encouragement as well as a model of caring involvement for those who love and have ongoing relationships with atheists.