Some attack the argument, and some attack the person behind the argument. Larry Alex Taunton reminds us how precious it is to find an author who makes a sincere effort to understand the argument and the man. His latest book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, is an eyewitness encounter that will be appreciated by future historians, and make them wish the likes of Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Friedrich Nietzsche had a Taunton to write about their lives.
Contrary to the hasty, copy-and-paste assertions of those who haven’t read as far as the subtitle, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is no tabloid tell-all peddling a false conversion story. It is an account that humanizes the professional skeptic, to whom Christ is a stumbling stone and rock of offense, as well as his evangelical friend, to whom Christ is the cornerstone. “His approaches to religion, Christianity really, were what Nicodemus’s might have been had he come to see Jesus by day rather than by night: as that of reporter or critic rather than as a would-be disciple,” Taunton explains. “Hitchens was not as certain about his atheism, whatever his public professions to the contrary.”
Hitchens memorably broke ranks with secular liberals when he became pro-life and sided with the Bush administration’s strategy for combating radical Islam. Yet he still largely made a name for himself denouncing the faith of the conservatives with whom he found himself allied – or so it appeared. Taunton actually introduces us to a man who loathed not Christians but rather “intellectual frauds that didn’t really believe their creed, but instead preyed on the innocent for selfish gain,” as we follow Hitchens’ encounter with reasoned faith in its rawest form: a trustworthy friendship.
Born two decades, an ocean, and world views apart, Hitchens and Taunton were unlikely friends. But reading their story, the match itself seems to be evidence of the divine. Taunton was a fitting person to be a close friend with Hitchens in the twilight of his life. They both had fathers who were military men and alcoholics, and Taunton’s father was a vehement atheist who “gained a local reputation for his insistence on rejecting Christianity in all of its manifestations,” and whose “objections to faith reproduced faster than heads on the mythical Hydra,” much like Hitchens. Taunton also had the experience of being afflicted with cancer at some point in his life.
The life of his daughter Sasha, who was adopted out of a grim future in the Ukraine, is a vibrant parable that made an impression on Hitchens. “Her story, her testimony, moved the argument over Christianity, both the one on the stage and the one in his heart, from the theoretical to the personal,” writes Taunton. Similarly, a sobering realization for everyone is that the debate over reason and faith, which has become a spectator sport of quick draw social media gags, is something even its olympians have to face as more than a game in the end.
Taunton features some poignant biographical insight on Hitchens’ growing up years, and notes that the narrative of Hitchens’ family perpetuated by secularists in the media has been rather unfair to his Christian and conservative younger brother, Peter Hitchens (author of The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith), “a match for Christopher” in wit and intellect as a writer.
For those who have followed the friendship of Taunton and Hitchens, and have followed the writings of Peter Hitchens, this book will feel familiar without too many surprises. But there are still scenes that will make your jaw drop and will make you laugh. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens does not invoke an interesting friendship at Hitchens’ expense, nor did its author do so during Hitchens’ lifetime either. While covering the “Does Atheism Poison Everything?” debate in Birmingham, Alabama as a beginning journalist, I heard Hitchens make his intimate connection with Taunton known to the public sphere when he told the audience about their road trip Bible study. This mystified the mainstream media and atheist fans of Hitchens – a good sort of puzzle for believers to inspire. After all, Christ mystified many not by shunning those who despised Him, but rather by loving and ministering to those exact people, always willing to listen to their questions.
If there is any disappointment in the book, it is only the same we feel about Hitchens’ life after reading it: the end comes too soon. Hitchens’ wife says that he didn’t discuss anything about God on his deathbed, so whatever he finally believed in his heart is a mystery to us.
But as a hopeful backdrop on this stage, Taunton’s father found the peace that surpasses all understanding on his deathbed. From there springs the striking redemption story, that a village atheist would find Christ in the end, and his believing son would one day have a cliffhanger study of the Gospel with Christopher Hitchens, and share it with the whole world.
Original CBC review by Amanda Read.