I am reading a book that is so fascinating that I keep having to put it down and exclaim “Well I never!”, pause to let the ramifications of some new revelation sink in, and then regain my mental balance for a moment. The author is Larry Taunton, and he is writing about his friendship with the late Christopher Hitchens.
I have followed Christopher’s life on and off for many years. He was an incredibly intelligent and outspoken “new atheist”, one of the four in fact, and was involved in many excellent God vs atheism debates. He was always entertaining and thought- provoking, and there have been a few surprises along the way. Not least of all his friendship with Evangelical Christian, Larry Taunton. It seemed surprising at the time, but I have subsequently come to realise that God often puts Christians alongside those who seem strongly opposed to him.
One reason why I have found it such a fascinating read is that I can relate, all be it in a small way, to the journey Christopher seemed to be having (obviously without the planet-sized brain and ability to remember and recall vast amounts of facts, oh and hopefully the merciless debating style). I have enjoyed forthrightly proclaiming that God does not exist, or that we could never know if he did. Over the course of a few years, Christians kept popping up in my life. At university, my brother became a Christian, then a close friend became a Christian. I moved on to another university where a Christian joined my lab and we became good friends: sharing a house and then working together after our PhDs were complete.
Like Christopher, I have enjoyed friendships with Christians who I argued against and who reached out to me with genuine care and love. I, too, began to explore the truths of Christianity under the cover of debate. I have watched the love of Jesus’ followers up close and been drawn to the imperfect but genuine purity and fruit of their lives. I have also counted the cost of conversion. Sadly, it seems Christopher got this far, but then his time ran out.
Reading the book, it becomes more understandable where some of Christopher’s anger came from and his apparent hatred of God. From a young age (under 8) he was badly bullied by other boys and teachers. Apparently, he went to a rather horrid boarding school and was compelled to follow rigid rules and often thrashed at the whim of cruel masters. On top of all that, he speaks of “compulsory divine service” which I take to mean he had to attend church, sing, and say prayers. Do you think that experience might have influenced his view of God as a cruel tyrant, inflicting pointless rules on people? Maybe. It must have formed some kind of lattice structure upon which his understanding of religion grew and developed.
Larry writes :
“the Polemicist of future years was forged on the playgrounds of English prep school”.
He may possibly have admired his father as “a commander” in the navy but considered him weak in every other respect, and they were not at all close. His mother had an affair with an ex-vicar who she died with in a suicide pact. This is not the stuff of a happy childhood or conducive to producing contented and well-balanced citizens.
“God was inevitably interpreted as that looming, fuming, grim-faced schoolmaster with a cane, accusing him of transgressions of which he was either not aware or felt no guilt.”
In many aspects of his life and views he “kept two books”. In particular, he had something of a different public and private persona.
“During the time we spent together, he never said an unkind thing to me—except on stage, up in front of everybody,” reports evangelical Douglas Wilson. “After doing this, he didn’t wink at me, but he might as well have.” Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist—that was the side of the debate he’d been given, the one that made him both famous and rich. Privately, however, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.”
Was Christopher a bit like Jesus’ nighttime questioner Nicodemus?
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” John 3:1–2 (ESV)
This is truly fascinating. In private, Christopher “did not believe everything he said about Christians and their religion”. He was to some extent playing a part. If I were “on his side” as it were it would make me rather uneasy. My champion isn’t sincere in his statements.
If Larry’s account is anywhere near the truth, and I have no reason to suspect that it is not, then one would be wrong to take everything Christopher has said publicly at face value. This changes everything.
I can’t tell you how fascinating this book is. And the fact that you can actually watch some of the events in it on youtube.
1:08:00 The Four Horseman debating about removing all religion from the world:
Peter reading a passage of scripture at his brother’s funeral:
Speakers at his funeral:
“Christopher was a beacon of knowledge and light in a world that constantly threatens to extinguish both. He had the courage to accept the world for just what it is and not for what we would like it to be. And for me that’s the highest praise I can give to anyone. Christopher understood that the universe doesn’t case about our existence. Our welfare. And epitomised the realisation, that our lives only have the meaning that we give them. For him this came to the creed that ..?? (guards his life?), The courageous defence of the simple proposition that scepticism rather than credulity is the highest principle the human intellect can use to ignoble our existence ” Lawrence Krauss (me – on what basis is courage a good thing? How can our existence be ignobled? )
Here is some footage of the funeral: