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December 16th, 2011
04:45 PM ET

My Take: An evangelical remembers his friend Hitchens

Editor's note: Larry Alex Taunton is the founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation. This article is adapted from his book “The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief.”

By Larry Alex Taunton, Special to CNN

(CNN)– I first met Christopher Hitchens at the Edinburgh International Festival. We were both there for the same event, and foremost in my mind was the sort of man I would meet.

A journalist and polemicist, his reputation as a critic of religion, politics, Britain's royal family, and, well, just about everything else was unparalleled. As an evangelical, I was certain that he would hate me.

When the expected knock came at my hotel room door, I braced for the fire-breather who surely stood on the other side of it. With trepidation, I opened it and he burst forth into my room. Wheeling on me, he began the conversation as if it was the continuance of some earlier encounter:

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has effectively endorsed the adoption of Sharia law. Can you believe that? Whatever happened to a Church of England that believed in something?” He alternated between sips of his Johnnie Walker and steady tugs on a cigarette.

My eyebrows shot up. “‘Believed in something?’ Why, Christopher, you sound nostalgic for a church that actually took the Bible seriously.”

He considered me for a moment and smiled. “Indeed. Perhaps I do.”

There was never a formal introduction. There was no need for one. From that moment, I knew that I liked him. We immediately discovered that we had much in common. We were descendants of martial traditions; we loved literature and history; we enjoyed lively discussion with people who didn’t take opposition to a given opinion personally; and we both found small talk boring.

Over the next few years, we would meet irregularly. The location was invariably expensive, a Ritz Carlton or a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. He disliked cheap restaurants and cheap liquor. In his view, plastic menus were indicative of bad food. I never ate so well as when I was with Hitch.

Christopher Hitchens, standing, debates his friend Larry Taunton.

More than bad food, however, he disliked unintelligent conversation. “What do you think about gay marriage?” He didn’t wait for a response. “I don’t get it. I really don’t. It’s like wanting the worst of both worlds.” He drank deeply of his whiskey. “I mean, if I was gay, I would console myself by saying, ‘Well, I’m gay, but at least I don’t have to get married.’” That was classic Hitch. Witty. Provocative. Unpredictable.

Calling him on his cell one day, he sounded like he was flat on his back. Breathing heavily, there was desperation in his voice.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, anticipating some tragedy.

“Only minutes ago, I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.” He was almost gasping.

I didn’t know what to say. No one ever does in such moments, so we resort to meaningless stock phrases like, “I’m sorry.” Instead, I just groaned. I will never forget his response:

“I had plans for the next decade of my life. I think I should cancel them.”

He asked me to keep the matter private until he could tell his family and make the news public. Hesitatingly, I told him that while I knew that he did not believe in such things, I would pray for him. He seemed genuinely moved by the thought.

“We are still on for our event in Birmingham, right?” He asked. I was stunned. Sensing my surprise, he continued. “I have made a commitment,” he insisted. “Besides, what else am I going to do? I can’t just sit around waiting to die.”

Hitchens brothers debate if civilization can survive without God

As time approached, he suggested a road trip from his D.C. apartment to my home in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Flying has become a humiliating experience, don’t you think?” He said. “Besides, I haven’t taken a road trip in 20 years and it will give us a chance to talk and for me to finally take you up on your challenge.”

Arriving in Washington some five months after his diagnosis, I was shocked by his appearance. Heavy doses of chemotherapy had left him emaciated, and hairless but for his eyelashes. His clothes hung off of him as though he were a boy wearing a man’s garments. He was, nonetheless, looking forward to our journey, having packed a picnic lunch and, predictably, enough Johnnie Walker for a battalion. After breakfast with his lovely wife, Carol, and his sweet daughter, Antonia, Hitch and I headed south on an eleven-hour road trip.

“Have you a copy of Saint John with you?” He asked with a smile. “If not, you know I do actually have one.” This was a reference to my challenge of two years before: a joint study of the Gospel of John. It was my assertion that he had never really read the Bible, but only cherry-picked it.

“Not necessary.” I was smiling, too. “I brought mine.”

A few hours later we were wending our way through the Shenandoah Valley on a beautiful fall morning. As I drove, Hitch read aloud from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. We then discussed its meaning. No cameras, no microphones, no audience. And that always made for better conversation with Hitch. When he referenced our journey in a televised debate with David Berlinski the next day, various media representatives descended on me to ask about our “argument.” When I said that we didn’t really argue, they lost interest.

But that was the truth. It was a civilized, rational discussion. I did my best to move through the prologue verse by verse, and Christopher asked thoughtful questions. That was it.

A bit put off by how the Berlinski event had played out, Hitch suggested we debate one another. Friend though he was, I knew that Hitch could be a savage debater. More than once I had chaired such engagements where Hitch went after his opponents remorselessly.

Hence, I was more than a bit anxious. Here he was, a celebrated public intellectual, an Oxonian, and bestselling author, and that is to say nothing of that Richard Burton-like, aristocratic, English-accented baritone. That always added a few I.Q. points in the minds of people. With hesitation, I agreed.

We met in Billings, Montana. Hitch had once told me that Montana was the only state he had never been in. I decided to complete his tour of the contiguous United States and arranged for the two of us to meet there. Before the debate, a local television station sent a camera crew over to interview us.

When he was asked what he thought of me, a Christian, and an evangelical at that, Hitch replied: “If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton had, we'd be living in a much better society than we do.”

I was moved. Stunned, really. As we left, I told him that I really appreciated the gracious remark.

“I meant it and have been waiting for an opportunity to say it.”

Later that night we met one another in rhetorical combat. The hall was full. Christopher, not I, was of course the real attraction. He was at the peak of his fame. His fans had traveled near and far to see him demolish another Christian. Overall, it was a hard-fought but friendly affair. Unknown to the audience were the inside jokes. When I told a little story from our road trip, he loved it.

The debate over, I crossed the stage to shake Christopher’s hand. “You were quite good tonight,” he said with a charming smile as he accepted my proffered hand. “I think they enjoyed us.”

“You were gentle with me,” I said as we turned to walk off the stage.

He shook his head. “Oh, I held nothing back.” He then surveyed the auditorium that still pulsed with energy. “We are still having dinner?” he asked.

“Absolutely.”

After a quick cigarette on the sidewalk near the backstage door, he went back inside to meet his fans and sign their books.

There was something macabre about it all. I had the unsettling feeling that these weren’t people who cared about him in the least. Instead, they seemed like a bunch of groupies who wanted to have a photo taken with a famous but dying man, so that one day they could show it to their buddies and say, “I knew him before he died.” It was a sad spectacle.

Turning away, I entered the foyer, where 30 or so Christians greeted me excitedly. Mostly students, they were encouraged by what had happened onstage that night. Someone had spoken for them, and it had put a bounce in their step. One young man told me that he had been close to abandoning his faith, but that the debate had restored his confidence in the truth of the gospel. Another student said that she saw how she could use some of the same arguments. It is a daunting task, really, debating someone of Hitchens' intellect and experience, but if this cheery gathering of believers thought I had done well, then all of the preparation and expense had been worth it.

The next day, the Fixed Point Foundation staff piled into a Suburban and headed for Yellowstone National Park. Christopher and I followed behind in a rented pick-up truck. Accompanied by Simon & Garfunkel (his choice), we drove through the park at a leisurely pace and enjoyed the grandeur of it all.

The second chapter of John’s Gospel was on the agenda: The wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. “That is my favorite miracle,” Hitch quipped.

Lunching at a roadside grill, he regaled our staff with stories. Afterwards, he was in high spirits.

“That’s quite a - how shall I put it? A clan? - team that you’ve got there,” he said, watching the teenage members of our group clamber into the big Chevrolet.

“Yes, it is,” I said, starting the truck. “They enjoyed your stories.”

“I enjoy them.” He reclined his seat and we were off again. “Shall we do all of the national parks?”

“Yes, and maybe the whole Bible, too,” I suggested playfully. He gave a laugh.

“Oh, and Larry, I’ve looked at your book.” He added.

“And?”

“Well, all that you say about our conversation is true, but you have one detail wrong.”

“And what is that?” I feared a total rewrite was coming.

“You have me drinking Johnnie Walker Red Label. That’s the cheap stuff. I only drink Black Label.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Larry Alex Taunton.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Uncategorized

soundoff (1,648 Responses)
  1. Chris

    Though I disagree with much of what he had to say, I will always admire him for trying to expose the religion of Islam as one of the most harmful forces in the world.

    December 16, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • Jesus

      Hitch was more of an ANTI-THEIST. The closer a belief system embraced a God, the more disdain he showed for that belief.Contrary to what some think and what this article points out, Hitch did not hate believers, just their beliefs and the cconcept of "faith".

      December 17, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  2. JakeAZ

    i am an atheist. i agree with hitch most of the time, but like him, i have many friends/family members that are religious. i enjoy their company and conversion and even go to church with them sometimes. we don't have to be enemies. i wish people on both sides would realize this.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • Tim E

      +1 Wish this discussion board had a like link.

      December 16, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • paul

      yep. this would get my "like".

      December 16, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
    • Jesus

      The difference between an atheist and a believer of Chrtstrianity is that as an atheist, I harbor no ill will or predict doom for the Christians. In the Bible, atheists, or those who deny God's existence, are punished by being stoned to death.

      December 17, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  3. Paula Z

    Good riddance, ungrateful atheist.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • We know the truth...

      "Ungrateful Atheist" is a compliment...

      December 16, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • TheWiz71

      Stop giving the rest of us theists a bad name.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Paula Z:
      Glad that was not the sentiment that came out of Jesus' mouth on the cross:
      "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

      December 16, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • Paula Z

      @Russ. Thanks for clarifying what Jesus said on the cross as didn't realize he spoke English. If you could please let us know which individual or individuals are attributed with his speaking these precise words, it would definitely help your argument.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • Paula Z

      @Russ. Thanks for clarifying what Jesus said on the cross as I didn't realize he spoke English. If you could please let us know which individual or individuals are attributed with his hearing him speak these precise words, it would definitely help your argument.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • I'm just saying....

      So true. He said in Vanity Fair he loathed people praying for him.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • Johnnnn

      I think he felt no need to filter life through "gratefulness. Life is part of the human package – one that we did not ask for and must muddle through to the best of our abilities. It is for many, filled with suffering. If your 'god" can't make everyone happy and satisfied, why would you be grateful?

      December 16, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Paula Z: I like how you dodged my point with an objection to a claim I didn't make.

      Sounded to me like you want ring-side seats to celebrate someone else's suffering – or maybe more like the Westboro Church funeral protest thing. Just noting that's directly contrary to central Christian tenets.

      If you are a Christian, that's a thought worth pausing to consider.
      If not, seems you are very confident in your own self-righteousness.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Tim E

      From the story Larry tells, it sounds like Christopher was a gracious and grateful friend. You probably are, too, Laura, despite your public comments. In that respect, you and Christopher may have been similar.

      December 16, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  4. DavidB

    What a slap in the face to have him eulogized by a young earth liar.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  5. Chad

    Good article, as a devout Christian with many non-believing friends I can appreciate everything Taunton said.

    “I mean, if I was gay, I would console myself by saying, ‘Well, I’m gay, but at least I don’t have to get married.’”
    not sure how it reflects on me, but I do find that very funny.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Joe

      I'm sure he wouldn't have found it so funny if he was on his deathbed and his wife wasn't allowed to be at his side because the hospital staff disapproved of his relationship.

      December 17, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  6. A Moose in Chicago

    this man was a genius. he transformed my life and many others' lives.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • I'm just saying....

      LOL.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • Aristocles

      More like an evil genius.

      December 17, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  7. TheWiz71

    So nice to see a description of an unlikely friendship. It just goes to show that all of the forces that seek to divide people into different camps – liberal and conservative, theist and atheist, red state blue state – are just evil. If we actually stopped to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to not take every bloody thing personally, how much better off would our country, and our world be.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  8. ufadoof

    Hitch is dead and god never existed. Carry on....

    December 16, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • Russ

      "These are not the droids you're looking for."

      December 16, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • I'm just saying....

      Wonder if he's in hell

      December 16, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • ufadoof

      Where is hell again? I can't seem to find it on any map.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • dwerbil

      I'm just saying, said....

      "Wonder if he's in hell"

      Only if you believe the Sunday comic section to be real.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:17 am |
  9. mrtylerlarson

    What an interesting article! Great stuff!

    December 16, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  10. Jim

    One can rest assured that another person is not transformed (or usually even just intellectually moved) by debates but instead by being faithful and loving as a friend.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Russ

      Seems to me you need both. Words without actions are hypocrisy. Actions without words are easily misconstrued.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  11. Alex

    never liked him even after his death
    crude and loud man

    December 16, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • Mike p

      Yeah, that dam guy, always trying to encourage people to suspend judgement and to consider the evidence. Always encouraging people to thin for themselves and teaching people about the tremendous power of wishful thinking...what a loon...

      December 16, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • Chris

      "thin for themselves"? In that case I support his cause. People eat too much.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • Mike p

      @Chris 1/10

      December 16, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  12. Emily

    Oh, of course- the adoring fans there for Hitch were "macabre" fame-seekers, but the little group of Christians who came for the author, THEY were there to hear someone speak to their ideals and beliefs. That can't be something that atheists, free-thinkers, or humanists desire and rarely encounter in American public discourse, can it? No, we're just macabre and want pictures with a dying famous man.

    What a balanced and nuanced perspective on the event.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • bluemoondrop

      Yah, that bit really grossed me out too.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • TheWiz71

      You miss the point entirely.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Louis

      I thought the same thing. Why assign bad motives to Hitchens' fans, and then brag about how great your fans believed you to be?

      December 16, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • ufadoof

      I had the same thought Emily.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • Nancy

      Yes, I agree as well. The article was pleasant until I read that. "They" just have to get a dig in. Don't think Hitch would have appreciated the downplaying of his "fans." But we his "fans" will continue to carry the torch.

      December 17, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  13. Judger333

    Smart guy. Did not agree with atheist views but I bet he did not agree with them at the end. An original thinker and we are in short supply of those on this planet. He will be missed.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      The guy was an atheistic,blaspheming drunk. This is what you describe as original?

      December 16, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Alfred: interesting that the Christians who got closest to him disagree with you.

      Another example: Doug Wilson who toured and debated Hitchens
      http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/decemberweb-only/christopher-hitchens-obituary.html

      December 16, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • Troy

      Love how you're so ready to believe that he had a death-bed conversion. Boy, will you be surprised when you get there and the Goddess greets you on the other side! (See how annoying that is?)

      December 16, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • Judger333

      Praying for his salvation but yes original. God endowed him with gifts he did not give me or probably you. Wanted his voice to be heard.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Troy: doesn't seem like you read that article closely enough. Wilson makes no such claim. He merely notes how much attention Hitchens gave to the subject.

      If anything, Wilson is very direct with his beliefs. He hopes Hitchens came around, but... if Hitchens did not convert, his situation is equally clear, biblically speaking.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      He used his voice (throat) to pour down booze (by his own admission) and to blaspheme (by his own admission) and died relatively young with a choking throat cancer. Doesn't sound all that impressive or original. He made his money in perversion of Truth and stayed with it to the bitter end. A sad and wasted life.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • Steve

      Alfred, a sad and wasted life that apparently touched alot of people on this board, once again we have someone here who is completely clueless and harbours alot of animosity towards Hitch as well. The sad and wasted are the delusional, never living in the real world. You must have been very upset when mommie took away your blankie.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  14. Cassandra Chu

    ... there are way too many racist jews in journalism at CNN. the amount of anti-Arab racism that CNN spews is disgusting. Shame on CNN, they have sold out to the AIPAC lobbyists.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      What does that have to do with this article? Go troll elsewhere.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Jesus

      Gee, and I always thought that it was all those racist Asians as CNN Ms. Chu.

      December 17, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  15. Chris

    Os Guiness would be proud of such civil discourse.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Jim

      Far more importantly, God was and is pleased with such interactions.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  16. Denver Broncos

    It sucks that he didn't find Jesus.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Marks from Middle River

      We each make choice in life. When you pass a Muslim might pose the same type of question concerning you and rejection of the teachings of Islam.

      What it sounds like, is that even in death it just suxs when someone didnt go their grave believing differently.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Ever think that he isn't there to find?

      December 16, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Seems like he didn't want or need to find Jesus. He may have been a ruthless debater and a staunch critic of religion but that in no way stopped him from being a good person now did it? This article really does prove that atheists and christians can have thoughtful discourse and mutual respect and understanding for one another.
      This of course is void when someone like you Denver attempts to cheapen this man's life or accomplishments with idiotic and useless statements like "It sucks that he didn't find Jesus.".

      December 16, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      Actually DV, believers in Jesus never find him either.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Nancy

      What HawaiiGuest said.
      This forum needs a like button BTW.

      December 17, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Jesus

      I found him doing my gardening-Jesus Ramirez. Nice guy, but I'd rather pay him $40 a visit than worship him .

      December 17, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  17. John

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_6PxnvaySw&w=640&h=360]

    December 16, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • .....

      TRASH ALERT – don't bother viewing this garbage, click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL!

      December 16, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • mrtylerlarson

      ??? There's no reverb on this piano!

      December 16, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  18. Rover Serton

    Inteligent and courteous discourse serves all of us well. Best wishes to Hitch's family. We can disagree without being disagreeable.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  19. Clayton

    Another good article. I like how no points of doctrine came forth but only the friendly memories. Very nice.

    December 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  20. Bradon H

    Hitchens sure did have a lot of evangelical friends or so to boot.

    December 16, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.