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.
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.
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.
“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.
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In the book of Genesis doesn't GOD resurrect all who have died ,than judges them?
A nice commentary on Hitchens. I tend to agree with Hitchens far more than I do with evangelicals - particularly in today's poisonous climate, made so in no small degree by over-zealous fundamentalists. This non-judgmental essay says as much about the author as it does about Hitchens.
The address says RELIGION.blogs.cnn.cxm. Why isn't there an Atheism blog, too?
This IS an atheist blog. 90%+ of the comments here are from them. We have nothing to do on a Saturday, I guess.
Because atheism isn't a believe, it's just a disbelief in religion. Without religion, atheism wouldn't exist.
Chris, it's a "Belief" blog. As an atheist, I would much rather be included in the discussion here than on a separate page. As a society, we still tend to view being religious as "normal" and atheism as "bad". Many atheists are "in the closet" so to speak- it's not something they feel comfortable publicizing about themselves because our society still basically treats Christianity as an 'official' religion. Judaism is generally tolerated, but every other religion or lack thereof is viewed with prejudice or outright hostility. I think it's extremely healthy to have all points of view presented together in one place. Just my opinion.
If religion is your interpretation of the meaning of life, then atheism and agnosticism can be considered a form of religion. It's really totally irrelevent if they are or are not because this story contains both sides.
Again, without religion, atheism would be a meaningless term. We (atheists) are a group of people who don't believe in religion. It wouldn't make sense to have separate boards because they're the same topic.
8 years of bush – how did prayer work out?? We didnt QUITE have a Depression.
Bush talked to God all the time and apparently God didn't tell him 9/11 was coming or to be concerned about Katrina victims or to go after bin Laden who killed so many Christians.
Funny.. the actual story about his death was taken down by noon on the day it happened and was not linked to anywhere I could find on the front page... but an evangelical writes about him and THAt finally makes it to the front page for more than a couple hours.
Praise the Lord... lacking anything better to do.
To expand on that though think of the people who live very poorly in life, while some have more than one man ever needs. i guess people want to believe that this horrible (for some) and some times miserable world can't be all there is. So dream up a new place to go after they have left this world behind. (AND IT IS WONDERFUL)
To expand on that though think of the people who live very poorly in life, while some have more than one man ever needs. i guess people won't to believe that this horrible for some and some times miserable world can't be all there is. So dream up a new place to go after they have left this world behind. (AND IT IS WONDERFUL)
If you haven't read Hitchens' work, I'd highly recommend it. Regardless of your religious beliefs, his books will make you think. If you are religious (particularly Christian) and can't confidently refute or rebuff Hitchens' points, then it may cause you to re-examine your faith. If you are an atheist and can't confidently accept Hitchen's points, then it may cause you to re-examine your atheism. Either way, intelligent self-examination is always a good thing.
So, you accept the fact that the mean black American I.Q. is 85, and that the mean sub-Saharan black I.Q. is 70? Or do you selectively deny reality when it hurts too much?
Religious people don't believe in thinking. They believe in deciding what is true and then sticking with it (they call it faith).
It's spelled, "m-a-s-t-e-r", moron. 🙂
Here, let me use it in a sentence for you: "I am able to master the English language because I have an IQ of 142. You, in contrast, have yet to master the grammatical rule about not starting a sentence with a preposition."
If you'll all excuse me, I'm going to go cry now because some conveniently anonymous racist used bogus statistics from a KKK newsletter to say something mean to me.
Not only does religion conflict with what we know about the universe, but even if religion were true, it doesn't provide a satisfactory explanation. I.e., even if there was a god, where did he come from? He's have all the same questions about the universe that we have. I guess our god would probably have to believe in another god that created him and that one would believe in another and so on...which means there'd have to be an infinite number of gods. My point is simply this: even if you ignore all the evidence we have suggesting the religious stories are wrong, you're left with just as many questions (more actually, because you don't accept some of the answers we already have).
What created the universe?
Exactly. We don't know and the god story doesn't get us any closer to understanding.
Stan... what created god? After all, if you have to believe that something created everything... if you have to take a view that constrained by aspects of the world we perceive without the aid of tools, if you want to insist that something cannot come from nothing, then you have some explaining to do about how a god can exist in the first place.
Stan, have the guts to say "we don't know" or "we may yet discover" Heck it may even be god .. but lets just wait for the evidence instead of copping-out early...
Christopher Hitchens had the guts and the balls and the intelligence to call it the way he saw it. He has my full admiration for being true to himself. I will miss his writings. To those who have committed themselves to an existence of a 'supreme being' in the 'heaven's, I say wait, wait until science has had a full run at it. Perhaps you will change your mind, perhaps you won't, but whatever the case it will make you "think". If nothing else, thinking will do you good. Actually, "rethink everything".
I don't want to say anything bad about Mr. Hitchens, as God knows where his final dwelling place is, but I am sure that if Mr. Hitchens didn't infact believe in God...he IS believing in Him at this moment.
"For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: “ As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us shall give account of himself to God." - Romans 14:10-12
You can't believe if you're DEAD.
Jesus loves little boys on their knees with outstretched tongues.
You're sure? How are you sure? I'm sure that you're wrong because I have evidence. You're sure that you're right because you say so. See the difference?
"I don't want to say anything bad, but I will anyway." Nice. Very "Christian" of you.
Is that sarcasm? You could take it either way, I guess.
The thing I've learned is that their are good people and bad people- good Christians and bad Christians, good Muslims and bad Muslims, good Hindus and bad Hindus, good Jews and bad Jews, good wicans and bad wicans, good atheists and bad atheists. Religious beliefs rarely determine whether one lives a good and compassionate life. Mr. Hitchens and the author appear to have considered each other 'good' people.
Jake...(and only Jake)...evidence??? Where is your evidence? I've probably asked so many times about this "evidence" and no one seems to respond.
The burden of proof is on YOU! Now go gather your case.
Seriously George? Evolution. Ever heard of it? We know evolution is real and it conflicts with the religious stories. It's not exactly difficult to disprove religion.
What kind of a God would punish someone for not believing something? I mean, if I told my child something, and he didn't believe it, I certainly would punish him for it throughout all eternity. The Christian God is hardly fit for worship.
George, the fable of Noahs ark actually demands for a kind of super evolution to account for all the animals that appeared after the flood, from the amount that were on the boat.
Now, George, given that all evidence, not to mention common sense, suggests that there is no invisible being running the universe, please explain why on earth anyone should believe in god?
your god sounds like a fascist a $ $ hole.
Jake...(and only Jake, again)...I've heard of evolution, just never witnessed it or seen it actually happen. As a matter of fact, not one living being in human history has ever seen or witnessed evolution in action. Carbon dating has been ruled out on some archeological finds, this is a fact written in many articles. So can we really trust carbon dating? Besides, in recent articles scientists are stating that they are coming up with alternate methods for determining age.
And talk about common sense, a couple of years ago I read that some scientists found a human finger bone, just a tiny finger bone and they were "able to determine" the whole skeletal system from just this one finger bone, and what's even more amazing is they determined it was a female....just from a finger bone. I almost want to laugh right now. Of course they labeled her as one of our ape-like descendents. Then a year later, it was determined that this finger bone indeed came from a real ape. Not from a pre-human being.
But seriously, I am not here to argue or debate whether or not God exists and evolution is fraud. I'll let the creationist and evolutionist "debaters" do that. I am here to just give my opinions of this article and a little of the Gospel before it is too late, as we never know when our time is up.
Just to add something to my comment above before I forget, it is very easy to say that evolution is real but you can't just see it happen because it takes millions or billions of years of processing. You might take a dark dog to later become a light colored dog, or a german shepherd and make them mini-geman shepherds (wish they would do this someday...such cuties), and I would acknowledge that perhaps splicing may be a possibility when you have scientists doing it, trying to create different or new species altogether. But a frog will never turn into a Bengal tiger or an orchid become a bald-eagle, perhaps a desk becoming an owl many many years from now (common sense???)
George, you just suggested that you're not sure if evolution is real. If you honestly think there's still some question about the reality of evolution, you're clearly not willing to think objectively about anything. Try to think about this conversation from my perspective for a second. What would you do if you're trying to have a serious conversation with someone and they tell you they're not sure whether or not gravity exists because no one has ever actually "seen" gravity? It's seriously mind-blowing that there are people in this day and age who are as far behind reality as you and I really with you the best of luck getting better because you are mentally unhealthy.
Religion is nonsense. We need applied empirico-positivism to solve the most pressing issues of the day. Fascism forward!
'GOD' exists, because who else's name do you cry out when you're achieving orgasm??
LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL Thank you, sir!
My girlfriend cries "Satan, Satan". But she is weird. I'm thinking about breaking up with her. But I'm afraid.
My girlfriend's name. Who else's name should I be calling out?
When i was a kid i ponder for three hours the concept of Heaven. I finally realized that it would be the outcome that WOULD MAKE me the HAPPIEST. But as A Grown MAN I NOW KNOW SOMETHING THAT MAKES ME HAPPY, WOULDN'T MAKE HEAVEN REAL OR THE BIBLE TRUE.
Although I am not an atheist, I agree with you totally - just wanting something to be right and true, because it makes me happy and gives me a good feeling, does not make it reality. And that goes both ways. For instance Philosopher Thomas Nagel is more candid than most, when he confesses:
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally, hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
H/tler, after making his big mess committed su/cide, because he found comfort in his conviction that after death one ceases to exist, no day of judgement. But that doesn't make it true either.
It was for this reason I took the time to research the facts underlying faith in Jesus Christ. I have also done research and had lots of discussions with scientists/professors with an atheist worldview - and come to the conclusion that the evidence is very strong that our universe and life are not the result of random, undirected processes and that Jesus Christ has unique credentials, which confirm that the unfathomable God has indeed made Himself knowable in this Person.
It's really unfortunate that 90% of these comments lack the intelligence, maturity, and respect for opposing viewpoints that the author shows. I am on the opposite end of the religious spectrum from the author, but it's an excellent article and should (but apparently didn't judging by this message board) serve as a model for discourse on the subject of religion. Sad to see that the lesson isn't sticking.
You are an ape.
Merry Christmas all you lovers and haters!
Happy Solstice to you! : )
Just kidding! I mean, Merry Christmas to you too!
Please report the imposter above me, saying merry christmas, for abuse.
Lunatics, you forget your schizophrenia meds today dude?
No but the imposter who started an account with my name probably did.
My main problem with Christianity (Baptist in particular) is that they say if you do not believe in Jesus as your only Lord and Savior you are not entering Heaven. I cannot believe a God of Love would commit about 5 Billion people to hell for that one fact. My belief is there is a "God" , Higher Power . . . He/She remains unseen to strengthen Faith. If God was made present every day he could not satisfy every persons wish to spend time with him and I believe we would show a worse side of outselves than we do now, fighting for her attention – imagine it – one road to her house, and no space to get to her. For me, I know there is a God that intervened in my life many, many times. By rights, the things I have been through during the Vietnam War, driving drunk passing out rounding a curve and ending straight on my path after swerving wildly, robbed and shot at -missed, over dosed on drugs so many times, my heart stopping – now clean and sober for 23 years. God does not cause things to happen to people, the Airplane crash, the killing of innocents. But I do believe there are times when he gives a gentle nudge, pulls us awake or moved at the appropriate time. These are things we do not need to know how, but through our Faith know why. We are each on a journey for growth of knowledge and understanding; achieving these in different ways, no one is the only way, the only RIGHT way. We each are the sum total of all our experiences.
If you're able to convince yourself that there's a god and that it intervened in your life and if that makes you feel better, good for you I guess. But that doesn't make it true and in my opinion, you'd be better off being honest with yourself.
NEWSFLASH: There is NO 'hell' or 'heaven'. They are mythical places created in the often feeble human mind.
Just for thought, it is not the teaching of all Christians that only explicit Christians can enter heaven, and all non-believers will enter hell. The Roman Catholic Church, despite its consistent negative media attention, has a very deep and developed theology dealing with this and every other theological question. It could be summed up in this saying: "You will be judged upon the light that you have been given." God has manifested himself in this world, and I do believe he has done so in your life, but search out the truth about the content of faith. Is there a Trinity or is there not? If God has revealed that to be truth and the beliefs of another religion to be truth, then that would make God a contradiction, and I do not trust a contradiction.
Seek the truths of the content of faith, by that I mean be proactive in the search for what is and is not true about the soul, the spiritual realm, Jesus Christ himself, and you will find your way. I would suggest reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which will reflect the deep and developed theology that I began with.
DOG BLESS YOU ALL! (CANINES RULE!)