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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Hitchens, it sounds like, was a true Atheist. Not angry at people who do believe. He just didn't. What it sounds like he did do, was understand that it's OK if people do believe in God and act as they should in accordance to their religion. It sounds like he had respect for that. I am a Christian, and I know there are alot of people that claim to be also but don't live the part. There are also Atheists that feel that they have to crush religion because they think it's stupid and illogical. Why would an Atheist care if someone believes in God? What difference is it to them?
BECAUSE US ATHEISTS HATE OURSELVES AND OUR SMALL GENITALS> SO WE MUST LASH OUT AND SPREAD HATE 🙂
Why would an Atheist care if someone believes in God? What difference is it to them?
My guess is that most couldn't care less about what you believe as long as you practice your religion in your homes and places of worship, rather than try to force it on others and use it to deny fellow human beings equal rights.
I was once a Christian (my first 28 years of life), but have since moved on. The problem I have with religions (and why I moved on) is that religions don't just exist in a bubble. They actually try to manipulate others around them to either follow their beliefs or at least conform to them in some way or another. That is why I have to be concerned about them...because they do actually have impact on my life. To say that they don't is to deny the facts. Take 9/11, for example. The motivation of the hijackers was religion. And that is just one example of thousands throughout history.
Ever heard of "Westboro Baptist Church" those are very aggressive Christians pushing their Beliefs on others.While Baptist,catholics and Evangelicals all try to indoctrinate you at an early age. Or pedal their crap to Old people who are scared or confused about death!
Christopher Hitchens always made it perfectly clear that he strongly believes in everyone's right to believe whatever they want, and it's only when other people's beliefs are being forced on him, or his children, or when people behave badly because of religion that he has a problem with religion. One problem with certain American Christian sects is that the church COMPELS their followers to "spread the gospel" so they actually have to, as part of their face, try and convert everyone in the world to their religion.
As Christians, our job IS to spread the word of the Gospel to others. Not to force it on others. According to what is written in the Bible, all that is needed by us to witness is to tell people of the Gospel. Not force it down their throats. If they hear the word and accept, great! If they hear it and don't accept, Ok! It is not up to us to make people believe. We believe that they have a choice, as written in the Bible.
The truth is, if there is a god he is more like what the Deist believe than what the Christians ,Catholics and Evangelicals believe in their books.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deism Otherwise you would have to say God is A cruel Murderer!
If you read Genesis, you will understand that we live in a fallen world. God doesn't murder people. People murder people.
Read the entire bible, with historical contextual references. Reading the bible without knowing your history is like reading the diary of ann frank without knowing world war II, you're definitely missing some important background. What atheist typically refer to as a cruel God is in the attack of the cannites. Do you know why they are called cannites? If you did you probably wouldnt see the attack as morally outrageous. Well, I guess some people think that is was immoral of american soldiers to pray to God to give them strength and stamina as they fought the Nazi's. But I guess those American soldiers of world war II were immoral genocide maniacs right? Know your history, contrary to arguments of the past decades we know these places and civilizations in the bible did exist so there is information about them outside the bible to confirm. Do your research, read both sides, I guarantee you will be surprised
In response to WOW:
God didn't create people...People created god!
"God doesn't murder people. People murder people."
Nonsense. God torturously KILLED virtually every man, woman (pregnant or not), child, and fetus on the face of the earth at one time.
Why did God kill all people on earth with a flood? That is the question. He saved Noah and his family because Noah was a good and holy man. Why did he kill the rest? He didn't do it because he wanted to murder all those people.Please read the full story of Noah and the flood and understand what was going on in the world before the flood before you call God a murderer. Also, yes, God told Joshua to kill all the canaanites in the city. Men, women, children. This is because if they hadn't there would have been a vandetta, so to speak and the Isrealites would have been attacked by all generations. The canaanites were not a happy, good people.
HI, I'M AN ATHEIST.
I DON'T ATTACK JUDAISM BECUASE I WILL BE LABELED AN ANTI-SEMITE AND ARRESTED ON THE SPOT.
I DON'T ATTACK ISLAM BECAUSE THEY WILL BEAT MY A** OR POSSIBLY KILL ME.
I ATTACK CHRISTIANITY BECAUSE IT'S SAFE AND THEY WON'T BEAT ME DOWN
YEA FOR ATHEISTS, THE REAL MONKEYS!!!
You must pick on buddhist too because they believe in non-violence? your mother must be so proud! do you pick on the handicap too? What kind of person states they pick on a group of people because they wont fight back? Trying to overcompensate over there buddy for a small package?
now, now, clark. is that what ja-sus would say?
???? I WAS BEING SARCASTIC DUDE....NOW SHUT UP. ATHEISTS ARE FILTHY COWARD-RATS
Isn't this story about the friendship between an atheist and a theist? How 2 people can have different opinions and still become friends?
Too bad that they didn't have eyeglasses for a disguise back in old-time Jerusalem. Jesus - mild-mannered preacher transforms into magical superhero to save the day!
Shhh. No need to shout.
This is a truly a great article; one of the best I've read in awhile. I do wish people would get over their resentment towards God and the faith men choose to have towards the divine. Violence exists without religion; as does corruption and bigotry. Some religions are hijacked to support these natural raw tendencies; other religions unabashedly embrace them incorporating them within their teachings. In the end, the creation itself bears witness of God and His nature and we all will be judged according to our knowledge of these self-evident truths. The mere statement of "getting rid of religion" is itself facist and demonstrates the very intolerance that religion as a whole is routinely accused of.
I love it when people of opposite views get along.
Me too. Agreeing to disagree and yet live peaceable with mutual respect is a quality of civilized people but simply makes discussions more interesting/enriching.
Atheists think they "know" what's on the otherside.....like they can bend time and space and transcend death lol
They say they know it to be a scientific fact...just like those other scientific facts; the earth is flat and the center of the universe, pluto is/isnt a planet, africans are mentally inferior to whites, etc.... Yeah those scientific facts are ...well...fact lol
atheists "know" that there is nothing on the other side. xtians are the ones who make up $&^! about heaven. ah heaven, run the the god that didn't stop hitler, even though he created the whole universe and everyone in it from nothing. not the type of guy i'd want to spend eternity with even if it were true.
Nobody knows if there is a god, an afterlife, heaven, hell, or "purgatory". It's all just speculation.
Science evolves, religion does not. You people still hate witches, for god's sake!
What claims about the "other side" do atheists make? It's religious people who make all sorts of unprovable claims about the "other side" ... Hell, heaven, Valhalla, limbo, etc. Atheists simply say if you want to know what happens when you die, go look at dead things.
"scientific facts; the earth is flat and the center of the universe"
WHAT??? Those are not scientific facts...those are christard beliefs or at least were.
Good thing you are here to show us the way, Superman
I am obviously genetically, intellectually and physically superior then you. Does that mean you should worship me as your god?
Religion/ Regurgitated disinformation that enslaves the minds of humanity to make them believe in a false reality
HI, IM AN ATHEIST LIKE YOU......LET'S HAVE BUTTSECKS
So you atheists are so grand that you now can define what is real? Let me tell you reality; we all will face death. These discussions about making up realities and whether heaven and hell are real rest in the bosom of fools. It's tantamount to arguing with children about why education is important; either you get it or you don't. In the end, you'll bear the full cost of your poor decision. Beyond death, you can debate with try proclaiming these arrogant remarks while you lay prostrate before the God of Creation.
Vartan: You can say that mumbo all you want but you have no evidence or proof to substantiate it. You are not convincing us, we have already rejected the idea of heaven and hell and we are content with that. No christian is without error, no human is without error.
I actually saw an atheist on here attack the republican party for being ...well right-wing-christians or something.
Dumb liberal atheist chimp doesnt know that Obama is a Christian...lol what a retard
Obama would have to be a Christian otherwise he couldn't be elected President. Polls show that very few people in the country would vote for an atheist President, because, you know, you can't trust people who rely only on facts and reason and not on what their imaginary friends think about them.
I appreciated the simple concept that people can be civilized in their fundamental disagreement in the nature of things. If religions and the religious, not to mention atheist and anti-theist, truly put the effort into being civil then progress could be made. At this stage though, the energy used fighting about it only holds all parties back.
Well said! I was surprised to find after reading moderate articles in the belief blog, that it attracts so many non-believers to attack and ridicule those of faith. As a Christian I always prefer someone asking me about my beliefs, rather than them attempting to tell me what I believe. Everyone needs to take time to ask, if you get a ridiculous answer, maybe it came from a ridiculous person who could not reflect that belief. I've spoken with muslims who live and talk about the qua'ran and its been an amazing revelation and lead to a much deeper understanding and appreciation, at the same time i've spoken with some who maybe were not as friendly. But lets all remember our argument ad hominems and not to apply them.
I concur. Being civilized does require civility in discourse. Admittedly, I like many others 'return fire when fired upon' but honestly don't care if a person wants to be an atheist. Jesus the Christ never advocated the abuse or oppression of those who didn't follow Him. In fact, the entire focus of His harshest remarks were directed towards the religious establishment and their hypocrisy they displayed for material/wordly advantage. In the end, we all must come to terms within our own hearts with the truth we've been given. The fact is; some will choose right and others will make the wrong choice. I simply encourage everyone (in sincerity) to cautiously and carefully consider the offer of redemption and salvation given by Christ.
Regardless of my opinion of the views of both of these men, I hope that when I die someone will write a eulogy as honest and eloquent as this one.
What a wonderful example of how people with divergent viewpoints can disagree without being disagreeable. Thanks for this interesting examination into what appeared to have been a remarkable relationship.
Heaven sent us tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and famines, plus cancers, typhoid, meningitis, lupus, and other horrible diseases that cause horrid suffering and death to millions of people worldwide.
And then god wants to torture you in hell forever if you suspect that he doesn't exist, even given that there is no specific evidence for his existence and that he apparently hasn't shown his face for at least 2000 years if ever.
Wow, god must be quite the cruel, evil jerk. To be polite.
We need to "Occupy Heaven" and throw the rascal off his chair.
You are misinformed. Rarely does God "send" disasters as you say – but when he does it is in judgement for evil. God does not send people to hell, they choose not to believe in Him and they end up there on their own. Believe it or not, God is not a micromanager of humankind – you get to choose how you live and believe – but you also face the consequences of your choices. Sometimes in this life, always in the next.
Heaven sent us tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and famines, plus cancers, typhoid, meningitis, lupus, and other horrible diseases that cause horrid suffering and death to millions of people worldwide.
And then he wants to torture you in hell forever if you suspect that he doesn't exist, even given that there is no specific evidence for his existence and that he apparently hasn't shown his face for at least 2000 years if ever.
Wow, god must be quite the cruel, evil jerk. To be polite.
Reading this article makes me regret never having met these men. As an agnostic who loves nature and marvels at the beauty and endless complexity of the universe, it would have been a pleasure to listen to an atheist who doesn't sound like an angry and disappointed lover, and an evangelical who doesn't sound like someone who can't wait to die and don their wings.
That's what happens when whiskey becomes more important than the discussion itself.
I think its funny that CNN has a story about an atheist that isnt a bad guy and that a Christian didnt hate him. By definition a Christian loves his neighbor, the weak, orphans, widows. Why is this a story? CNN= COMMIE NEWS NETWORK
"CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS IS DELICIOUS" Said the maggot eating his very dead brains.
Same ending as every one else.
How do you know patty? have you died and seen what's on the otherside? Nope...only the dead know if there is or isnt a god(s), aliens, Gary busey, etc....
So just shut your monkey mouth. Quit pretending that you the answer to lifes buggest question
I am an atheist and the question I cannot answer for my christian friends is "where did the matter that comprises the universe come from?" The law of conservation of mass seems to demand an answer that I can't figure out. Did Mr. Hitchens ever address this? Stephen Hawking? My friends 'answer' this question by saying they worship an eternal god, a concept [eternity] they say you don't need to understand in order to worship their god. Help?
Mass and energy is just a different form of the same material. Where did energy come from? Maybe it's always been there. I think it will take a while to figure that one out. Hold your breath!
First, you have to grasp the concept that something can come out of nothing. Quantum mechanics has proved this time and time again and there has been experimental confirmation of the theory. Then relating mass and energy from the famous E=mc^2 equation, it starts to make a little more sense, albeit not much. There are many theories that speculate how the universe came to be. This field of cosmology is way outside the realm of Hitchens and Hawkings doesn't specialize on it either. If you want some decent colloquial reading material on the subject I suggest "The Cosmic Landscape" by Leonard Susskind or "The Elegant Universe" and "Fabric of the Cosmos" by Brian Greene.
They simply worship to god who lives in the gaps of our knowledge. This god will always exist for we'll never have all the answers and there will always be gaps in our knowledge. The choose to envision something supernatural with zero evidence. Would you also feel the need to explain things for someone who believes in fairies?
The answer is "we don't know." It's good that we don't know things, otherwise the world would be a boring place. People thousands of years ago knew almost nothing about our world and the universe, so they were very frightened. They created stories about god(s) to explain the things they did not understand. Leaders and rulers saw this and fashioned them in order to consolidate power over mankind. Anyone objectively reading the bible can see it was written by primitive man and not a product of some all-knowing super-intelligent being. "Not knowing is much more interesting than believing
an answer which might be wrong." - Richard Feynman
Its a complicated but simple response. For starters we have to understand that whatever began to exist after the big bang can not be a property of the agent that created the big bang. Example, if mass began to exist after the big bang, then the causative agent that lead to big bang has to be massless. Following this pattern, we find that the agent of the big bang is massless, spaceless, timeless, immaterial, and uncaused. It has to be uncaused because if you have an infinite extension of pass events you would never arrive to the moment, imagine infinitely stacking dominoes behind the one you want to knock down! You would never get to today! At the same time to find meaning as to why this agent would create the universe, we think of personable reasons, reasons that are not physically based in natural materials that were created after the agent decided to do so. For that many theist determine love to be the greatest agent. Think of someone you love, you would give up any physical property for them (ie money, food, water, maybe even your life).And finally, whatever agent created the universe is obviously and indisputably the most powerful thing in the universe. So as a theist, if someone presents an agent that is uncaused and had to always be here, is massless, immaterial, spaceless, timeless, and the most powerful thing in the universe that created us for personal reasons, you get to a conclusion of the definition of God, as it applies to judeochristrian philosophy. This explanation has been described in detail by authors like William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, and many more apologists. I cant do a justice explaining it they way they could, but overall it simply states whatever created the universe can not be of this universe, if it cant be natural, then supernatural becomes the only option. Therefore using science and natural laws will never find the answer, because how could you detect an invisible powerful force that has no beginning?
In an era of 24-hour cable news blowhards shouting at the tops of thier lungs, this article was a joy to read.
What's amazing to me is that Larry Alex Taunton never accepted, despite many discussion about religion with Hitchens, that religion is a simplistic social construct and nothing else. It clearly shows that religious brainwashing, once it takes hold, is more or less permanent. It's sad that most people lack the ability to learn once they reach a certain age.
I think it's sad that you believe the only reason people think differently than you is that they've been brainwashed. Has it ever once entered your mind that they might also be free-thinking individuals, who just happened to come to a different conclusion than you?
I think if we all became pantheists, then and only then will be able to live in a world free of wars.
A ridiculous concept. How about just getting rid of religion?
Atheist love to believe that religion is the cause of all problems, I suppose religion is the cause of our economy, is the cause of world hunger, the AIDs epidemic? As a theist I grew up one day and realized anything can be treated as abuse. Personally i'm not satisfied with how our US government has lead, but is the answer anarchy? I dont like how wall-street acts but do we get rid of the markets? I dont like how people abuse the internet to hurt children but do we get rid of the world wide web? Anything can be used for abuse, its the action of those like you and me who are responsible for using it for good. If you have money in your wallet now, realize its not gonna do anything good or bad on its own, you will be responsible for determining that course. If you mess up, I dont think anyone is gonna rally for eliminating currency around the world.