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.
About this blog
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.
I'm an atheist. I'm not in the same league as Hitchens, intellectually, but I've spent time studying other religions. I have Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Christian friends. It's a really small group that I can talk to about purpose in life, good and evil, heaven and hell and not get hammered by rote arguments an ad hominem attacks. The conversations mentioned in this article are the ones I enjoy the most, but they are few and far between. I enjoy a good speaker that can interpret the stories in the Bible or Quran. For 50 years of indoctrination and threats, these are the conversations that come closest to my heart. My only faith in the redeeming qualities of man are that I can meet people with diametrically opposed viewpoints, we can discuss them, and with passion, and have our friendship strengthened.
Sry, Jewish, Christian, MORMON and Muslim 🙂
One less Marxist in the world only about 500,000,000 to go.
Madeleine O'Hare: the founder of the American Atheist Movement in America, murdered, hacked to death along with her illegitimate son..by her own followers, why? MONEY. NOT RELIGION, NOT VALUES, NOT IDEAS,NOT PHILOSOPHIES, BUT AN ATHEIST WAS KILLED OVER MONEY. BTW..MOST DYED IN THE WOOL LIBS ARE MOTIVATED BY THE ALMIGHTY DOLLAR, NOT GOD.
And by that logic, all atheists are without morals?
And you say all of this because this is what good christians do, say hateful things?
Reason leads the human race forward, and one day reason will lead the entire human race forward.
THE MARQUIS DE SADE (LIBERALS: SADIST...) I HAVE TO OVER-EXPLAIN WHEN LIBERALS READ, SINCE THEY TYPICAL SIT ON THEIR BRAINS MOST OF THE DAY...
THE MARQUIS DE SADE, THE MOST INFAMOUS HEDONIST TO EVER LIVE, DIED AT ABOUT 75, SO HE OUTLIVED THE LIKES OF HITCHENS BY MORE THAN 10 YEARS...EAT YOUR HEART OUT BILL MAHER, YOU'RE NEXT, LOL.
And you say all of this because this is what good christians do, they say hateful things?
Please quit yelling.
Hirchens, finally found his God, amen.
Their heads argued but their hearts did not, a lesson for everyone in these days of partisanship and intolerance.
RIP Christopher Hitchens, my biggest respects.
This was a good article – and I am an atheist who has little but contempt for evangelicals.
Sorry for the grammar and mis spelled words on my last comment.
As an atheist who believes that love is the answer, I find this a beautiful article. Respect and peace to all, believers and otherwise.
To Clark Kent:
Please tell me how atheists are spreading hate..... While you're doing this I'm going to get out my big book of religious wars to explain to you how religions spreads hate....
Referencing Clark Kents previous posts it seems him and other 'believers' have this preoccupation with butt s3x. Funny...I'm not gay and I really don't have any problems with peoples s3xual preferences, but if I'm going to attack some lamebrain for their ridiculous stance on some issue I'm not about to use some derogatory(to gays) comment. Instead I'll call it like it is...such as...'you're an idiot'...'a moron'...'braindead'...etc. I don't give a flip who you're sleeping with.
I like the gist of this piece, but the author has no idea how to use introductory clauses. After the second dangling one (wince wince) I could barely go on. In the second paragraph, we are never told who "a journalist and polemicist" is. The subject has to be there. Then he writes "Calling him on his cell one day, he..." Uh no, HE wasn't calling, "I" was calling.
Sloppy sloppy sloppy.
Your comment is shallow and pedantic.
If onl republicans and democrats could learn from these two gentlemen. I am atheist as well but I believe everone has the right to believe whatever the want and debate it in a civilized and intelligent manner. Did not agree with Hitchins view on Iraq but he was a ver intellogent and gourageous gentleman. RIP Charles and thanks Larry.
Ultimately, we simply don't know. And any other conclusion other than the knowledge that concludes we do know is faith-based. Now you can believe in your heart what you want, and you can debate Ad nauseam the finest point of Religion and Philosophy, but the only truth that can be Indisputable to a rational, sound mind is that, ultimately, we simply don't know.
Very good article indeed.
I did not like Hitchens views but as a person a human being, a brother in mankind I do love him,
I do not expect for people to believe as I believe ,just respect my beliefs an also Christians should respect the beliefs of others.
Someone posted about how evil the bible is, here is a thought christians are not rich and yet when something goes wrong we are there helping people out putting our lives on the line and sacrificing for others.
How evil is that? For us to put aside are jobs and families to help those in need around the world?
We are not forcing anyone to believe in what we believe we are just stating what we believe just like a TV channel if you do not like it change t.
I hate violence on TV so what do I do change it.
I do admit some Christians are to critical of others and this is wrong, we should not judge others but pray for others, atheist comments never bother me, I view it as a person who just has his own view about how he feels about how the world existence and what will happen when they finally die.
I debated against a few atheist and some of there views are just personal hatred towards GOD, one atheist lost family members back to back and he said he asked GOD to save them and GOD did not so he felt like GOD was fake.
Another said he could not believe in what he can't see,another asked GOD to do a magic trick and it never happened,other follow other atheist who use bogus and un reliable sources to spread their hatred towards GOD.
Others just believe google,and wiki and youtube and a few GOD haters who have problems trying to prove their own belief let alone trying to discredit other beliefs.
Atheist should really just call themselves GOD haters because the original feeling which they display is hatred for GOD.
My advice to christians is let them do as they wish, and just pray for them,and my advice to atheist is if you do not believe in GOD then why fight against something you dont believe in, when I see atheist trying to dictate what others do it comes off as a dictatorship you want to force your atheist belief,while we christians just invite others to taste salvation you need not accept it is totally up to you.
Sorry for Hitchens anytime we lose someone ,a life it is always sad.
You must be a rather rare Christian. Seems that you cannot trust a Christian to refrain from attempting another soul-saving with everyone they meet. Eventually, they always get around to trying the relationship by bringing their love of Christ into the conversation and making the sales pitch.
Christian are not commanded to force some one to change, we are suppose to live accordingly and allow the peace in us make an impression on others.
We spread the Gospel because we are commanded to, but not force our beliefs,this comes from ignorant pastors,some pastors are chosen to lead and others choose themselves as pastors this is where the ignorance comes from.
We are commanded to love our enemies, reason I love Hitchens and my atheist friends true love is loving someone who hates you.
Also people mix Christianity with cults, a cult is a religion where a man instead of GOD dictates what you should and should not do. It becomes about the man on the pulpit instead of the one who created all things.
I can't speak for the majority of atheists as you can, but myself and others I know do not hate your God. We we don't try to fight against your God. We just don't believe. If I were to make all of the same generalizations about believers as you just made towards atheists, you would claim I was spreading hatred towards your beliefs. Please don't start a comment about how the beliefs of others should be respected and then make generalizations based upon what you think their beliefs are because you debated with a few people that had a bad day.
Hitch had a lot of sycophantic followers. I guess anyone who speaks so well the things others think is bound to find a loyal posse. He was my introduction to Others Who Think Like Me: that's not to say I marched in lockstep with him. I found him rude and abrasive, often when I thought the opposite would have worked better. But I loved to hear him speak. I've read all his books, and hope to one day have the intellectual consistency he had- the kind that makes it hard for other to put a label on. A truly Free Thinker.
Even Satan can appear as an angel of light.
That is not a nice thing to say about Mr. Taunton. He sounds like a decent guy even if he is an evangelical. And he is a very moving writer.
Oh, Hawaiigal . . . you be funny! I do appreciate a nice ironic turn.
evolution,plate techtonics,Pangia spread,escarpments,mid oceanic ridges, fossil fuels and animal plant fossils ,natural selection,sedimentary rock formations all proof earth is billions of years old
But If I close my eyes to all this can I still believe in God?