the faith of christopher hitchens

Being relevant is over-rated.

Settle down. I'm not saying it is unimportant, just that it is over-rated. To pursue it with such fervour and make it so important for so long, as has been the case in my home country of New Zealand, has been a mistake. For all sorts of reasons. As I have written elsewhere, it diminishes the centrality of the holiness of God. It lop-sides the Christian life, leaning it towards being gracey-salty, while looking for ways to avoid being lighty-truthy. It misreads the New Testament where the impulse for the local church is more about resistance, than it is relevance.

Goodness me - how on earth do you read the stories of influential public figures like Joseph and Esther and Daniel, or read letters like 1 Peter and Revelation, and emerge with the pursuit of relevance being so important? I can't see it. Where and when do we feel the cross to be an offence and the gospel to be foolishness, as Paul said it would be? Where and when are we 'hated for Christ's sake', as Jesus said we would be? My hunch is that those besotted with relevance just wanna be loved a bit too much...

There is a way out of this misguided maze. Every time the word 'relevance' is about to emerge from my mouth - I suppress it, stuff it back down the oesophagus - and consider using the word 'intrigue' instead. Rather than trying to fit in - why not aim to stand out? Not because we are stupid or silly, but because we are surprising, distinctive, contrasting, attractive and intriguing. Afterall, aren't we more likely to win some, if we are winsome?

Now I have found a case study for this little thesis. A riveting read. The other day it sustained me through a three hour flight of unrelenting turbulence (only partially sustained, it must be said): Larry Taunton's The Faith of Christopher Hitchens (Thomas Nelson, 2016). As always, the eyes drift towards the subtitle for a more accurate description: 'the restless soul of the world's most notorious atheist'.

It is the story of how a tough atheist - who made a career of destroying Christianity - may have come close to the kingdom of God. Like the dubious accountant, Hitchens acknowledges that he was 'keeping two books' in his life. His was 'a divided self' in which there was a public 'book' (the atheist undermining faith), while the private 'book' showed someone increasingly open to Christianity.

What fed this private journey? He was intrigued. 'Real believers surprised him' (82), with the author being one of them (as was John Lennox, the noted apologist from Oxford - and a young girl, but I won't ruin that chapter for you!). Gracey-salty Christians drew near with care and friendship. But what intrigued Hitchens was that they continued to be lighty-truthy as they did so. As the author observes:
They were eager to debate him and defend their beliefs, yes, but they were also inviting him out to dinner or a drink afterwards. That's what he really came to admire: the combination of deep and sincere convictions, which doctrine-waffling Liberal Christians had set aside, and a willingness to defend those convictions in polite debate wrapped up in (warm hospitality) (88).
Hitchens was not attracted to those who saw 'God as a buffet line where one chooses what he likes while skipping the dishes he doesn't: "I'll take some redemption, hold the repentance"' (92) - and yet this is exactly what those besotted with relevance tend to do, so concerned as they are to show God's best side to the public and market him well. At one point, Hitchens writes:
I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque writings of the inter-faith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing (as quoted on p88).
Later Taunton adds these observations:
Sincerity does not trump truth. Afterall one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction (152).
The friendship was genuine and reciprocated. On meeting Hitchens for the first time, the author expected 'to meet a radical atheist jihadist' (94) - but 'our rapport was immediate' (96).

There are some delightful passages in the book. The way the author sees the plot and denouement in the film 3.10 to Yuma to be a metaphor for Hitchens' faith journey (112-113). Then there is driving through the Shenandoah reading and discussing John's gospel together (118-135). Hitchens' final debate (before he died of cancer) was with the author in Billings, Montana (136-152), before they headed off to Yellowstone together. It is Taunton's view that towards the end of his life Hitchens was 'weighing the cost of conversion ... while he was railing against God from the nostrum, he was secretly negotiating with him ... (and he) seemed to be trying to negotiate down the cost of discipleship (164, 168).' But was there a deathbed conversion? Who knows - only God and Taunton is content to leave it with him.

Given the reality that this all sounds like Hitchens might have become a heretic within the atheistic community of faith, there are plenty of people lining up to discredit this book because there is a lot at stake for them. For example, here is the author taking some considerable heat earlier this year on the BBC's Newsnight programme:

I don't find this inquisition too convincing, but it is an important part of the story and needs to be engaged. But so also does the reality that this is essentially a story about an unlikely friendship. And so let's finish with this little piece (watch it right to the end!):

nice chatting



Tim Bulkeley said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Bulkeley said…
Thanks for posting this, I am borrowing the book from the library (currently on hold) and reading the preview, it sounds enthralling.
Paul Windsor said…
Enjoy. Let me know what you think when you are finished!

Andrew Reyngoud said…
Thank you for this. "Relevant" is a word that has many meanings and definitions. It is only as I have understood the way that you are defining it that I have fully appreciated your insights.
Jenny McDowall said…
Thank you Paul for this blog. I found it was really thought-provoking and a challenge to live out the grace while not holding back on the truth.
Paul Windsor said…
Good to hear from you, Jenny and Andrew.

I am glad you found it helpful.

Yes, Andrew - 'relevant' can be understood in various ways - some helpful, some unhelpful. For me, the key issue is measuring the strength of our inner impulse not just to live in our societies, but to FIT in and go with the flow with trends/'fashions' etc that are occurring - as the key to being effective in mission. [So, for example: Cafes are cool. Let's have a cafe]. This is what is misguided. Far better to resist, go against the flow, stick out as distinctive - and do it all in winsome and intriguing manner, even people think you to be a bit odd. [So, for example: if that cafe is simply like all the other cafes, only better - it is not sufficient as a missional initiative. Where is the light? Where is the truth? Where is the gospel? What is it that makes this cafe intriguingly and winsomely different from the others, even if it means the foot-traffic ends up being less?]. Those are the sorts of the questions/issues which need to be part of the equation.



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