In New Book, Evangelical Writer Suggests Christopher Hitchens Was Shaky In His Atheism

A photo in Mr. Tauton’s office shows him with Mr. Hitchens at a debate in St. Louis in 2008. (Credit: Cary Norton for The New York Times)
A photo in Mr. Tauton’s office shows him with Mr. Hitchens at a debate in St. Louis in 2008. (Credit: Cary Norton for The New York Times)

Of all that can transpire in a bedroom, nothing can be as titillating to the religious, or those of us who write about them, as a dying man’s conversion.

Oscar Wilde’s deathbed baptism remains a coup for the Roman Catholic Church 116 years later, and an embarrassment for those who cherish his legacy of hedonism. In his new biography of the poet Wallace Stevens, Paul Mariani repeats the claim that Mr. Stevens was baptized by a priest as he lay dying in a Hartford hospital.

There are others. Karen Edmisten, in her 2013 book “Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line,” recounts, with varying degrees of historical support, the putative deathbed conversions of Buffalo Bill Cody, John Wayne, the gangster Dutch Schultz and the mathematician John von Neumann.

The latest controversy about a late-in-life religious turn involves Christopher Hitchens, one of world’s most prominent atheists. In his new book, “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist,” the evangelical writer Larry Alex Taunton writes about his friendship with Mr. Hitchens, the witty and impious author of “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” who died of esophageal cancer in 2011. Mr. Taunton describes intimate talks that occurred during drives the two took together, which left him wondering if a dying Mr. Hitchens was edging toward belief in God. Unsurprisingly, evangelicals have celebrated the book, while some of Mr. Hitchens’s secular friends have winced.

Mr. Taunton runs the Fixed Point Foundation, which organizes debates between Christians and atheists. In September 2010, five months after Mr. Hitchens’s diagnosis of cancer, he and “Hitch” drove the 13 hours from Mr. Hitchens’s home in Washington, D.C., to a Fixed Point debate in Birmingham, Ala. The next month, after an event in Billings, Mont., they took a seven-hour trip to, and around, Yellowstone National Park.

As Mr. Taunton drove, Mr. Hitchens read aloud from the Gospel of John and mulled over the precise reason Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. “Where is grace in the Old Testament?” Hitchens asked at one point, in Mr. Taunton’s telling. “I see it in the New Testament, but God is different in the Old Testament,” Mr. Hitchens observed, leading to a discussion of God’s covenant with Abraham.

Based principally on these conversations, Mr. Taunton concluded that Mr. Hitchens was seeking — and that he was, at least, open to — the possibility that Christianity was true. Perhaps, Mr. Taunton writes, Mr. Hitchens “used his position as a journalist as a kind of professional cover for a very personal inquiry” into the faith.

Several Christian magazines have trumpeted Mr. Taunton’s work. In the Christian journal Books & Culture, Douglas Wilson wrote that “fewer things are sadder than the death of a defiant atheist,” yet Mr. Taunton’s “simply outstanding” book offers just enough hope for Hitchens’s salvation to make it useful for the church. “Ministers will be strengthened and evangelists encouraged,” he wrote.

Secular publications have been kind, too, with Publishers Weekly noting Mr. Taunton’s “smooth and accessible prose.”

But in an article by the Religion News Service last month, friends of Mr. Hitchens took exception with the book’s conclusions.

Steve Wasserman, a literary agent and editor, and an executor of Mr. Hitchens’s estate, described the book as “a shabby business” in which “unverifiable conversations” are made to “contradict everything Christopher Hitchens ever said or stood for.”

Having evangelical friends is a testament to Mr. Hitchens’s “intellectual tolerance and largeness of heart, not to any covert religiosity,” Benjamin Schwarz, his former editor at The Atlantic, was quoted as saying.

In an interview, Mr. Taunton said that his rather modest claims were being misunderstood.

“I wasn’t at his deathbed,” Mr. Taunton, 48, said. “I think on that first road trip Christopher was contemplating conversion. Do I think he had a conversion? No.” By the second road trip, he said, the moment seemed to have passed.

While The Christian Post declared that, according to the book, Mr. Hitchens “was contemplating conversion to evangelical Christianity,” Mr. Taunton said that was wrong: Even if Mr. Hitchens had come to some sort of belief, it is not clear what he would have believed in. Jesus Christ? An indescribable higher power? The Jews’ God (late in life, Mr. Hitchens learned his mother, and thus he, was Jewish)?

“Contemplating conversion and being close to Christ are two very different things,” Mr. Taunton said.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Mark Oppenheimer

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