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Christopher Hitchens’s earthly life is done, but has he ceased to exist? Our language — over which he had complete mastery — leads us to believe that “Hitch” lives on in his voluminous writings, audio and video recordings, and in the hearts of his loved ones and adoring fans and furious opponents.
Yet, in reading his recent memoir, “Hitch-22,” whose title quite appropriately references Hitch’s own life of paradox, can one see the outline of a gospel according to Hitchens?
Did the world’s most notorious atheist, whose given name means “Christ bearer,” inadvertently preach the gospel?
The strongest chapters in the book are about two doctrines that are the crux of the Biblical narrative: maternal love and self-sacrifice. Yet Hitchens does not tell them as doctrines.
Instead, he unearths his own personal history to explore his thoughts and emotions about two of his deeply upsetting life experiences.
His love for his mother shines clearly in every sentence he writes about her. Even her name, “Yvonne,” sounds exotic and appealing to him. He acknowledges what a difference it makes to “have a passionate lady in one’s own corner.”
He recounts the time he ran into his mother on the street, while a man was holding his mother’s packages for her. Later he found out that Yvonne had taken up with that man, an ex-minister. Yvonne, seeking her son’s approval of her affair, also told Hitchens that she had had two abortions, one before he was born and one afterwards.
Hitchens recalls the last time he saw his mother. After having dinner with Yvonne and her lover, Hitchens gave her a kiss. Later, whenever he passed the spot of their last kiss, he has the pain of knowing that “she had been absolutely everything to me in her way.”
When he learns of her death, perhaps at the hands of her lover, it is a “lacerating and howling moment” in his life. He eventually learns that she actually had entered a suicide pact with her lover, and as a result, “her defeat and despair became his for a long time.”
In attempting to bury Yvonne, Hitchens learns from the priest in charge of the cemetery that suicides cannot be buried in consecrated ground. Hitchens offers a bribe, and the priest relents, “as the priesthood generally does.”
Hitchens also learns after Yvonne’s death that she is of Jewish heritage.
Despite her personal failings, bad decisions, and humanness, Yvonne calls to mind an archetypal mother, Mary. The mother-child bond may be the most powerful bond in human experience.
Hitchens sees what an advantage it is to have a mother who is passionately advocating on behalf of her children, just as Mary does for her child and his followers. Hitchens shares this belief in maternal power with the millions in history who, praying the rosary, have believed in the power of Mary’s intercession for her children.
While Yvonne concealed her Jewishness and Mary lived in an oppressed Jewish culture, their shared Jewishness affected both of their lives and affected their sons, Jesus and Christopher, as well.
Hitchens had a profound effect on a young man named Mark Jennings Daily. In a postscript to his chapter on Mesopotamia (Iraq), Hitchens writes about how he froze when he read the LA Times story about the combat death of Daily who joined the military after reading Hitchens’s moral case for the war in Iraq.
Hitchens writhed in his chair as he contemplated: “Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I have never met to place himself in the path of an IED?”
After contacting the family, he learned that Daily had tried to contact Hitchens from Iraq unsuccessfully. Hitchens felt a “gash in his hide” that despite Hitchens reading reams of daily junk email, Daily’s “precious one” had not reached him.
Hitchens praised the Daily family as “one of the most generous and decent families,’ because they tried to make Hitchens feel better despite grieving themselves.
“Why are we robbed of his contribution?” Hitchens plaintively asks. From a letter that Daily wrote to his young wife, “My desire to ‘save the world’ is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you.”
Daily had volunteered to switch places with a father of seven for the dangerous mission. After Daily’s death, the wife of the man whose life Daily had saved wrote that she “felt both awfully guilty and humbly grateful that her husband had been spared by Mark’s heroism.”
Daily managed to give his life on behalf of his nation generally, the Iraqis craving freedom from Saddam’s brutal regime, and more specifically, a father of seven.
Hitchens joined the family for Daily’s memorial service where he recited a piece from the last scene of MacBeth, “He only lived but till he was a man . . . but like a man he died.”
The story of Mark Daily is the story of Christ. Christ put himself in the place of humanity generally and Christopher Hitchens specifically. Like the wife whose husband Daily saved, Hitchens feels both “awfully guilty” and “humbly grateful” for Daily’s sacrifice.
A Christian can hardly read Hitchens’s account of Daily’s story, with the guilt and humility Hitchens feels in learning of it, without feeling grateful for Christ’s sacrifice. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
With his love of his mother Yvonne, despite her failings, and his admiration of Daily, Hitchens’s memoir had the key ingredients for understanding the Christian message of good news, of sacrifice, love, redemption, and glory.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Hitchens is now face to face. And like many others, I believe that he will learn that he is known, and that the message of Christ’s love for him was with him all along.
Gayle Trotter is a Washington, D.C, lawyer and a writer for First Things.