The Gospel according to Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens’s earthly life is done, but has he ceased to exist? Our language — over which he had complete … Continued

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.

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  • jangothor

    You should feel shame now for putting a man who gave his all for atheism on a plane with believers. Write about something you know and stop trying to embarrass this man’s work and followers. On his death! Really?

  • rentianxiang

    Is there no limit to the shamelessness of the religious? The story of Daily is not the story of Christ – it is the story of Mark Daily. Motherly love and self-sacrifice is not particularly Christian and is seen across the spectrum of belief and non-belief. They hardly represent the “crux” of Christianity, which seems to have much more to do with a faith that Jesus is the son of God and people are supposed to believe in him. The fundamental points of Hitchen’s writings and his worldview in general put him in direct oppostition to such faith and no matter how far one may try to stretch the meaning of his work could it ever come to be viewed as “Christian” or remotely supportive of the Christian worldview. This article is ridiculous. Hitchens despised the views of the author of this article as anyone who has actually read him would see.

  • mjk380

    This article gives a revealing glimpse of the inherent irrationality of the religious mind. The circumstances behind Daily’s self-sacrifice are in no way comparable to those of Jesus. Although Hitchens admired Daily’s actions in a time of war, he clearly found the absurd self-sacrifice of Jesus distasteful. To say that all acts of selflessness and love are reflective of Christian values is just being disingenuous. What a laughably ignorant article.

  • Brianrrs37

    What a steamy pile. Maternal love and self sacrifice were around long before the Hebrew religion or it’s spin off Christianity. You are trying to retrofit his story to a myth written 2,000 years ago. Of course he loved his mother, most humans do and it does not require a belief in a magic baby to do that.

    All human’s myths will die when our species goes extinct because there will be no future generation to sell our myths to.

    Macbeth act 5 scene 5, look it up, a reality a much wiser person wrote in a play.. A much wiser man than any of the writers of the gospels. One reality that if we face collectively will take away our divisions and allow us to focus on the one provable reality we have in common.

  • Brianrrs37

    What a steamy pile. Maternal love and self sacrifice were around long before the Hebrew religion or it’s spin off Christianity. You are trying to retrofit his story to a myth written 2,000 years ago. Of course he loved his mother, most humans do and it does not require a belief in a magic baby to do that.

    All human’s myths will die when our species goes extinct because there will be no future generation to sell our myths to.

    Macbeth act 5 scene 5, look it up, a reality a much wiser person wrote in a play.. A much wiser man than any of the writers of the gospels. One reality that if we face collectively will take away our divisions and allow us to focus on the one provable reality we have in common.

    There is no god needed to accept reality the way it is. God/s/dieties/entities/super natural. are merely our species gap filling in an attempt to replace our parents and ignore our finite existence. It is mere anthropomorphism. Understand why you don’t believe that the sun is a god, like the Egyptians falsely did, and you’ll understand why I reject your claims as well and this horrible analogy here.

  • bdballard

    What a shocking load of self serving and sanctimonious cliche. To attempt to hijack the lives (and deaths) of Hitchens and Daily in this fashion is truly reprehensible. If this is what his servants get up to, no wonder Jesus wept.

  • Brianrrs37

    And in the west we value in our governments things like the right to privacy and our autonomy as individuals, and the protection of dissent. The God of Jesus is one who stalks you in a game he set up with arbitrary rules you cannot change or vote him out of office.

    The Jesus character takes your own right to decide for yourself away from you, you have no autonomy to make decisions for yourself and if you make one he doesn’t like, you cant merely leave the club. Much like an abusive spouse will stalk and either bribe to come back or threaten to come back, either way, ultimately leaving is not an option.

    The god Character is a ruler by force and might, not one through consent. You have no final say, you cannot impeach him or vote him out of office and you cannot change his laws. In real life our western society is everything the bible isn’t. We are civil, there is nothing human or civil written in that book.

  • Brianrrs37

    Hitchens wouldn’t care about this person saying this, he’s dead, he knew that when he died he’d have no way of caring. I care more about this opinion authors bad use of logic, not it’s timing.

    I don’t care what people will say about me after I die. I care what claims people make while i live, especially when it comes to global politics and education. I have a right to care and blasphemy of anyone, including Hitchens, should not matter as much as the truth.

  • catatonicjones

    After I ate, I pooped. This reminds me of our lord Jesus Christ, he pooped too.

    What a silly person you are.

  • mjk380

    This guy must be an amazing lawyer……

  • mjk380

    or girl, whatever

  • catatonicjones

    You don’t get the connection? How many religious writers have we seen in the past few days claiming some kind of religious message from Hitchens or his work?

    Remember the ‘god particle’ … we saw it there too.

    Let me use a word here: spurious. What is with these people …

  • ajahmadi

    Please do not sully Hitchen’s memory with an over-reaching attempt at “christening” him. His love for his mother and admiration for Daily are normal human emotions. In the Bible, there are many examples of Christ mistreating his own mother. If you actually read theENTIRE bible, you might find that Christ wasn’t exactly as benevolent as you might think.

  • tony55398

    The unbelievers are always blaming God for their own failings or the failings of others. Ah yes there can’t be a God because, etc.

  • zaphod0042

    Seriously? The onus is not on ‘unbelievers’ to supply proof of non-existence, just as there is no burden to prove a negative in saying that Santa Clause isn’t real, that a planet sized teapot doesn’t orbit the earth, or that there is no such thing as invisible pink unicorns. If someone does profess belief in those or similar claims (insert belief in a supernatural deity here), they have the daunting and I suspect somewhat inconvenient task of shouldering the burden of proof.

    It also demonstrates either a lack of engagement with even moderately well-reasoned atheists, and/or a lack of understanding of the terms employed, to suggest that one is blaming something on that which is not believed in–it is a startlingly circular and vapid statement.

  • ThomasBaum

    As far as “In the Bible, there are many examples of Christ mistreating his own mother”, name one or many if you like.

  • ezrasalias-socialize

    Gayle Trotter can Christen Hitchens all she wants, but I am sure he would have some acerbic words in response. Her column reminds me of the Mormon’s baptizing dead people into their Church (including Anne Frank). Like Hitchens, your savior is dead and not coming back; and Hitchen’s body of work is far more impressive and real.

  • tony55398

    Explain your reasoning for a Godless existence. My belief is because Christ revealed Himself to me, no lie, though I had already believed in His existence beforehand. Absolute Love, absolute power. Reasoning cannot prove His existence, nor disprove, faith alone can, and once you believe and have faith it will become more clear. Simply put, all the argumentation does little and may do great harm. Did all creation spring from nothing?

  • zaphod0042

    For the same reason I live a ‘Santa Clause-less existence': no reason or publicly accessible evidence exists to believe in either absent deep seated credulity. Following your own statement, if reason cannot prove the existence of god, then no reply need be given for not believing, as no reason has been offered to accept. Nor do I suspect that any reasoned person would attempt to prove a negative by any means as it is self-defeating.

    So, I can’t prove that Santa Claus or celestial teapots don’t exist, but again no reason has been given to seriously believe those things in the first place. Faith is belief absent evidence, and clearly that leads to all kinds of outlandish, irrationial beliefs, not the least of which includes snakes and burning bushes which speak, virgin births, as well as supposedly supernaturally endorsed genocides and enslavement of peoples. If reason is not used to inform beliefs there no longer exists a basis with which to reject any claim presented to those exercising such credulity. If you accept faith in one case then you have no tools left to dismiss other beliefs and practices, whether they are bad or incidentally good. No one can rightly claim to know the origin of existence, but that does not make favorable the fallacy of appeal to ignorance made by those of ‘faith’.

  • KesterFelixStrange

    Reads like wishful thinking. Another sobbing replay of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ Do all other religions try to salvage a lost soul after death? Or is this the Christian way of not speaking ill of the dead?

  • zaphod0042

    To wit: why not have faith in the flying spaghetti monster (FSM)? “As soon as you have faith and believe, it will all become clear”. Don’t worry about the moral justness of FSM’s commandments since “all the argumentation does little and may do great harm”.

  • nkri401

    tony55398,

    Hello,

    I’m wondering if you can see the irony, oxymoron, mutual exclusivity in your statement “unbelievers are always blaming God”?
    How can one blame God which one does not believe?

  • nkri401

    zaphod0042,

    My apologies, you had pointed out the obvious already!
    It seems believers either cannot understand circular reasoning or willfully ignore it.

  • nkri401

    ThomasBaum,

    I think the point of ajahmadi is that a childrern’s love for their mother is very natural and common. Probably true before Christ and after as well.

    If he is wrong about the example in the bible will it mean he is also wrong about one’s love for the mother?

  • duffey36

    Gayle, I thought this article was going well until the last five paragraphs in which you showed a complete lack of understanding of Hitchens’ own life and message by cheapening it with your comparison to the fictional new testament story of Jesus. Your comparison is shoddy and pretentious and diminishes and distracts from the beauty and courage of the Mark Daily story.

  • zaphod0042

    Agreed. Having spent a good amount of time debating ‘believers’, I honestly don’t believe that repetition of objections is going to hurt.

  • nkri401

    zaphod0042, tony55398

    Below, I had my bit snarky knee-jerk response to tony55398 regarding “unbelievers are always blaming God”. Not that devoutly religious are not constantly making a circular argument (how could they not; most religion is based on circular reasoning), FWIW, I think I know what tony is saying –

    I realized it when I was reading eulogy by Sally Quinn for C. H.; she said ” …when I was an atheist…”

    I think, the “unbeliever” Tony is referring are the atheists who used to be quite religious but various life experience contradicts (Theodicy? How could a loving God let ______ happen) their belief and came to a conclusion that ergo “God does not exit”, i.e. “blaming God”.

    Tony55398 – Do I have it right? Sorry for jumping to a conclusion, in any case, and double sorry if I’m being presumptuous…

    Zaphod – As seductive as circular reasoning is deductive reasoning can be even more so because we are taught to think deductively. And then, lot of us confuse deductive with making inference (inductive) and no wonder if we can think at all…

  • nkri401

    Arrg… “God does not exit” – “exist”; does anyone know of context checker?

    However, “God does not exit” could be the next slogan for the religious; i.e. God will be eternal, always be here, never going away…

  • ThomasBaum

    nkri401

    I asked ajahmadi a very specific question concerning what he said concerning the relationship between Jesus and His mother that is talked about in the bible not a generalized question concerning mothers and their children.

    If he is wrong about what he said concerning the relationship between Jesus and His mother mentioned in the bible than he is wrong about what he said concerning Jesus and Mary, no more and no less.

  • Rongoklunk

    Hitchens would have nothing but contempt for these really disgusting comments.
    Unlike you he thought of the afterlife as being just wishful thinking.

    Childhood indoctrination is the only way to make folks religious. Otherwise they find no reason to believe any of it. It’s the oldest scam of them all.

  • zaphod0042

    I’ll gladly listen to any actual evidence of where my reasoning has been circular in my posts, or where I’ve mixed up deductive and inductive logic. Giving benefit of the doubt, deep skepticism of the kind you might be hinting at is a welcome discussion, but it is a very different type of discussion, one which very few in my experience are well equipped to have. That aside, there is nothing within logic that by its own nature precludes the possibility of a god, so I don’t thi

  • zaphod0042

    …so I don’t think that my post loses any of its force, but again, I’ll gladly here any well grounded objection(s).

  • nkri401

    Hello zaphodoo42,

    I reread my post in view of your reply and I can see that my attempt to be succint failed rather badly.

    I was lamenting MY OWN thought process to you because from your other posts, seemed you would understand and perphaps add some wisdom.

    What I was wondering is that how would I know if I’m not doing the wishfull thinking myself? I suppose it’s bit easier if a repeatable test can be performed but most of the life situations do not allow redos.

    Something completely different – the question of free will came up on other thread and I posed a question –
    If my “free will” conflicts with your “free will”, then whose “free will” would be realized and why? Have you seen this line of thinking?

  • ThomasBaum

    Rongoklunk wrote:

    “Childhood indoctrination is the only way to make folks religious. Otherwise they find no reason to believe any of it. It’s the oldest scam of them all.”

    Many people write this same line over and over but there are those that were raised atheist, that have fallen for, as you put it, “the oldest scam of all”, and I suppose this “oldest scam of all” is anything outside the “provable” by human means for some people.

    You look at it as “indoctrination” while I look at it, and I am speaking for me personally, as a gift from God that I was taught as I was, so as to be “open enough” to even think that there could be something more than meets the eye, so to speak.

    I have asked myself, “Is this all there is?”, and it may have been years after this question was asked by me but this question was answered.

    I know virtually nothing about Christopher Hitchens but I would think that there just may have been more to him than the “box” that you put him into as far as your “nothing but contempt” comment concerning what his thoughts would have been.

    In other words, I do not think that you can or should even try to speak authoritatively for Christopher Hitchens, it is merely your opinion that he “would have nothing but contempt”.

    Not only do we, humans, try to put God in a “box” but we sometimes try to put each other in a “box”.

    Each and every human being, that ever was, is or will be, is unique, at least that is what I believe even tho there are some that do not believe this and I do not believe that any of us can speak “authoritatively” for anyone else.

  • zaphod0042

    As I’m sure many others would agree, I have very little if any wisdom. As to your first point, do some reading on epistemology–Wittgenstein, Kripke, and Nagel are a good start. The questions and bewilderment you’ll experience will hurt your brain (in a good way) and keep you up into the wee hours of the morning, believe me. Nothing like having your very basic and core understanding about the nature of reality shook to the core.

    In so far as I understand your last statement (which I don’t think I do), I have not seen that line of thinking. I don’t see free will as being competitive in some (metaphysical) sense outside of the political and social sphere (which shouldn’t be surprising), though questions about free will are incredibly interesting. In what sense do you mean that your free will might conflict with say, mine? Example?

    Dennet tends to be rather accessible, and I think he has dedicated a fair amount of thought to the topic, and to start probably has some talks you can find on google. Good luck!

  • zaphod0042

    Thoughtful post, but nah, Hitchens likely would’ve been full of contempt, and I say that having really enjoyed listening to him speak.

  • ThomasBaum

    Thank you for your reply, and like I have already said, I know virtually nothing about Christopher Hitchens but I did read an article, I think it may have been in Newsweek, about the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Francis Collins and toward the end of it, Hitchens made a statement concerning God.

    I don’t have the exact quote but he said something to the effect: If there is a God, God would be much more than most say about God.

    I have said something similiar, Many, many try to put God in a “box”, someone else, I don’t know who, has said: God created us in His Image and Likeness and we have been trying to return the favor ever since.

  • zaphod0042

    I think the quote you’re after is Voltaire, who was a deist:
    “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor”.

  • ThomasBaum

    This may have been where it can from, I do not know.

    But what I wrote, “God created us in His Image and Likeness and we have been trying to return the favor ever since” is just exactly what so many people do, put God in a “box” without knowing anything about God.

    This includes many who do know one thing about God and it is pretty obvious that this is the only thing about God that they know.