Christopher Hitchens was a very complex man, but one thing was clear. He was not a man who was kind to scribes and debate opponents who did not do their homework.
If someone wanted to talk to Hitchens -- especially in a professional setting -- about a topic upon which he had opined, then he or she had better be ready to answer this question, delivered in that famous whiskey-and-cigarettes British baritone: "Well, you HAVE read my book, haven't you?"
Woe unto those who could not answer in the affirmative or who tried to fake their way around the question.
This brings me to the current mini-media storm, on both sides of the Atlantic, inspired by Christian apologist Larry Taunton's new book "The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World's Most Notorious Atheist."
If you watch the BBC interview attached to this post, you can see that -- even when dealing with newsrooms at the top of the global information food chain -- it's clear that many journalists simply are not reading this book before they start arguing about it.
I say this because I have read the book and I also talked to Taunton about the controversy, for this week's "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate. This journalism cautionary tale was also the subject of this week's "Crossroads" podcast, with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.
So what is causing all of this fuss?
To state if bluntly, some people are saying that Taunton claims that Hitchens -- in the time during which he was fighting esophageal cancer -- experience one of those infamous "death bed" conversions to Christianity or some kind of faith. As I note in my column:
Taunton makes no claim that Hitchens experienced a religious conversion during this time. In fact, his book closes with a chapter that -- while noting it's impossible to know what happens between a person and God -- stresses that Hitchens kept reaffirming his atheistic beliefs.
"What I am saying is that Christopher was asking serious questions and was sincerely interested in learning more about what Christians like me believe," said Taunton. ...
It's crucial, said Taunton, that Hitchens was genuinely shaken by 9/11. Afterward, in addition to embracing a fierce brand of patriotism, he dedicated more of his time to attacking forms of institutionalized religion, especially militant Islam, that he considered evil. However, he knew logically that it was hard for an atheist to talk about good and evil in absolute, transcendent terms.
Thus, Taunton argues that Hitchens had "faith" in something higher than atheism. That private faith may have been patriotism, or justice, or the importance of friendship, or a proud confidence in his own intellect and force of will.
"If you are trying to unlock the Christopher Hitchens black box, the tumblers just don't line up with the atheist key," he said. "They don't line up with the God key, either."
Now, there is no way to square the content of the book and the public record of statements by Hitchens with this bite of social media.
Now, the professionals at RNS quickly corrected that error.
But, for many journalists, it was too late. The false death-bed conversion claim -- think claims about the death of Charles Darwin -- lived on.
But look at the comments attached to the corrected RNS tweet or check out the Amazon reviews for Taunton's book and you can see what is happening.
So what is the issue here?
Some people appear to be appalled that Hitchens was very warm and friendly in his many dealings with some -- not all -- of the Christians he debated. Taunton spent many hours with Hitch, including lengthy road trips in which they read and discussed the Gospel of St. John. There are more than a few on-the-record public references and some videos about this.
But, for some, Hitchens was a kind of brave, atheist saint. It wasn't enough for him to affirm his atheism. He needed to hate the right people, as well. Taunton never claims to have been in Hitchens' inner circle, but their relationship was more than professional.
Think about this: A weakened man fighting cancer does not take a 12-hour road trip to get to a public debate when he could have made the same trip on a plane. Right?
My column ends with a pair of exchanges, in public debates, between the two men. You'll need to read that to get the context, but here is some interesting video about that.
There is an interesting story here, journalists. Read the book and then ask Taunton whatever questions you want to ask him. And if you are an open-minded atheist or Christian, you might also want to read this book. The odds are good that you will come away with great respect for Hitchens and for Taunton.