Over at Slate.com, Christopher Hitchens (probably the smartest and funnest of the “pop-atheists”) offers us a few reflections on what he’s learned debating Christians. He’s had plenty of practice since the publication of his 2007 bestseller, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Most recently, he was involved in a number of exchanges with Doug Wilson, senior fellow over at New St. Andrews College (if I could do college over again, I might go there!). What started as a series of emails between the two men (published here) became a full-fledged “tour” of sorts that has been developed into the recently released sort-of documentary Collision.
Wilson, who is a thoroughly Reformed, conservative theologian, served as a stark contrast to others that Hitchens debated. Hitchens had the following to say:
Wilson isn’t one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just “metaphors.” He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn’t waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he “allows” it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners. I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing. (Incidentally, just when is President Barack Obama going to decide which church he attends?)
He also notes how what he understands as Southern hospitality confronts the brutal truth of there actually being a price to sin. He wonders if the staunch “Calvinists” he’s running into really believe what they profess about hell and eternal punishment,
Usually, when I ask some Calvinist whether he is really a Calvinist (in the sense, say, of believing that I will end up in hell), there is a slight reluctance to say yes, and a slight wince from his congregation. I have come to the conclusion that this has something to do with the justly famed tradition of Southern hospitality: You can’t very easily invite somebody to your church and then to supper and inform him that he’s marked for perdition. More to the point, though, you soon discover that many of those attending are not so sure about all the doctrines, either, just as you very swiftly find out that a vast number of Catholics don’t truly believe more than about half of what their church instructs them to think.
Mr. Hitchens is a very intelligent man, and while he’s being very generous with his words towards Mr. Wilson, perhaps he’s yet to understand his ‘opponents’ fully. Is it that they’re not sure about hell or is that they’re uncomfortable with people actually going there? We all should be. Unless you’re one of those creepy Calvinists who think we should rejoice that people are burning in hell because it glorifies God or something, when you explain eternal torment to someone, you feel some of the same pain that Jesus felt when he lamented over Jerusalem’s failure to repent (Matt 23:37-39). Perhaps Hitchens mistook genuine love and compassion for embarassment. Perhaps he mistook humility for doubt. Let’s hope so.
What I really appreciate about this piece is similar to the only redeeming aspect of Sam Harris’ throwaway Letter to a Christian Nation, where he opined that moderates and liberals had more in common with atheists than Christians. As he observed, the God of Scripture is quite conservative (though, in all honesty, Harris’ reading of Scripture is so unforgivably ignorant that this conclusion is more of a lucky strike than a well-reasoned conclusion). God’s serious about there being no other gods, about idolatry, about sin, about his love expressed in Christ alone for the sins of the world. He’s not babbling about metaphors, mythology, and the unity of all religions.
There’s always going to be the temptation to acquiesce to the world, to get cred with the elites in Cambridge, New Haven, et al. Hitchens, like Harris, is proof that unbelievers recognize that brand of accomodationism and waffling for what it is: pathetic. Be sincere, be upfront, be honest about what you believe. And preach the whole gospel. Hitchens recognizes the historic confession of the church in Wilson’s belief. He doesn’t shy away from the harder truths. Fudging the gospel may gather crowds, but it won’t gather followers of Christ.
In the end, Hitchens finds nothing compelling about Christianity. Doesn’t matter what you believe or how you work out that belief; he’s not on board. But he recognizes what too few Christians know: if you can’t find the confessional element of Christianity in something called “Christian,” no need to take it seriously.