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Christopher Hitchens's Red Letter Day

4:30 PM, Dec 16, 2011 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Another journalist whose work I greatly admire was arguing with him about God. I had no previous indication that this was the case, but Hitch’s sparring partner turned out to be a fervent Christian who was not afraid to be evangelical. It probably helped that he’d climbed halfway inside a bottle of very expensive scotch before he decided to challenge the world’s most famous atheist on matters of ontology.

I jumped in where I could to challenge Hitch’s lack of faith; even two against one with no voice, it was still a fair fight. He may have been deprived of volume, but he was as intense and brilliant as ever.

Meanwhile, girded by faith and single-malt whisky, my brother-in-Christian-arms was ever more emphatic in his pronouncements. It was both comical and inspiring, like watching Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo attitude deployed in defense of C.S. Lewis’s faith.

“Damn it, Hemingway! I need the red letters!” he roared, pounding his fist on the table. The words of Jesus in many a New Testament are printed in red ink, and he was overcome with a desire to read Hitch the Sermon on the Mount. A more studious catechumen might have memorized it; I reached for my iPhone. Preach the Gospel always; when necessary use a Bible app, as St. Francis must have said. Alas, Hitchens’s apartment had terrible reception. Put your trust in God, not AT&Ts 3G coverage.

The debate was friendly enough. It helped that where most atheists are quick to assert empirical certainty, Hitchens would readily admit the limits of his own knowledge. In fact, he amusingly reported that when he appeared with fellow celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, they were frequently irked at his response to inquiries about the after-life: “I don’t know.”

Still, Hitchens’s animosity to religion was palpable. He related the story of how he was told by a group of Presbyterians that because he had been so vocal in attacking his former faith, he would have to get himself “unbaptized” lest he risk even greater damnation than he was already courting.

By now, my wife had joined the argument. She was something of a ringer; she’s an accomplished religion journalist and the daughter of Lutheran pastor. Immediately, she laid into Hitch and told him she highly doubted the Presbyterian story for lots of obvious reasons that she eagerly detailed. And even if he had been told that, it’s heresy that he should dismiss out of hand. I realized I’d seen that look in Hitchens’s eye before. Once again, she had left him speechless.

AFTER THE news of Hitchens’s death, I opened my email and found the following note in my inbox:

We almost had him that January night, didn’t we? Maybe not. Probably not. Definitely not. But let’s tell ourselves something sunk in, and took. Facing death has a way of re-ordering your worldview. He might have done things nobody will ever know.

I’d tell my friend the same thing he tried so hard to tell Hitchens around that fateful kitchen table: You’ve got to have faith. December 15, 2011, may be remembered as the day Christopher Hitchens died, but I prefer to think of it as his red letter day.

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