A number of Christian bloggers have felt obligated to comment on Christopher Hitchens’ recent death. Doug Wilson, who wrote the obituary for Christianity Today (and subsequently prompted Baylyan angst — how could a transformer write for a squishy evangelical publication?), set the tone for most Christian reflections:
Christopher knew that faithful Christians believe that it is appointed to man once to die, and after that the Judgment. He knew that we believe what Jesus taught about the reality of damnation. He also knew that we believe—for I told him—that in this life, the door of repentance is always open. A wise Puritan once noted what we learn from the last-minute conversion of the thief on the cross—one, that no one might despair, but only one, that no one might presume. We have no indication that Christopher ever called on the Lord before he died, and if he did not, then Scriptures plainly teach that he is lost forever. But we do have every indication that Christ died for sinners, men and women just like Christopher. We know that the Lord has more than once hired workers for his vineyard when the sun was almost down (Matt. 20:6).
In other words, the tendency for Christians has been to look at Hitchens through the lens of redemption — he did not confess Christ as Lord; he actually vigorously denied Christ; so Hitchens’ meaning is bound up with eternity.
This is all true. But Christians eager to defend the gospel often miss the creational side of Hitchens’ meaning. My one personal encounter with him came the year he gave the annual Mencken Lecture in Baltimore. It was one of the shortest forty minutes of my life (almost as quick and as witty as a talk my wife and I heard from Calvin Trillin almost thirty years ago in Boston). Hitchens seemed to be introducing the substance of his remarks the entire time and yet it turned out that his rapid-fire, riveting, and provocative introduction was the substance, and it left us wanting more. Hitchens then consented to sign books despite his obvious need for a cigarette (and probably a drink). His was a wonderful performance and would likely have received a hearty wink from Mencken himself.
The Mencken association is poignant for this blogger since this semester I offered a seminar on the Baltimore bad boy who was also a naysayer of God — often wittily, provocatively, and even thoughtfully. One of the aspects of Mencken that I came to admire — which applies to Hitchens as well — was the sheer ferocity and volume of his output. Although both men had “no reason” to work, or saw no ultimate meaning in their labors, that did not prevent them from continuing to sit at the key board and pound out essay after essay, book after book.
Another figure who fits here from my semester of teaching is Woody Allen, another skeptic well on record about his disbelief. Despite worries about the universe expanding and anguish over the miseries of life (humanity is divided into the horrible and the miserable), Allen has continued to write, direct, and star in movies at a pace unrivaled in the history of cinema.
We often hear of the Protestant work ethic but do we ever notice that prominent atheists have remarkable energies and discipline as well? Mencken may be the most remarkable because he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1948 that prevented him from writing for the last eight years of his life. How he went on is unimaginable, especially since he contemplated suicide, at least as a topic, in one of his 1920s essays.
The universal wisdom of the world long ago concluded that life is mainly a curse. Turn to the proverbial philosophy of any race, and you will find it full of a sense of the futility of the mundane struggle. Anticipation is better than realization. Disappointment is the lot of man. . . .
Yet we cling to it in a muddled physiological sort of way — or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way — and even try to fill it with gaudy hocus-pocus. All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowsmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating amino acides. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in a state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes. But though the central mystery remains, it is possible, perhaps, to investigate the superficial symptoms to some profit. I offer myself as a laboratory animal. Why have I worled so hard for thirty years, deperately striving to accomplish something that remains impenetrable to me to this day? Is it because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever desiring it for an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I wanted. Is it, then, notoriety that I am after? Again the answer must be no. The attention of strangers is unpleastant to me, and I avoid it as mush as possible. Then is it yearing to Do Good that moves me? Bosh and blah! If I am convineced of anything, it is that Doing Good is in bad taste. . . .
I work a great deal, but working is more agreeable to me than anything else I can imagine. . .
Whether or not Hitchens or Allen would share these notions, they do bear remarkable similarities to Mencken. And their work ethic is something that Christians should appreciate because — even though Hitchens, Mencken, and Allen would deny this — of their creatureliness. All people have been created to work. Some people excel at work more than others. Hitchens certainly did that (as did Mencken and as does Allen). Whatever these figures might say about God as redeemer, they do testify in important ways about God as creator, making is appropriate for Christians to give thanks for the incomparable product and productivity of these God deniers. After all, if Christians are only known for giving thanks for redemption, onlookers might reasonably conclude that believers are ingrates when it comes to all the other blessings of this mortal existence.