Friday, December 16, 2011

On the Death of Christopher Hitchens: Revisiting "God Is Not Great"

With the news of the death of Christopher Hitchens, my mind went back to his book God is Not Great.  Will Hitchens be remembered for his atheist views, for his attack on Mother Theresa, for his attacks on many other people?  It's likely too early to say.

I can't claim to have read his work comprehensively.  Whenever I saw his articles, I read them, and even if I disagreed with his views, he always gave a lively performance.  When it came to his book-length treatment of God and religion, I felt like he missed the point in so many ways.

Here's the review I wrote of the book when it first came out:

First, I should offer some disclaimers. I come from a long line of Lutherans, and some of my family members have been pastors and lay ministers in that denomination. I’ve spent more years of my life attending church services (of various types) regularly than I haven’t. I’m the type of person who goes to monasteries and cathedrals while on vacation, and I’ve even attended services—while on vacation. In my spare time, I read and write theology. For fun. So perhaps I’m the wrong person to write a review of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great.

I’ll be the first to admit that his writing is wickedly funny, and I’d agree with him on some points. Religion has been used in a variety of harmful ways; most Christians will be the first to tell you that. I haven’t met any Christians, and I’ve met a huge variety of Christians, who deny that Christianity has had its dark years or centuries, like the Crusades and the Inquisition and the failure to rescue more Jews from Hitler’s genocide.

However, for every dark moment that Hitchens brings up, I could list at least five ways that Christianity has transformed society for the better, and Hitchens seems determined to overlook that. What about the Christian cultures (like Scandinavian Lutherans) who rescued Jews from Hitler’s genocide or refused to cooperate? Some of the most successful social justice movements of the twentieth century have been possible because of the faith that undergirded them—for example, the Civil Rights movement in this country or Gandhi’s accomplishments or the monks in Burma who push for change. There are communities all over the planet who live out their faith in concrete ways that transform the secular community around them; think of the Catholic Worker movement or Habitat for Humanity.

Hitchens also takes on the Bible, and the problem that I have with him here is that he’s incredibly literal in his interpretations. He’s worse than most fundamentalists I know. Of course, I’ve been faulted for my approach to the Bible, rooted in my experiences as a poet and an English major, where every story has multiple meanings beyond the literal.

It’s in his approach to the Bible that I first realized the biggest problem I would have with this book. Hitchens seems to have read no theology at all, at least not any that was written recently. He’d have found modern theology has much to offer when he feels revulsion at the idea of a savior who must be crucified because Hitchens will sin two thousand years later. I won’t list all the possible counterarguments here, but there’s a whole discipline in theological studies that addresses issues of redemptive suffering and atonement and the idea of sacrifice and what it means. For example, one school of thought looks at the fact that Christianity emerged out of Judaism and that the first generations of followers tried to undercut the Temple monopoly on the forgiveness of sins and the stranglehold that priests had on the Jews; priests not only collected sacrifices to right sins, but also collected money that was due to Rome. Or you might say that Jesus was crucified for our sins in the same way that Martin Luther King was killed for our sins. Both men came to offer the world a radical vision of peace and justice, and a harshly stratified society had to muffle that vision to avoid uprisings of the oppressed demanding transformation of that society.

When Hitchens attacks what he perceives to be the Church, he seems most upset with the Catholic church, circa 1952. The Church he describes really hasn’t been the way he describes, at least in the U.S. and Europe, during my lifetime. In my lifetime, we’ve seen a decline (and in Europe, almost a death) of mainline Protestantism and Catholicism; we’ve been dealing with some fallout of the time when the Church was predominant, certainly, like pedophile priests, but those most of those headline grabbing crimes are being brought to light decades after they’ve happened. You might counter by offering the spectacle of the Republican Right and their dance with Evangelical Christians for the past quarter decade, but Hitchens doesn’t spend much time on the Evangelical emergence.

Again, his lack of research seems glaring to me. If he had read a book like The Next Christendom, by Philip Jenkins, he’d know that he has much more to fear from Christianity in the Global South, not some phantasm from his youth. In the past decade, we’ve seen Rwanda send missionaries to the U.S. and Europe (an interesting historic reversal) because they see us in need of the Good News. Lately, some conservative U.S. Episcopalian congregations have left to join the Nigerian Diocese.

Why should we care? Many churches in the Global South take the Bible even more literally than U.S. fundamentalists. Take that obscure verse “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). Many Africans take that quite seriously and literally. Jenkins points out, “Even today, a single outbreak of witch-panic can lead to hundreds of murders in a period of weeks or months. Moreover, one of the main centers of modern witch-hunting activity has been South Africa, the most developed state on the whole continent” (123). If you read Jenkins’ book, you realize that Christianity isn’t in decline throughout most of the planet, and the Christianity that’s practiced, if adopted widely, will have far more unpleasant consequences than the ones that Hitchens contemplates in his book.

The coming clashes of fundamentalisms of all types of religions seem like a far more pressing problem to me, and it’s a problem that gets very little press time or book length treatments or political consideration. Hitchens had a chance to turn the discussion, and he resorted to trotting out familiar arguments about issues that were dead decades ago. What a shame.

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