The Taser's Edge

Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens

I picked up Hitch-22 from Durham Public Library’s “Non-Fiction New and Notable” shelf along with Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child, because I thought reading them back-to-back would be interesting.  Clash of the titans: Hauerwas, Christian theologian criticized for being too friendly with neocons, versus Hitchens, career journalist known later in life mainly for his atheism and also criticized for being too friendly with neocons.   What actually happened is that Hauerwas’ book is great if you like theology, and Hitchens’ book is great if you like history.  Seriously great.  You’ll learn something about the latter half of the 20th century on every page from someone who was there.

Stereotypical (at least to Americans) English prep school background?  Check.  At a Cambridge party where a certain former US president may or may not have inhaled?  Check.  (Hitchens, by the way, has written an entire book on Clinton, its opinions well-expressed by its title–No One Left to Lie To.)  A Trotskist agitator in 1968 and welcomed visitor to Castro’s Cuba just after the revolution?  Check.  Supporter of the removal of Saddam Hussein even without WMDs being found?  Check (although certainly not the way the US did it).

What comes across is that Hitchens values honesty, even when honesty paints a self-critical picture.  I don’t know if ‘virtue’ is a word too loaded with religious meaning, but I’ll use it anyway.  Both Hauerwas and Hitchens are incredibly concerned with seeking the truth and with the virtue of honesty.  Both men come from working class backgrounds and changed their social locations through world-class educations.  Both name-drop like mad in their memoirs.  (This is not a criticism.  I would name drop too if I were best friends with Martin Amis or as-close-a-thing-to-a-friend-as-John-Howard-Yoder-apparently-ever-had.)  Connected with the name dropping, Hitchens and Hauerwas both share a similar strange blend of pomposity and humility when sharing their opinions.  Finally, both Hitchens and Hauerwas have a great sense of being blessed.  Again, perhaps too religious of language for Hitchens, but I am referring to a sense of gratitude for circumstances and/or forces beyond their control coming together to create great lives which surprised them.

I would have to say, where Hauerwas’ memoir made me want to be a theologian, Hitchens’ makes me want to be passionate for the truth.  Those at least shouldn’t have to be too far apart from each other.

And now, an excerpt which doesn’t particularly relate to or illustrate anything I’ve written (from p. 352 of the hardback):

“Hitch: making rules about drinking can be the sign of an alcoholic,” as Martin Amis once teasingly said to me.  (Adorno would have savored that, as well.)  Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young.  Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food.  Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure.  Drink when you are in a good mood.  Cheap booze is a false economy.  It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain.  Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night.  (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.)  Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company.  Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available.  Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.  It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don’t know quite why this is but it just is.  Don’t ever be responsible for it.

Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander

Foreskin’s Lament…with a title like that, how exactly do you review a book?  You try.  I got to know Shalom Auslander through his frequent, frequently hilarious contributions to This American Life.  (Try this one.)  He currently has one published book of short stories, Beware of God, and one memoir, Foreskin’s Lament.

So we’re back to that title.  Auslander grew up in an Orthodox (veering near ultra-Orthodox) community near New York, with an abusive father and a deep-seated belief that a vengeful God was out to get him.  I’m not quite sure why he only briefly connects those two facts of his upbringing, but he certainly seems to still carry the latter.

Auslander knows that he is being neurotic, but he can’t shake it.   Nor can he shake his belief that God is real.  And Auslander (and God) is angry.  Perhaps an excerpt is the best way to communicate the tone throughout the book.

“I felt like the horse on the Polo logo, unsure whether the man on my back with the menacing mallet was God, or family, or community, or all three, but knowing that if I could just throw the son of a bitch, I could run away forever.  My attitude toward the world I had come from and the God that I had come from were the same: I was tired, finally, of trying to find favor in someone or Something else’s eyes, particularly when that someone or Something seemed to be assholes and/or an Asshole.  Our philosophy teacher told us of a man who claimed that God was dead; if only, Friedrich.  He was alive, and He was a Prick.  Maybe I couldn’t run from him–maybe the trip out of the Promised Land was even more treacherous than the one into it–but perhaps, I wondered, I could spoil His sport with simple acquiescence, blithely accepting whatever fate He chose for me–no worrying, no praying, no beseeching, no obsessing.  No more bribes, no more payoffs, no more house of worship backroom deals.  Radio silence.  Not atheism; resignation.  So Whatism.  Whateverism.  Blow Meism.  Maybe the forefathers’ mistake was answering Him?  Maybe they should have just ignored him?” (164)

Angry, profane, somewhat over-the-top, but undeniably well written.  And again to the title.  There is a great metaphor that Auslander returns to several times throughout the book.  He, and those like him, who have been brutally cut off from their communities by their communities, are the foreskins, bloodied, bruised, tossed away.  The major hope is that there is a whole hill of foreskins out there (what does my ability to reference arcane and grotesque Scripture say about how I’ve been religiously formed?); they aren’t alone.  Not a ton of hope to me, but a survivor’s kind of hope.  Auslander is the foreskin lamenting.

For me, as you might guess, it was a depressing read.  It depressed me to read how damaged this author has been by his community, by his family, by his religion, because the things that are most important and most beloved in my life are my community, my family, and my religion.

Auslander and I seem to look at the world in totally opposite ways.  That is, I understand the miraculous to be God opening my eyes; it is an ongoing interpretive work of seeing the grace of God (love specifically and personally aimed at me) in all things.  Auslander instead sees the malice of God (specifically and personally aimed at him) in all things.  And both of us (perhaps he more than I) are aware that sometimes these thoughts veer into pure superstition.

As I read the book, I strongly resisted my tendency to believe that I understand where he stands.  I don’t.  And as I write this, I think that maybe the better take-away from this book would be for me, for the first time, to look at the devastation that religion can cause, to look at it straight in the face.  I admit I haven’t done that before.  The modern set of atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.) haven’t really interested me; if I want robust atheism, I’ll read Nietszche.  The major claim that I hear again and again from the new guys, that religion has done more harm than good in the world, is one that I dismiss out of hand.  Auslander gives me pause in how easy that dismissal comes to me.  He makes me realize the ways in which I already know religion does damage and has does damage–to women, to ethnic minorities, to LGBT people, to me (yes, in some ways, to me too).  I think he would be glad to make me question the goodness of religion, of Christianity.  I think that might be part of his point.  Not to say I should abandon my faith, but that I need to be honest about the damage it does.

Going beyond his point, my question (as always) is what this means for the practices of the Christian churches.  How do we talk about the Gospel as life-giving good news (which it most certainly is), but also choose to grow in our honesty and willingness to open our eyes to the fact that religion, Christian religion, yes, even the cross itself, continue to brutalize people?  Crap.  That’s a hard question.  Thankfully, God’s out to save me, not to kill me.