Takes One to Know One?

Today, I finally got around to reading some of the material surrounding atheist Christopher Hitchens’ death, and I came across the obituary by Doug Wilson in Christianity Today. As with most of the material surrounding the death of The Atheist’s Atheist, Wilson’s words were circumspect but complimentary, cordial but cautionary. Several remarks, however, struck me in particular. At one point, Wilson writes,

…we were thrown together in a number of situations. One time we shared a panel in Dallas, and I told the crowd there that if Christopher and I were not careful, we were in danger of becoming friends. During the time we spent together, he never said an unkind thing to me—except on stage, up in front of everybody. After doing this, he didn’t wink at me, but he might as well have.

Obviously, Wilson separated the public Hitchens from the private one. The public Hitchens was an enemy, very versatile with tongue and pen. The private Hitchens was almost a friend, definitely an intellectual traveling companion (albeit hoeing a different row). How could these two personae exist in one man? Wilson actually resolves the tension a few paragraphs earlier. Concerning Hitchens’ caustic polemic and vitriol, Wilson writes,

But this was all part of Christopher’s very public rhetorical strategy, not a function of an inability to domesticate a surly temperament. He was actually an affable and pleasant dinner companion, and fully capable of being the perfect gentleman. He was fully aware of the authority an enfant terrible could have, provided he played his cards right, and this was a strategy that Hitchens employed very well indeed. One man who delivers a terrible insult is banned from television for life, and another man, who does the same thing, has people lining up with invitations and microphones. In case anyone is wondering, Christopher was that second man.

So in private, Hitchens was quite respectful (at least of opponents he considered intellectually worth his while), but his public persona as a hostile atheist nurtured his speaking and writing career, thus paying the bills. Fascinating.

I wonder if we learn as much about Wilson in this obituary as we do about Hitchens.

If you think about it, Wilson’s career represents a rough parallel to Hitchens’. Concerning the latter, Wilson himself observes, “A defining characteristic of his life was a willingness to break with the last group he was identified with. Whenever Orwell’s ‘smelly little orthodoxies’ began to develop, Christopher would be down the road.” Hmmm. Didn’t the name of Wilson’s church go from Community Evangelical Fellowship to Christ Church? Isn’t Wilson a Westminster man, with just enough exceptions to keep any confessionally Reformed denomination from ever ordaining him? And speaking of enfants terrible, hasn’t Wilson built a publishing empire on being just a little bit (to be read: a lot) different than your average Presbyterian? A little more satirical? A little more classical (not theologically, of course)? A little bit smarter?

Call me Ruby Cornpone, but if you ask me, it takes one to know one.


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