BOOK REVIEW: MORTALITY by HITCHENS

Have you been thinking about death recently? Do you struggle with finding meaning? Why you should reflect on Hitchens’ “Mortality” and why you should hope that he is wrong.

It’s a rare moment when someone gets to know that their death is just around the corner, a rarer moment still when someone documents their experience in written form.  That’s what this book is, an honest, raw reflection on the reality of death.  

I started reading this elegantly styled book (simple black cover with regal white and gold text) because I was intrigued by it.  It was written after Hitchens’ diagnosis of terminal cancer in his esophagus.  As one of the larger than life voices in the New Atheist movement, known for their aggressive and passionate assault on religion, I was fairly certain, yet curious to see, what Hitchens’ thoughts would be.

A simple summary of Christopher Hitchens’ perspective on religion can be found in his book ‘God is not Great’.  At the end of the first chapter he makes a resounding announcement “religion poisons everything” – the title of the chapter? Putting it mildly.  If that’s mild, what’s the pepped up version like? His vision was to see a world without faith and to know a life without God.


HIS WIFE 


This book is full of honest, unreserved humanity.  I started reading curious about a philosopher’s mind but very quickly found myself moved by a human being’s experiences. Regardless of how you see the world, you will taste the sense of loss.   Hitchens’ loss of his voice he describes as a death before death, a loss of himself. Then, when Hitchens’ wife writes a few final thoughts at the end of the book, you can’t help but feel the sharp end of death’s blade.  To hear what she will miss is deeply moving, little notes dotted around the house, the constant dinner parties full of conversation and celebration or his early morning greetings as they woke.  It’s very personal and just very sad.

SOFTENING SLIGHTLY? STEELING HIS WILL?


“If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” 


Hitchens once stated (probably more than once) that heaven was a celestial North Korea that he wouldn’t go to even if he were invited.  It seems that this perspective softened when faced with death.  During the book I got the impression that he was almost steeling his will to hold onto his atheism, that death would be his final trial.  

I can understand, he’d given his life to this cause, to give it up at the end may have felt like a betrayal of his integrity or an act of weakness.  Having said that, I certainly sensed a level of confusion and conflict within him in his writing as the reality of his coming death sank in.  I admired the courage to express these thoughts in the book, even if I lamented his dedication to resisting God to the end.

CHALLENGE TO THE CHURCH


Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill.  But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. 


But as I knew before I became ill, there are some people for whom this explanation is unsatisfying.  To them a rodent carcinoma really is a dedicated, conscious agent – a slow-acting suicide-murderer – on a consecrated mission from heaven. 


One of the big take-aways and deeply challenging issues that arose from this book is the inconsistent and contradictory witness of the church.  I was moved to read that many believers were praying for his recovery, and equally angered that others were declaring God’s judgement upon a man who blasphemed Him.  

See the horrendous quote below Christopher Hitchens found written about himself:  


 Atheists like to ignore FACTS.  They like to act like everything is a “coincidence.” Really?  It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy?  Yeah, keep believing that, Atheists.  He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonising death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire


We all know there are trolls out there – but this is despicable (1 Corinthians 13 and clanging symbols come to mind). We all know there’s the odd one or two who will always say something horrendous.  However, as he documented his mixed experiences, he touched on an issue in the life of the church.  DIVISION. When I think of the majority of the major issues the church is facing up to in the public sphere, we have so many different voices saying so many different things.  This is a monumentally significant challenge.   We are sending mixed messages on a great many things, when a clear, coherent message is vital to the effective witness of the church.  I’m not sure what the solution is to this (other than to refocus our efforts on the gospel message), but it pained me to realise in this book just how this mixed messaging plays out in real time.


[A question that this often leads me to ask is, with the same Holy Spirit at work within us, why do so many sincere believers find themselves on the opposite sides of the fence on so many issues? – worth reflecting on I think!]


THE END OF LIFE, THE EMPTYING OF MEANING 

I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste.  I had real plans for the next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it.  Will I really not live to see my children married?  To watch the World Trade Centre rise again?  To read-if not indeed to write- the obituary of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger?  But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.  Of course my book hit the bestseller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to.  But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here:  Would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac?  To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?


Hitchens reveals how the day he received the news of his cancer was also the day his book hit the bestseller list.  He attempts to take all meaning out of this – there’s no irony, no meaning to be found, just events.  “To the dumb question ‘why me?’ The cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”.  

Later on Hitchens writes, 

“Lived to see most of what’s going to be written about me: this too is exhilarating but hits diminishing returns when I realise how soon it, too, will be “background”.  


One of the overarching ideas of atheism is that there is no meaning, only happenings, there is no purpose to our suffering or our success, to our joy or our pain. For Hitchens, the search for meaning is not just futile, it’s foolish – it’s a stupid question. I can’t say I agree with him on this! Imagine going through intense struggle and pain, only to be told that your pain doesn’t matter, your struggle is meaningless, it is simply a happening – that is the message of atheism.

The meaningless of life is the final conclusion of death. As the ultimate, inevitable end of each of our lives,  not only does death end our lives, it empties our lives of meaning and purpose.  Even our greatest accomplishments will hit diminishing returns. As a follower of Jesus I find hope that the exact opposite could be said of the resurrection, that death is not ultimate but life is. As such our lives are not emptied of meaning but filled. Even the smallest things in life are now full of meaning.  As N.T Wright says, the good news of the resurrection is that “this world matters”.  

UNFINISHED


It seems only fitting that a book titled “Mortality” would end unfinished.  Somehow this makes it more poignant. It’s a reminder that we don’t get to choose when our lives end, nor what plans we complete and what plans remain unfulfilled.  In many ways this only adds to the sadness.  Mortality is Hitchens last unfinished work. We are reading the pain of his mortality; recognition was hitting diminishing returns for him; plans would lay ultimately unfulfilled, a life would be emptied of meaning, just full of happenings – he even speaks of experiencing a kind of death while still alive. All of this, means what I feel most, is sadness and why all of us should hope that Christopher Hitchens was wrong. 

SHOULD YOU READ IT? YES, well worth reflecting on. A short book that’s easily readable and provokes thought. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, it will help you reflect on your own beliefs.

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