At close range, the pitiless controversialist is actually kind to people he could easily humiliate -- a category to which most of us belong. The ferocious critic of Christianity accepts and seeks the company of Christians. Friendship is a particular talent. One review of his memoir, "Hitch-22," described it as "among the loveliest paeans to the dearness of one's friends ... I've ever read."
In earlier times, without derision or irony, this would have been called "humanism," a delight in all things human -- in wit and wine and good company and conversation and fine writing and debate of large issues. Hitchens' joy and juice put many believers of my acquaintance to shame -- people for whom religion has become a bloodless substitute for life. "The glory of God," said St. Irenaeus, "is man fully alive." Hitchens would hate the quote, but he proves the claim.
Hitchens' career, character and illness have led to an unexpected development -- unexpected, one suspects, particularly to him. While he remains unmellowed, he has seen a flood of affection. His disdain for Christianity, his animus for Islam, can still offend. But we admire the vivid, irreplaceable whole.
Hitchens has now been given his most astounding assignment, a visit to what he calls in a Vanity Fair article "the sick country." His account is raw, honest and impressive. He reports "a gnawing sense of waste" and the loss of "chest hair that was once the toast to two continents."
"To the dumb question 'Why me?' the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?" He is, in some ways, a particularly reliable, clear-eyed witness -- unclouded by sentiment, free from comforting illusions, even illusions I view as truths. It is like watching a man assault Everest with only a can opener and a Q-tip. There is honor in the attempt. And the longer the assignment continues, the better for all of us.
At the Pew Forum, Christopher was asked a mischievous question: What positive lesson have you learned from Christianity? He replied, with great earnestness: the transience and ephemeral nature of power and all things human. But some things may last longer than he imagines, including examples of courage, loyalty and moral conviction.