Paul Greenberg

The highlight of this holiday season for me has been a quite wonderful piece by the prolific, splendiferous and generally sparkling-all-over Christopher Hitchens. The man can't write a sentence without doing a pirouette touching all points and quite a few tangents.

His essay on, or rather against, Christmas was both a hilarious read and a case study in the Scrooge syndrome. For it illustrates the lengths to which fanaticism can be taken -- in Mr. Hitchens' case, in the name of anti-fanaticism. Which he does whenever his subject is religion and anything pertaining to it, whether he's doing an ax job on Mother Teresa or, in this case, delivering a sermon against Christmas cheer that would do credit to a Puritan preacher of an earlier century. The man can no more stay away from the subject of religion than any other monomaniac can give up his favorite obsession.

In an anti-tribute to the spirit of the season, Mr. Hitchens's piece could have been written by E. Scrooge himself, at least before his first night visitor. Even afterward, the old boy suspected that his brief period of illumination was just the result of a half-digested potato.

If you're looking for a perfect example of how evangelical atheists miss the point, bless their hearts, allow me recommend Hitchens's special blend of Christmas uncheer. He lambastes all the wretched excesses of the season, confusing them with Christmas itself. It's a common enough oversight, even among believers. Cover it with enough tinsel, and who can see the Christ mass underneath the jolly-holly day?

Not the estimable Mr. Hitchens. He sets out to smite the Christmas Spirit hip and thigh and ho-ho-ho. His riff may even have been intended to shock. Instead it doesn't even annoy. It just goes on and on ... like a toy train going 'round and 'round in the same circle, time and again, with no destination in sight or in mind. The fervent proselytizer of any faith, or no faith, may mean well but, Lord, he can be a frightful bore.

The admirable Hitchens seems to think of reality as only fact, which is why the only way he can doubt the existence of the Divine is the same way he might doubt the existence of some thing or person. He seems deaf to the existence of the intangible in life. He might as well contend that virtue, courage, faith, hope, charity or love -- name the great forces that shape our lives -- don't exist. And they don't, not in the way, say H20 or Mt. Everest does.

The talented Mr. Hitchens seems impervious to the power of story, of myth, of narrative in our lives, especially The Story. He writes as if Scripture were just some kind of archaeology textbook that could be tested by field studies. Unable to understand the religious impulse, he prefers to deride it. The result is an attack on faith only a little less childishly simplistic than his idea of it.

Brother Hitchens is the kind of critic who can take apart each note of a song vociferously, repetitively, contemptuously, but is deaf to the music. He'd doubtless claim the Greek myths are meaningless because Mt. Olympus can't be climbed by rope and ladder, or that Shakespeare is a fraud because, you know, the sea-coast of Bohemia he mentions in "The Winter's Tale" doesn't actually exist! Case (and mind) closed.

Mr. Scrooge came around at the end of Dickens' Christmas carol, which springs to life again every year at this season. One of these days, I dare to suspect, an aged Christopher Hitchens is going to look back with wonderment at how he could have so missed the obvious -- the music all around us. And he'll be worse than any fresh convert when it comes to sharing his newfound faith and the glory he's seen at last.

It happens every time to writers. See Malcolm Muggeridge, Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Edith Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien ... the list is long and impressive. One day all their words lead them -- irresistibly, inevitably, ineluctably to the Word.

One of these days it just might happen to Christopher Hitchens, too. Yes, I actually believe that. Now that's faith.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.