Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Blah Blah Blah I'm Christopher Hitchens Blah Blah Blah I'm So Smart

Some book recommendations from my friend, Brian. I loved Bill Bryson's book on Shakespeare, called "Shakespeare: The World as Stage." It's a delight. Bryson simply writes down all the things we definitely know about Shakespeare - when he was (probably) born, baptized, what real estate he bought, when his kids were born, when one of them died...what's fascinating reading it is the realization of everything we don't know about him. But Bryson is readable and breezy and a great companion, and his writing is free of all the pretense that comes with a new book on You Know Who.

Now. Reading Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” Boy howdy.

Hitchens is brilliant, erudite, passionate, possessed of a crushing intellect. Hitchens loves justice, reason, fair play. But it’s hard to get past the feeling that what Christopher Hitchens really loves is the sound of Christopher Hitchens. If the book were half as long, it would be ten times as good. A little smidge of this boozing, chain-smoking Brit goes a long way.

I can’t argue with his facts. I wouldn't dare. He'd yell at me. He'd come to my home and yell at me, I know it.

But you know what? It’s the endlessly hectoring tone…like you’re at a family dinner and crazy old Uncle Bob just won’t shut up about the Commies.. and he’s right, they’re not nice, OK? Stalin - not a nice man. Ditto Lenin. So you smile. And nod. And agree. And he goes on. And on. And then you pass the turkey. And everyone looks embarrassed. And now Uncle Bob is on Castro and why didn't we kill him when we had the chance…and you wonder how you can sneak away from the table and go watch "Casablanca" on TV…that’s what reading an entire book by Christopher Hitchens is like.

His prefaces to Orwell and Graham Greene? Loved ‘em. Worth buying a new edition of "Animal Farm." But a whole book? Yeeps.

The thing is – Hitchens does just what the extreme right wing does. (Although, yes, even though he’s an atheist, I’m in closer agreement with him on virtually everything.) But Hitchens insists on a literal - a fundamental - reading of Biblical texts. If the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneiad were read as literal history - and removed from their original context - they would sound pretty off the chain too.

And for his examples, he cites the most extreme, the most egregious, the most heinous things he can find. Yes, like Mulsims in the Sudan, the Stewardship Committee at St. John the Divine believes in God. However, that doesn’t mean that the Stewardship Committee at St. John the Divine also believes in genital mutilation. They’re not the same belief system, OK? There are varying degrees of religious belief, and yes at the far end of the spectrum lies fanaticism. But it’s not the whole story.

On one page, Hitchens excoriates Mel Gibson for his anti-Semitism. Fine. Yeah, Mel has some wacky ideas on the Jews and he hates the gays, too. I never saw Passion of Christ. Just looked to me like a good nap ruined. Braveheart was dull and offensive enough. But on the same page as his lambasting of Gibson, Hitchens tips his hand by glowingly citing a quote by his idol, H.L. Mencken, with nary a mention that Mencken wrote some things privately which are every bit as nasty and bilious and anti-Semitic as anything Mel ever said. More so, since Mencken had a bigger vocabulary.

Hitchen is a great mind, and a fascinating writer. He really is. He's a secular humanist in the best sense of the phrase. And it's good to see these books out there and getting so much play. (The NYPL system has 230 available copies - clearly folks are demanding it.) It takes a little wind out of all that 'we're a Christian nation' nonsense.

But let's face it. We're Americans. And why is Newt Gingrich never going to hold elected office again? Because he's like Christopher Hitchens. And we just don't like a big mister smarty-pants know-it-all.

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