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Just listen

While losing his eloquent voice, Christopher Hitchens may gain ears to hear

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is not complaining. Or rather, he is, but he doesn't want your sympathy. Or maybe he does, but for heaven's sake don't pity the man! He admits he's had a good run, and since his diagnosis with esophageal cancer in 2007 he's been trying, with moderate success, to philosophically take the bad with the good. There's always something, though; some loss that's especially hard, or some regret that cuts painfully deep. In his case, it's his voice. He can't rely on it anymore. Sometimes he can't make it sound at all, much less roll out in the mighty, sinewy syllables it could so easily command in years past.

Very few could wield the clever rejoinder, the subtle twist of a phrase, the elegant slash that disarmed an opponent like Hitchens could. I've heard debates on atheism vs. faith that he lost on substance but won, hands down, on style. He cut himself out of every tight place and brilliantly scored with the deadly bon mot- touche! And bravo! from the young bucks in the peanut gallery. Not because they wanted their atheism vindicated by him; they wanted to be him, the epitome of cool: the height, the hair, the ready wit, the keen vocabulary, and above all the casually mastered, irresistibly accented voice.

It's going now. Soon, if reasonable expectations hold, it will be gone.

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Many of us don't fear death in the abstract, but we do in the particular. The idea of annihilation or some mild Hereafter holds no threat, but to have our grip loosened from life, finger by finger, to surrender control and be reduced to someone else's job, lined up with other patients to wait the convenience of "providers"-that hits us where we live. In the heart, in the pride. I remember following the ambulance that was taking my mother to the hospital for the last time, for "a few tests." She had given up hope but the rest of us weren't ready to. It didn't seem such a big thing to me, being checked in and tagged and charted. But it was hard for her. She had lost the ability to make a decision and make it stick; she was reduced to meat, shuffled between facilities, more than ready for it to be over.

Hitchens isn't there yet, but barring some miracle turnaround he's getting close. In a recent piece for Vanity Fair ("Unspoken Truths") he writes nothing, or very little, about his old nemesis the Almighty, but elsewhere he has remarked on gloating emails he's received from certain believers: Aha! You used your voice to blaspheme God, now God is strangling your voice-poetic justice. In spite of such ungracious communication, Hitchens doesn't regard all Christians as spiteful. He's become a close friend of Dr. Francis Collins, noted evangelical and director of the Human Genome Project, who contributed to Hitchens' cancer treatment. In fact, he's always had Christian friends whom he admired in spite of their peculiar delusion. He's a big man that way. But when he pictures God, as if there were such a being, it's the petty and vindictive god of the gloaters.

Would he bring God down to see how the other half lives? Sorry, that's already happened. Brought about by Himself, in a way that confounds the wise. Humiliating treatment? Been there. Piece of meat? Done that. Mocking, vindictive emails? The first-century equivalent, which was at least as brutal. Throat ripped, breath choked, voice ravaged, abandoned to the uttermost despair? Oh yes. I don't know what God is doing to Hitchens, but whatever it is, it's a great deal less than He did to Himself.

And it could just be that, by robbing an eloquent man of speech, God is making it possible for him finally to listen. For the last year or so, Hitchens has thanked sympathetic Christians for their prayers but insists they will make no difference in his belief, or lack thereof. Ignore that. The Hound of Heaven may be on the hunt.

Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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