The Shenandoah Valley was a spectacular place to spend Labor Day, even when rushing by car from Washington, D.C., to a public debate in Birmingham, Ala.
It helped that Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation had a lively conversationalist in the passenger seat during that 2010 road trip -- atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens. And as the mountains rolled past, they worked their way deep into St. John's Gospel.
Taunton called this exchange a "Bible study." Hitchens called it "mutual textual criticism."
So here was the author of "god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," reading glasses perched on his nose, reading some of Christianity's most cerebral words in his rich British baritone, a voice abused by countless cigarettes and smoothed by rivers of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch. He kept a glass -- damn the highway open-container laws -- locked between his knees throughout the drive.
Thus Hitchens read: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." At one point, Taunton suggested that Hitchens record this text to sell as an audiobook.
"With that voice, Christopher would have done an amazing job. … You can only imagine the shock this would have caused among atheists and Christians, alike," said Taunton, reached by telephone. Hitchens, however, "knew that he didn't have much time left and he had so much that he wanted to do."
The Shenandoah road trip is a pivotal scene in Taunton's new book, "The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World's Most Notorious Atheist," which is causing fierce debates on both sides of the Atlantic. That drive, and a second in Yellowstone National Park, took place during Hitchens' struggle with esophageal cancer, which took his life on Dec. 15, 2011.
Taunton makes no claim that Hitchens experienced a religious conversion during this time. In fact, his book closes with a chapter that -- while noting it's impossible to know what happens between a person and God -- stresses that Hitchens kept reaffirming his atheistic beliefs.
"What I am saying is that Christopher was asking serious questions and was sincerely interested in learning more about what Christians like me believe," said Taunton. "But if I was going to claim that he converted, then the Shenandoah and Yellowstone trips would have provided the perfect opportunity for me to lie about something like that, because those conversations were between the two of us."
It's crucial, said Taunton, that Hitchens was genuinely shaken by 9/11 and afterwards, in addition to embracing a fierce brand of patriotism, he dedicated more of his time to attacking forms of institutionalized religion, especially militant Islam, that he considered evil. However, he knew -- logically -- that it was hard for an atheist to talk about good and evil in absolute, transcendent terms.
Thus, Taunton argues that Hitchens had "faith" in something higher than atheism. That private faith may have been patriotism, or justice, or the importance of friendship, or a proud confidence in his own intellect and force of will.
"If you are trying to unlock the Christopher Hitchens black box, the tumblers just don't line up with the atheist key," he said. "They don't line up with the God key, either."
In the event following the Shenandoah drive, Hitchens kept trying to pull Taunton -- the moderator -- into the debate about the importance of faith. Finally, Taunton admitted that Hitchens was correct to state that any discovery that "Jesus was only a figment of my imagination" would "ruin my life. … Such a discovery would mean that this life is meaningless and a sham."
Urging him on, Hitchens replied: "Don't give up so easily."
A month later, Hitchens and Taunton met in a public debate of their own. At one point, they clashed over Hitchens' tendency to make absolute moral judgments, while denying the existence a higher "Law Giver."
Finally, Taunton recalled that Hitchens, during the Shenandoah trip, was surprised to see a store display of "No Tar" cigarette filters. Deadpan, Hitchens had quipped: "Oh, I wish I had known."
Turning serious, Taunton told the debate crowd that he feared "my friend will step into eternity and say, 'Oh, I wish I had known.' "
Taunton turned to Hitchens and added: "Don't give up quite so easily."
Hitchens whispered: "Touché."