January 16, 2008

Critics Are Watching

2008 1502 page5 capast summer a member of my local church placed in my hand a book by the British-born intellectual Christopher Hitchens. “It’s not a good book,” he said apologetically, “but I thought you should have it.” As it happened, only procrastination had prevented me from going after it earlier. In its title the book proclaims: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve Hachette Book Group, 2007).
In my seminary reading I’d seen how pointed the critics 
of God and religion could be. But the examples they would employ usually came across as long 
ago and far away. But in Hitchens one finds an exceptionally keen observer, whose cases in point are as current as this morning’s news. And he leaves no sacred stone unturned, no hallowed icon unexamined, no revered hero untouched. He takes on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism; poking his fingers into their most embarrassing features; shining a spotlight on all their foibles, misdemeanors, and atrocities; and in every case going for the jugular. The guy is comprehensive—and devastating.
The book contains fatal flaws, to be sure, and I must resist the temptation to go there. Expressions such as “What stupidity!” and “What utter poppycock!” appear in the margins of my copy. But such reactions were rare. What both fascinated and exasperated me was the factuality of the cases and examples Hitchens selected to make his points. And what embarrassed me was the large number of times I silently had to admit: Yes, he’s got a point there.
2008 1502 page5In one place, for example, Hitchens (who grew up Anglican—a church he describes as “a pathetic bleating sheep today”) speaks about his brush with Eastern Orthodoxy. After explaining how he’d joined that communion to please his Greek parents-in-law, he goes on to make this devastating statement: “The archbishop who received me into his communion on the same day that he officiated at my wedding [thereby pocketing two fees instead of one] . . . later became an enthusiastic cheerleader and fund-raiser for his fellow Orthodox Serbian mass murderers, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who filled countless mass graves all over Bosnia” (p. 16).
How one wishes these things weren’t so!
An American religious broadcaster once asked Hitchens during a program to imagine being approached by a large group of men at night in a strange city. Would Hitchens “feel safer, or less safe” if he “was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting”?
“Just to stay within the letter ‘B,’” Hitchens responded, “I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance” (p. 18). Hitchens then proceeds to relate the frightening experiences he’d encountered from religious people in those cities. The 19 suicide murderers of 9/11, he says in regard to the 2001 tragedy, “were beyond any doubt the most sincere believers on those planes” (p. 32).
The book seethes with outrage against religion—Western or Eastern, Christian or non-Christian. And it targets just about every prominent religious icon, symbol, or figure. Martin Luther is painted as an anti-Semitic bigot; Mahatma Gandhi gets excoriated; Mother Teresa is dressed down; Martin Luther King, Jr., is leveled to the ground. And Billy Graham comes off looking silly.
Which begs the question: What if critics were to take a hard (or even not so hard) look at us, what would they find?
I have no illusions, of course. There’s no way a church like ours, spread out around the world, and operating under all kinds of conditions, can come off completely without warts in the eyes of even a half-determined critic. After all, even God fares badly with Hitchens! But I’m still curious to know how strong his case would have been against us? What would he have found in the areas of ethics, morality, and justice? What shenanigans would he have discovered in our midst? How would we have fared in regard to racial prejudice and discrimination? Would he have found greed? power struggles? nepotism? militarism? jingoism? Would Adventism have come across as poisonous?
No, we didn’t come in for mention by Hitchens. But other critics are watching. Will they find sufficient examples among us to make their case?

Roy Adams is associate editor of the Adventist Review.