Lockdown means working back through the films I thought we’d seen often enough. The other impetus is that we have a young Austrian student friend living with us and most of these films are new to her.

Last night I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so we watched Shadowlands, the beautiful film about CS Lewis and his relationship with Joy Davidman. I am not an easily weepy man, but the final scenes have me blaming the hay fever again.

The story shows how a cerebral man, an intellectual apologist for Christian faith, comes up against experience and finds that tidy rationality – even in matters of faith – is inadequate when confronted by love and pain and loss and uncontrollable grief. The unarticulated inhibitors of emotional freedom, displaced into the secondhand living-through-literature (which is not to diminish it), slowly dissolve into helpless exposure of weakness and need. Lewis finds that he has been found by love.

We know from what followed that Lewis’s apologetics were humanised – fired in the fulcrum of loss. A Grief Observed remains one of the most beautiful accounts of the power of grief and the uncontrollable experience of powerless submission to raw truth.

A bit like coronavirus, grief can’t be “fixed”or “defeated” or “controlled” – it has to be lived with and gone through and accommodated. And at the end of it all lies what Christians call grace – being found by love.

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the presence of Billie Piper, Lawrence Fox, David Dimbleby and the wonderful Nell Bryden:

I don't mean to sound trite, but it's quite important not to die on the wrong day, isn't it? I mean, no day is a good day, but it's a bit sad when the significance of your own demise gets lost because of some other news. Think of mother Teresa dying on the same day as Princess Diana… or the great Christian writer CS Lewis passing away on the same day as Aldous Huxley and … er … JFK.

Of course, Lewis and Huxley died of natural causes, whereas JFK died at the end of bullets fired by an assassin. And it is this brutality that has haunted us for the fifty years since that day when I was sent to bed early because the world had gone mad.

It must be hard for younger generations to imagine how it felt back in those days: the Cuban missile crisis convinced many that nuclear obliteration was coming. The world, less than two decades out of a shockingly destructive world war, seemed very fragile. And then the great American hope – the epitome of youthful vision and reforming energy – gets himself shot by an attention-seeker in Dallas.

Well, what do we do with this stuff half a century later?

I think one thing we can do is remember that an event of massive historical importance is coloured by small human details – a bit like the pixels on your computer screen. In the face of this human tragedy and the emotions it ignited, ordinary people did significant things. For example, Lieutenant Sam Bird, who was in charge of the honour guard for JFK, heard a woman in the crowd shout to the coffin “That's all right, you done your best; it's all over now.”

Simple and direct.

History is made of such stuff. When the varnish of routine and self-sufficiency is stripped away, exposing our fears and vulnerability, we say what we really mean. I don't know what JFK's last words were, but I do know the last words of another world-changer who cried out from the gallows: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Direct, but hardly simple.

 

So, Christopher Hitchens has died. I, for one, am sad to hear this.

Any death ends a world for those who are bereaved. And the brutality of this rupture has been brought home recently in the premature deaths – by various means – of people like Gary Speed, the young family in Pudsey, the victims of Liege. Death strips from our ‘normal’ life the veneer of self-sufficiency and confronts us with the pain of our mortality.

The odd thing about the death of Christopher Hitchens, however, is the repeated suggestion that he was in some way (and incontrovertibly) a ‘scourge’ of religious believers, trouncing by sheer intellectual sharpness the nonsense of religious belief. He wasn’t and isn’t a scourge in any sense at all. The difficulty for Christians like me (and theists in general) was that that he wasn’t ‘scourge’ enough. I don’t need to repeat the response he got from Professor Terry Eagleton (among others). Along with Richard Dawkins, Hitchens set up aunt sallies which are not only easy to knock down, but which theists might also wish to knock down. Caricatures of faith might be convenient, but they are not thereby credible.

But, that said, there was always something admirable about Hitchens’ willingness to provoke. Polemic – whether entirely rational or not – is at least interesting. It is a pity that such material will no longer come from his pen.

However, his death provokes thought not only about the impact of lifestyle choices on long-term health, but about mortality itself. We shall all die – that is the fundamental fact of life. Heidegger described human beings as ‘beings towards death’ – and he wasn’t really being miserable. Hitchens went along (as far as we can know) with Bertrand Russell’s conclusion that ‘We die, then we rot’. But, is that all there is to say?

Faith is often dismissed as a crutch on which those who cannot cope with life as it is can lean for emotional support. Apart from the fact that this (lazy) assumption rests on a further and un-argued for assumption that the non-faith world view is somehow neutral, it also fails to understand what faith is. Faith, for the Christian at least, is not some sort of credulous and escapist wishful thinking about a ‘system’ derived from fairies; rather, it is rooted in a person, a judgement and an experience. Put very briefly, a Christian is one who believes there is more to life than death, sees God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth whom death did not contain, commits himself or herself to living a life that transcends the mere satisfaction of personal needs or fulfilment, and, in the company of others who have had a similar experience of being grasped by God (including intellectually – see people like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton among others), live life to the full.

The beginning of being a Christian is coming to terms with – by facing and naming – death. We are mortal. We shall die. But, the sting of death is drawn by the conviction that death neither ends nor ridicules all that has gone before it. No escapism here.

The end is in the beginning. At Christmas we celebrate God coming among us as one of us. In being born, death became inevitable – and, with it, grief, loss, fear, and everything else that makes us alive. But, as the great Bruce Cockburn put it:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.