Tom Sutcliffe: Hitchens baffles the godly – again

Social Studies: I imagine Hitchens needs a laugh – and that these reactions will give him one
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The Independent Online

A New York minute, as once defined by Johnny Carson, is the gap between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind honking his horn. It's considerably shorter than a nanosecond, a more formal measurement of extreme brevity, and it's probably the only available unit we have for calibrating the time that elapsed between the announcement that Christopher Hitchens has esophageal cancer and the first appearance of online interpretations of the religious significance of that fact.

I take it Hitchens must have braced himself for this. You don't publish a book called God is Not Great without exciting the wrath of the godly – and in the past Hitchens has shown every sign of thriving on excited wrath. So he must have known that any misfortune that befell him – from a broken shoelace to a full-blown lightning strike – would be interpreted in some quarters as divine retribution.

Naturally it isn't easy for Christians to come straight out and say "serves you right". Virtually all of them can see that might make God look a bit small-minded. The posting on a blog called Associates for Biblical Research is fairly typical of the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone adopted by most. "It is not our place as Christians to say the specific reasons why Mr Hitchens has contracted this disease", writes Henry B Smith Jr. "We only know that God often uses illness as a means to bring people to repentance and faith. We can only hope Mr Hitchens responds." Odd, you might think – God chooses not to operate through the arguments of the faithful, or – surely the most candid approach – a Pauline blast of light in the arrivals lounge at Damascus International. Instead he gets Mr Hitchens' attention by allowing his squamous cells to run amok, with the implicit threat of torture and death in there somewhere.

I imagine Hitchens needs a laugh right now – and I'm guessing that these reactions will be giving him one – as Christians try to work out how to thread the gap between saying that cancer is a kind of divine rebuke (bit awkward, given how many of the devout succumb to the disease) while making sure they don't miss out on the opportunity to incorporate this event into a theologically ordered world. I do hope he hasn't missed a contribution from George Berkin, on a website called NJ.Com, who rather ingeniously sidesteps the problem by construing Hitchens's illness as a sign of God's charity. The cancer wasn't given by God, Mr Berkin points out, but was "certainly permitted" by him. I wonder how he imagines this working? Did somebody else in the office come up with the idea but have to get it signed off by the boss first? Did God see it pencilled in the cosmic dayplanner and sulkily think "Well, if I don't exist I can hardly intervene, can I, Mr Smartypants?"

Or was it – as Mr Berkin suggests – an act of divine kindness? "If God really wanted to 'get' Hitchens," he writes, "God would ignore the man, and let him go his blissful way, unchallenged, to a peaceful death." Instead, though, God has "permitted" his cancer as "a prod to get serious". If laughter is the best medicine, this kind of thing can't do anything but help. In the meantime I hope Mr Hitchens gets better and I can hardly wait for the piece he will write about the folly and delusional thinking the news of his illness provoked.


Something odd happens when you use Google News to search on anything related to technology or gadgets. Coverage from legitimate news sources is virtually crowded out by links to unfamiliar news sites which have – to put it mildly – a relaxed approach to English syntax.

Take this opening sentence, for example, from a report on the iPhone 4 on a website called NewsMagazine. "Now have a look at this new antenna design, the antenna is for much improved reception but it is failed now", writes Sikander Ahmed Khan. It's possible that English is not Mr Khan's first language, of course, and he's still getting to grips with the finer points of grammar. But that seems less likely with a correspondent called David Martin, who writes this for Techno Tech Gadgets: "So far yet to come across anything negative that counters the positive feedbacks on this great phone from Motorola because Apple iPhone 4 for its antenna issue that some people have experienced."

Clicking the "About" link on these sites isn't much help either. "Online Newspapers 4U is assumed to cover global burning issues that affect the social system", is the mission statement on another site. What I can't work out is whether this stuff is produced by software or humans, and, either way, why such trash figures so highly in Google's search results? I'd like to know, though, because I'm getting addicted to the mangled prose.

What the vicar saw

Katie Price (aka Jordan) reportedly blamed the vicar at her wedding for the scuffles that broke out outside the church as bouncers attempted to preserve the dignity of this important spiritual moment. I don't know whether this is an accurate account of her reaction (her life appears to be a composite of one-part reality to four-parts outright fiction) but if so it seems a little unfair. Policing paparazzi brawls surely isn't part of a vicar's ecclesiastical responsibilities.

But I did find myself wondering why the vicar had agreed to this undignified fiasco in the first place. Do vicars have no discretion in such matters? To do him justice he had declined to sign the confidentiality agreement they tried to get him to sign – showing a bit more resilience than the clerics at a celebrity funeral I heard about recently, who meekly complied with an order that they hand over their mobile phones before the service began. But even so, his church ended up as the stage-set for a tacky publicity stunt. The bride arrived in an A-Team van and anyone who threatened the exclusive television coverage of the event was roughly handled.

One can see that a vicar might feel it unchristian to turn Ms Price down flat. But if he'd insisted that the ceremony would be conducted as if it was a religious service in a public building, rather than a cat-fight in a nightclub VIP enclosure, she would probably have gone away of her own accord.

For further reading : 'God is not Great', by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books, 2007)