Larry Taunton, founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation, seemed almost breathless as he entered the Sunday school classroom at Highlands United Methodist Church to sign books and speak, passionate about the Christian principle he terms “common grace.” His book The Grace Effect spans two years, beginning and ending with debates of well-known atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens. The first of those was held in Birmingham at Samford University between Hitchens and John Lennox, a Christian mathematician from the University of Oxford. Further dialogue among the three men continued at a local restaurant well into the night. The second debate, in Billings, Mont., was between Hitchens and Taunton. Discussion followed in a steakhouse, this time accompanied by Taunton’s wife, Lauri, and their children. Taunton’s children by then numbered four: his sons Michael, Christopher, Zachary and a new daughter, Sasha. After a year of preparation, negotiations and gyrations with a socialist bribe-hungry government, the Tauntons had managed to adopt Sasha, an HIV-positive child from Ukraine. But back in the Sunday school classroom — a haven of Christians — Taunton, like a quarterback at ease without padding and mouthpiece, began a bold delivery, pumped up from being recently implored by the media — USA Today, CNN, and FOX news — to comment on the Tim Tebow phenomenon. “A private faith is an irrelevant faith,” Taunton declared, bringing Tebow’s overt ministry through football to bear on the dominant theme of the book: the theological concept of common grace. Taunton explains this term as “the idea that when there is a significant Christian presence in a given society, it brings tangible benefits not just to the Christian, but to society as a whole.” He prefaces his book by saying that he didn’t know then that he was “about to discover the meaning of common grace by entering a world where there was an absence of it — the country of Ukraine.” Taunton’s fearless lineups as a self-proclaimed apologist for Christianity against atheists Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer — those confrontations were mere playground competitions compared to taking on the corrupt officials in Ukraine. In the Sunday school classroom, Taunton would be, as we say in church circles, preaching to the choir. Here, there was but one reason among about 40 believers for him to take pause: his former history teacher at Samford University, Dr. Carolyn Satterfield, would introduce him. She heaped on high praise. “One of my finest history students,” she said, “and with a bent toward writing.” He returned the compliment by noting that she was very encouraging as a teacher. Then, he led the listeners on a conversational and historical romp to elucidate his theory of “common grace.” Although not mentioned in the Bible, this principle, he contends, is deduced from scripture, and he cites the personal example of his own parents as proof. His mother was a believer; his father was not. Christians are called, he said, to be the “salt and the light” of Biblical scripture. Taunton referred to his father as “The Great Santini” (à la Pat Conroy). When Taunton once questioned his mother about why she didn’t just leave his father, she replied, “If I were to leave him, he’d be dead in five years.” Taunton says his father “gave his life to Christ on his deathbed. Taunton saw a direct correlation between this incident and the directive given in I Corinthians 7:13-14 for Christian believers to stay with that spouse “for the unbelieving spouse will be made holy.” When I later asked Taunton about his father’s profession, his quick, ironic wit surfaced. “He killed people for a living.” Taunton quickly explained that he was speaking tongue-in-cheek and meant that his father was in the army. This same wit serves Taunton well as a writer. Unlike many good speakers (and he is definitely that) who become bogged down on the page without benefit of speech patterns, gestures and the timing of speech, he offers a generous dose of history throughout a narrative that is easily digested. His knowledge of Ukraine has the added dimension of his having traveled in that area extensively, studied the language and actually dealt with the government, something the average missionary or visitor to the country would not have experienced.
Taunton’s writing style brings to mind the phrase, “plundering the Egyptians,” from a tiny Methodist publication, long out of print, with gargantuan ideas, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, by Albert C. Outler. Taunton’s use of the popular culture may be defined by Outler’s phrase: “The richer one’s ‘Egyptian plunder,’ (i.e., one’s secular culture) the richer one’s understanding of God’s wisdom and power in Christ — who, as Logos and Light, is the true illumination for all seekers after truth and wisdom.” Taunton’s first two epigraphs from John Milton and T.S. Eliot, both rather high-brow literary references, both Christian writers, serve to set the tone, but Taunton goes on to plunder the everyday, the familiar, in his choice of sentence structure, imagery and syntax. (Think email.) The syntax of that last parenthetical comment is used often to explain rather than using a fully drawn metaphor. Contemporary comparisons are made such as “…he can no more be a Christian and a socialist that he can be a Yankee or a Red Sox fan.” Vanna White and the Titanic are thrown in among historical documentation. If the average reader does not know that Milton’s Paradise Lost consists of 12 books “to justify the ways of God to man,” he will know the alphabet of Vanna White. If he is not familiar with the prophetic nature of Eliot’s poetry, he will have cringed at the sinking of the Titanic. (Think sound bytes. Think Tim Tebow. Think Super Bowl. ) Taunton’s Fixed Point Foundation is probably best known for its offer to purchase a lookup316 ad (from John 3:16) for the 2010 Super Bowl game. The request was denied by the FOX network, but word got out anyway and the commercial “went viral.” When I asked whether Fixed Point has any surprises for this Super Bowl Sunday, Taunton says they made an early request again this year to NBC Sports, but again they were denied the ad. “However, we will be doing something local.” Taunton seems invigorated by Tim Tebow. That recent Sunday morning Taunton said that it has become politically correct, even with the media, to make fun of Christianity. He posed the question, “What if Tebow were a Muslim praising God in his own language on the field? [Here, Taunton interjected a loud phrase, presumably Arabic, for effect.] How would reporters view that scene?”
Most intriguing to me is Taunton’s unlikely friendship with Hitchens, author of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. This friendship was so important to Taunton that he begins and ends his book with it. The points in their debates were too big for Power Point: Is there a God? Is belief in the Christian God beneficial or detrimental to society? A Christian apologist and an atheist — close friends. Makes you think, eh? Taunton enjoys the cerebral process, and this probably spawned his friendship with “Hitch.” The logo on his business card reads, “We take ideas seriously.” Milton’s story in Paradise Lost includes Satan’s rebellion in heaven, his expulsion, and his subsequent temptation of Adam and Eve that ends up with their being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. In traditional Christianity this fall has been considered the reason for “original sin,” that sin we carry with us from birth through no fault of our own, that sin which constitutes, if you will, our darker side. Taunton asserts that Christianity has provided the foundation for society to counter this darker side, common grace. Christianity does cartwheels with logic: the last shall be first; blessed are the poor; the children shall lead us. Taunton ends his book with Hitch dining with the Taunton family in Billings, including Sasha, whom Hitchens had not met. “Sasha neither knew that she was being observed nor that she was a participant in a silent and undeclared debate,” Taunton says. This 12-year-old vivacious and joyful grace-filled girl had left a Ukraine orphanage where there was no hope of a family, no hope of health care or dental care, simply not much hope of surviving. And here she was meeting this best-selling author, a celebrated public official, declared atheist, greeting him, “Hello, Christopher Hitchens.” Taunton describes Hitch as looking amused, smiling, “even touched,” after meeting Sasha. Perhaps he had not expected an HIV-positive child to be faring so well, Taunton imagines. Hitchens died on December 15, 2011, with complications of esophageal cancer. When I pressed Taunton by asking him this week where Hitchens is now, he said, “I don’t know.” Taunton further explained, “To be clear, I believe in heaven and hell, but I can not state with certainty what the destiny of his soul is. My private discussions with him revealed that he was flirting with conversion.” Tauton concludes his book with what I feel is this same hope for this friend. “The grace effect,” Taunton writes, “…animated by a Great Hope, changes lives, even lives of those who don’t believe in it.”