About Larry (the good & the gossip)
Larry Alex Taunton is an award-winning author, freelance columnist, and producer. For better or for worse, he is a man with a reputation. An “Army brat,” Larry was born at Fort Benning, Georgia and was stationed at a number of other places beginning with the word “Fort” before he was a teenager. The military life of moving from one base to another suited Larry and engendered in him a restlessness that has never left him. With a mother from Vancouver Island, Canada and his father a native of L.A.—“Lower Alabama” in the vernacular—he grew up a child of both worlds. Larry’s Canadian grandparents saw themselves as subjects of the British Crown and regarded American independence with some suspicion; his American grandparents worked in the cotton mills and told old family stories of the Civil War and the “Yankee occupation.” Such an upbringing was seldom boring and made for a diversity of perspectives— a composite of “God Save the Queen” and “Dixie,” Sir Walter Scott and William Faulkner—or “crumpets and grits,” as Larry says.
The interplay between his heritage on his mother’s side and that of his father’s side would become a theme in his life. He was never fully one or the other. Larry was at once an Anglophile like his Canadian grandfather and an American patriot in keeping with the accepted orthodoxy on his father’s side. But it was from his Irish maternal grandmother, who, at 19, had boarded a ship in Belfast bound for the New World never to return, that he inherited his resolve and stubbornness. Though only five-feet tall, rebar ran straight through her tiny frame. Playing cards like a professional gambler—she wintered in Reno, Nevada for a reason—she taught Larry that it is wise to conceal one’s strength, to never show your hand, and to always play to win.
For her own part, Larry’s mother was determined that her son would speak and write the Queen’s English. Although she grew up in an irreligious family, she was interested in spiritual issues and also saw to it that Larry received some religious instruction. But it was in her capacity as a professional artist that she had the most enduring impact. She had Larry tutored in oil painting beginning in early childhood. Artistic training and education dominated much of Larry’s early years. Strong-willed and unhappy to be sitting in front of a canvas with palette and paintbrush when his friends were on the playground, he rebelled at every opportunity and quickly convinced a series of tutors to quit.
When the last resigned, he was gleefully certain the playground could not be far away. But his mother, determined that he would not be allowed to derail her plans for his development, hired a tough woman from Brooklyn who would be impervious to his charm. At once a great artist and gifted teacher, this new and highly cultured tutor agreed to take the fifth-grade boy into her home to give him individualized instruction. She conquered his boredom and molded his will to her own and for the next decade she taught her “favorite rogue,” as she came to call him, the techniques of the Old Masters. His mother’s investment seemed to be paying off when Larry won numerous awards and a statewide competition in oil painting at the age of 13, earning him the honor of having his painting displayed in the Alabama State Capitol. By the time he reached high school, both his mother and his longtime tutor had expected him to pursue an artistic career, but Larry, a typical boy in many respects, recoiled at the thought of such a sedentary life. His artistic bent would find another outlet for expression.
Larry’s father was cut from a very different cloth than that of his mother. Where she was artistic and sensitive, he was neither. An Airborne Ranger and member of both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, he was a decorated veteran of two wars. Larry describes his father as “a gifted man who was as full of vice as he was of courage; the sort of man whose gifts are better appreciated in a time of war and without whom America could not exist.” Larry remembers fondly life on Army bases where, from time to time, he was allowed to accompany his father to the firing ranges. “It was a boy’s dream,” he says. “Climbing around on tanks, riding through the forest in Jeeps and trucks, watching the training of men, seeing them jump from aircraft, warehouses full of ordnance, handling weapons, seeing things get blown up—I loved all of it. In those days, boys were often allowed to come along on the weekends. I doubt that would be permitted today.” His father was a strict disciplinarian, an enthusiastic consumer of alcoholic beverages, and incapable of uttering a sentence free of profanity. In the latter, he was, according to Larry, “a creative genius, the Shakespeare of profane expressions, possessing an uncanny ability to surprise even other soldiers with his expletive-laden witticisms.” He was also a self-proclaimed “yellow dog Democrat” (until Reagan, that is) and had no religious interests. Even so, he nonetheless instilled in Larry a strong sense of civic duty, courage, and sacrifice.
Larry in eighth grade
Religion, or the lack of it, would become another theme in Larry’s life. He flirted with atheism but concluded that such a worldview was intellectually untenable. The problems of suffering and evil remained barriers to his belief in a personal god, while beauty, and man’s ability to create it, plagued his unbelief. He compromised with himself and settled into an Enlightenment-style deism and a philosophy of meaninglessness. A mentor then introduced Larry to the works of Francis Schaeffer. Larry’s life might have taken a very different turn were it not for the knicker-wearing theologian with the Colonel Sanders beard. Schaeffer became a portal to a world of ideas that captivated Larry’s young mind. Most influential of all was Schaeffer’s attempt to understand the flow of intellectual history through art and his willingness to push a given philosophy to its logical conclusion. This prompted a more serious and systematic reflection on the questions then occupying the boy who wanted to know if his life had significance beyond that which he artificially manufactured for it. Schaeffer led Larry to the thought of such disparate luminaries as Plato, Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, Gibbon, Emerson, Nietzsche, Karl Popper, Etienne Gilson, Dostoevsky, and ultimately the book with which they were all (except Plato) contending—the Bible. This period in his life initiated a lifelong interest in the God Question and a compassion for those searching for meaning in their lives.
Working his way through college, Larry changed tires in an auto repair shop, was a forklift operator, a tractor-trailer driver, a security guard, a tutor for college athletes, a commercial artist, worked quality control on the night shift in a chemical plant, waited tables, and taught history and literature. In addition to these things, he earned extra money from the ongoing sale of his art and by entering—and winning—essay contests. What little spare money he had was spent on books and travel.
During his undergraduate years, Larry was greatly influenced by the renowned Oxford historian (and spy) M.R.D. Foot. Foot, who had survived both a tragically famous love affair with the beguiling writer Iris Murdoch and a Nazi prison camp before marrying atheist moral philosopher Philippa Bosanquet, was a man with a reputation of his own.
It was on the basis of the intelligence he provided that the decision to drop the atomic bombs was made. In 2001, Foot was awarded the rank of Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. Even novelist John le Carré paid him homage when, in his bestselling masterpiece A Perfect Spy, he gave Foot the distinction of being the only man to whom he referred by his real name. Foot’s experience not only as a historian but as a participant in history itself gave Larry his first glimpse of a writer as something more than a mere observer and chronicler of events.
It was Foot who expanded Larry’s horizons by identifying in him future promise as a writer. Stimulating Larry’s thinking with a steady stream of books that the two would discuss over coffee or on walks around the British Museum, the old professor bequeathed to Larry a deep respect for the rigors of research and writing in addition to an appreciation for what constitutes great literature as opposed to the merely mediocre. Perhaps Foot’s most significant contribution to Larry was in pushing him to defy academic convention and write in a manner that the intelligent layman could not only understand, but find entertaining, a methodology that was even more heretical then than it is now.
In graduate school, Larry was a student of the celebrated author Forrest McDonald. A subtle thinker and one of the few openly (and proudly) conservative intellectuals in academia, McDonald ranks among the great American historians. A heavyweight academic, he was called before Congress during the Impeachment Trial of Bill Clinton to explain the meaning of the constitutional phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors.” McDonald eschewed political sensitivities that came at the expense of truth and inculcated a similar spirit in his student. McDonald’s willingness to challenge reigning academic opinion when he knew he was right, even at the risk of public denunciations and enraged colleagues, left a lasting impression on Larry. In guiding his graduate thesis, McDonald developed Larry’s bold style and taught him to love writing as an artform. Indeed, it was McDonald who encouraged the publication of Larry’s thesis and his later career as an author. McDonald delighted in forcing his students to defend their opinions, all the more so when they did it capably. Upon the successful completion of Larry’s oral examinations, McDonald congratulated him with a hearty handshake, a proud wink, and an offer of beer money.
Graduate school years with firstborn son, Michael, and first (and unsuccessful) attempts at a beard
Since many of the primary influences in Larry’s early life were either atheists or agnostics and, very often, people he deeply admired and from whom he had learned much, his entry into the debate over the role of religion in public life seems inevitable. Just as Dostoevsky’s passionate refutation of atheism in his novels Crime and Punishment, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov was inspired by his early-in-life atheism, Larry’s passionate writing and engagement on similar questions was likewise born from his own youthful consideration of the godless alternatives to Christianity.
Larry has debated both prominent atheists and Muslims on CNN, Al Jazeera, and on stage. He has organized or chaired symposia on scientific and religious questions at Oxford University, The Edinburgh Literary Festival, Princeton University and also the now famous “God Delusion Debate” which reached a global audience and does so to this day. In 2011, he captured national attention as the executive producer of a “slick” Super Bowl commercial that asked viewers to consider the meaning of the culturally ubiquitous reference “John 3:16.”
In his book The Grace Effect, Larry develops a unique argument for Christianity’s profound effect on human nature and society. The book is essentially a reexamination of Max Weber’s famous thesis as contained in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; a thesis that dominated historical interpretation for more than half a century before being largely rejected by the academy. Larry, however, believed that Weber was onto something, but that the late German sociologist did not fully understand the phenomenon he was trying to explain because his own agnosticism prevented him from penetrating the mysterious heart of the religion he rightly identified as driving it. Using his adopted daughter, Sasha, and his extensive interactions with the so-called “New Atheists” as vehicles to explain what he believes Weber got right and what he missed, The Grace Effect is at once history, philosophy, theology, and compelling narrative all held together by his irreverent humor.
It is in his capacity as a writer that Larry’s work tends to get noticed. Publisher’s Weekly has praised his “smooth and accessible prose” while Hardball’s Chris Matthews called his book The Faith of Christopher Hitchens “beautifully written.” That book caused such hysteria among many atheists, who didn’t bother to read it, that they mobilized from Pasadena to Oxford to discredit him, falsely accusing Larry of claiming the late atheist had converted to Christianity on his deathbed. (Readers of the book will know that.) These coordinated attacks led his editor to exclaim, “You have arrived! Now you have enemies!” Indeed he does. He has been attacked by such Leftist standard-bearers as The Atlantic (three times), The Guardian (three times), BBC, NPR, and The New Yorker, among others. But his work has also been praised by The New York Times, The Times (of London), Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and The Wall Street Journal.
In South Korea
The late author Samuel Eliot Morison once said that to write well, one must really live. This Larry has done in abundance to his immense enjoyment and occasional detriment. By all accounts, Larry has been (literally) killed and (literally) resurrected. That event, punctuated by extreme violence, a loss of half of his blood volume, and a remarkable photograph of a nun standing in solemn prayer over his body, was a watershed in his life. Unsurprisingly, the physical effects of that day linger, but so, too, does a renewed sense of purpose. He has been in more than fifty countries and on six continents. He has ridden camels in the desert with Bedouins; rappelled (unhappily) from the Great Wall; stood in the rubble in the terrible aftermath of 9/11; and, at 16, he swam across the Rio Grande to Mexico and back just to see how easily the border could be breached (the results were not reassuring). He has been hospitalized, smuggled, and presumed dead. He is a survivor of cancer, a Deliverance-like hike on the Appalachian Trail, and a really bad night in Turkey. He has stood in awe at the foot of Iguazu Falls and breathless atop the Kehlstein. And he has crossed swords with men posturing as the world’s intellectual elite. In sum, these experiences have served him well as a writer even if he accumulated more than a few bumps and bruises along the way.
To some, Larry is a champion of the persecuted, the voiceless, and the marginalized; to others he is controversial, an opponent of the progressive agenda, and an irredeemable rake. Nigeria’s great bishop, Jwan Zhumbes, has called him “a wonderfully daring figure,” while a New York Times columnist has both respectfully and backhandedly described Larry as a member of the “Christian intelligentsia”—whether you think that is a good or a bad thing really depends on your ideological commitments.
Debating in Hyde Park, London
While Larry sallies forth into parts unknown from time to time, it is to his lovely wife, Lauri, that he always returns. A “steel magnolia,” she is a quiet, steady, and encouraging force and is unquestionably the spiritual heart of their marriage. Lauri is both Larry’s anchor and his source of inspiration. Together they have four grown children and enjoy a relatively peaceful existence at their home, Duck River Ranch.
With his beloved dog, Blitz
A train station somewhere in Europe