Some background: This past week Professor Timothy Jackson of Emory debated Christopher Hitchens about Hitchens' book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Cynthia Tucker, editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, moderated.
The paper printed excerpts of the debate. Jackson's opening comments were edited in a way that dramatically changed the tenor of what he actually said.
I am not sure if the Atlanta Journal Constitution did it on purpose (this does not seem to me to be Cynthia Tucker's style), however whatever the reason for this editing, it certainly managed to make Prof. Jackson sound like a caricature, i.e. a fire and brimstone believer.
The letter he sent to the paper explains it all:
May 21, 2007
Atlanta Journal Constitution
P.O. Box 4689
Atlanta, GA 30303
On May 16, I participated in two debates with Christopher Hitchens, reported on by the AJC in its Sunday edition of May 20, page C3. In its excerpts from the second debate, the paper quoted my opening remarks as follows:
Jackson: When I was first asked to debate Christopher Hitchens around his book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," I swallowed hard. I know he can be a little bit caustic in public forums, but I agreed. I assumed I could remain civil and engage, even without having seen the volume then. I agreed. Went ahead in the spirit of constructive dialogue. But then I started doing the relevant reading and research. It quickly became clear that Mr. Hitchens' opinions represented an abomination to anyone like myself, raised in an upright home in Louisville. It's a sad thing when you have to judge another human being as fundamentally misguided, even damned.
Whether intentional or not, this is a highly misleading abbreviation of what I actually said.
My words, in full, were:
“When I was first asked if I would debate Christopher Hitchens around his book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, I swallowed hard. I know he can be a little bit caustic in public forums, but I agreed. I assumed that I could remain civil and engaged and, even without having seen the volume, I forged ahead in the spirit of constructive dialogue. But then I started doing the relevant research and reading. It quickly became clear that Mr. Hitchens’s opinions represent an abomination to anyone like myself raised in an upright home in Louisville. It is a sad thing when you must judge another human being to be fundamentally misguided, even damned. Hitchens is in real danger of being consigned forever to the lesser spirits. How he can prefer Johnny Walker Red Scotch to Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, I simply cannot fathom! As Walker Percy notes, drinking scotch is ‘like looking at a picture of Noel Coward,’ while drinking Bourbon is ‘a little burst of Kentucky sunshine.’
Well, there’s no accounting for taste, so I will confine myself this evening to Hitchens’s much more understandable critique of religion. He’s wrong there too, but more forgivably.”
Either the compiler of the excerpts did not get the joke, or there was a deliberate effort to deceive here. The reason I began with irony and humor was precisely to rebut the impression that Mr. Hitchens gives in his book that all religious believers are dangerously dogmatic and judgmental. In editing my remarks so “unwisely,” the AJC communicated exactly the opposite point.
Although it somewhat taxes plausibility, I am prepared to believe that this was an accident, the result of an assistant working on material from an occasion he or she had not witnessed first-hand. But the unfortunate upshot is that your readers, at least those not at the debate, now have a false conception of me and my views. This, in effect, negates the spirit and substance of the very event you were presumably attempting to cover with objectivity.
Well, as Alexander Pope famously says: “to err is human, to forgive divine.”
Timothy P. Jackson
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics
Candler School of Theology
Atlanta, GA 30322