It's a clever line. When Christopher Hitchens used to slam Christianity he did it with style. "If we lost all our hard-won knowledge and all our archives, and all our ethics and all our morals...and had to reconstruct everything essential from scratch, it is difficult to imagine at that point we would need to remind or reassure ourselves that Jesus was born of a virgin."
The line employs a sharp edged bathos: End of civilization drama counterpoised with a sneer at that most-despised bit of pre-modern Christian dogma - the virgin birth. Religious people gasped, and aggressive atheists snickered, but I just sat there wishing that Christopher Hitchens knew more history.
When our civilization did indeed collapse - when the Goths tore the gates of Rome from its hinges and mobs of tattooed warriors raped and pillaged their way across what had formerly been the civilized world; when most of "our hard-won knowledge and ... our archives" were burned in Alexandria -- we felt compelled over and over again to remind ourselves of exactly that: Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. I guess I can't expect Christopher Hitchens to have acquired CS Lewis' encyclopedic knowledge of medieval history, but at least he could have read Cahill's How the Irish Saved Western Civilization.
The importance of the virgin birth is there so often in medieval literature that even a very poor protestant Latin student like me can read it without stopping to translate. "Christus natus est, ex Maria virgine." Christ is born from Mary, the virgin. They wrote it, they read it, they memorized it, and they taught it. At night they sung it in their monasteries while they copied and preserved the ancient texts of classical learning. They prayed it in the morning and then went out and turned swamps into farmland. They invented books (as opposed to scrolls), the standard alphabet, the hospital, and the university.
Despite what Lewis calls the 'historical snobbery' of modern Western secular elites towards the middle ages, the doctrine of the virgin birth is not based on an ancient anti-sexual 'hang-up'. It would be incomprehensible for Gospel writers like Matthew and Luke to write anti-sex books that begin with the genealogy of their Savior. In the biblical world picture, children are a good gift from God. Barrenness is a source of sorrow. Isaac's mother, Sarah, was barren. So were Samuel and Samson's mothers. The world of Mary and Joseph was filled with the stories of barren women, some so old that they were considered to be a lost cause. But in these stories, something always happens. Angels come and announce a coming child, a child of promise. Isaac would become the father of Israel. Samson would deliver the Jews from the tyranny of foreign oppression. Samuel would break the bonds of home-grown corruption.
Is there any womb more barren than that of a virgin? At the darkest moment of mankind, when the dark power of Rome ruled not just a region, but the entire known world; when the whole thing was held together by the threat of torture on a cross, then the barren womb quickened with life.
This principle was not just felt in the time of Sarah, Rachel, Hannah or Mary. It's happened since. The frontiersman of the dark ages started again on the foundation that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. Never before had the barbarian tribes held women in such high regard. This began with the early church councils: If Jesus was God and Mary bore Jesus, then Mary must be the 'theotokos', the God-bearer. Thus began something that changed the view of women in the Western world, elevating them to previously unheard heights. First Mary, and then by extension all virtuous women. A thousand years after Mary bore Jesus into Palestine, she bore Chivalry into Europe.
In our own lifetimes, when Europe was apostate and under the dark tyranny again, a young Polish man turned his attention to the mother of Jesus. George Weigel tells his story in Witness to Hope. While Karol Wotyla toiled in the rock quarries, as a slave of the Nazis, his hope was strengthened by Mary's example. Later, when he became known as John Paul II, he urged the people of Eastern Europe to "be not afraid," just as that teenaged girl was not afraid.
The point is hope. If God can cause a virgin to conceive and bring forth the Savior, then maybe good can be sent into any point in this world of darkness. The prophecy of the virgin birth came while Israel was under siege from Babylon (modern Iraq). Isaiah promised the King that an 'almah' a 'parthenos' (in Greek a virgin; in Hebrew a maiden) would conceive and by the time she bore the child, the siege of Jerusalem would be lifted.
Speaking of Iraq, what about Hitchens and his support for the war to depose Saddam? From whence did his hope spring? Where did he get the idea that women deserve respect and that it is a moral and high purpose for statesman, soldiers and diplomats to protect them from abuse? It is a simple, empirical, historical fact, that this idea was begotten in the medieval practice of honoring Jesus' mother. Whether you supported the war in Iraq or not, if you are honest about history you have to acknowledge that in a very real historical sense the closing of Iraq's rape rooms began in the opening of the Virgin's womb.