Book Review: Augustine
Posted October 12, 2013on:
Augustine: A New Biography by James J. O’Donnell, Harper Perennial, 2005, 396 pp.
I picked this up a few years ago to be a refresher on Augustine. I read Peter Brown’s landmark Augustine of Hippo back in seminary, but I wanted to revisit this epic and influential figure, his controversies and his theologies. O’Donnell’s book was on the non-fiction “summer reading” display at the local Barnes & Noble, so I figured it to be a fairly easy go. I was wrong, but I was richly rewarded by the effort this book required.
Augustine: A New Biography is not an appropriate introduction for beginners. O’Donnell is clear to distinguish his project from so many others. While traditional biographies tell Augustine’s story through his writings and the public records of his major controversies–in effect, Augustine in his own words–O’Donnell invites the reader to examine what Augustine’s carefully crafted words leave out. What emerges from O’Donnell is a counter-narrative to the traditional Augustinian biography. It is not an open conflict with the stately portrait of the struggling author of the Confessions and vociferous defender of the faith against heretics, but more like the counterpoint that runs beneath that main melody.
As such, O’Donnell assumes a fairly sophisticated familiarity with Augustine’s traditional biography and catalog. I found myself turning to Wikipedia to remind myself of the various stories and heresies to which he regularly alludes, and even had to chase down a few vocabulary words from time to time. O’Donnell’s writing is an exercise in cleverness, and it does not follow a linear timeline or provide a basic outline. He regularly includes imagined letters, made-up words, and anachronisms as tools of revelation. He invites the reader into a hall of mirrors where he shows Augustine in various reflections and leaves you wondering which one is the distortion and which is the true picture, until you realize that all are equal parts accurate and misleading. Like the end of the hall of mirrors, you leave the biography amused and entertained, but also aware that the reflections have revealed both flaws and beauty marks you had not previously noticed. It is not a place to go for encyclopedic information, but what O’Donnell has created is brilliant and beautiful.
The Augustine that emerges in his portrait is the man behind the curtain of his bold, confident writings. O’Donnell asks, in a postmodern way, why Augustine was so insistent on various points. What was he trying to conceal? Why did he want this version of his story to survive against others? O’Donnell finds answers by quoting more frequently from Augustine’s interlocutors than from the man himself. They offer insight into how Augustine was viewed in his own time, and they interacted with the man himself, not the voice in his writings. The picture that emerges is more changeable than his immutable words, but it is also more pastoral. Augustine’s life’s work was not writing theology for the ages, but holding together a church full of squabbles, attempting to bring about a vision of all believers in catholic unity (a unique contribution from Augustine), all while negotiating imperial politics and the financial stability of the church at Hippo. This version of Augustine is far more human and relatable, in both his strengths and weaknesses.
While I would not recommend this as easy reading, or as an introduction to Augustine’s life and times, Augustine: A New Biography is well worth the endeavor. Its perspective is unique and compelling, and unmasks Augustine in a way that leaves you wanting more of him. I have removed Augustine of Hippo, the Confessions and City of God from my shelf, and added them to the pile of things marked “to be read.” Rather than feeling satisfied with an Augustine refresher, this book revealed just how much more there is to contemplate, and made me want to do so.