04 February 2011

The Desk Chair Review of Books

I was somewhat skeptical that this book would be worthwhile, having been through the confessions a number of times and having Augustine's life story pretty much together in my own head. I thought an Augustine biography would be redundant, having already read the one written by the saint himself. For some reason, the stupidity of this attitude did not make itself aware immediately; fortunately, it only took the first few pages of Brown's book to disabuse me of my philistinism.

Brown's research is meticulous; he sculpts broad, arcing narratives within each section of Augustine's life, peppering the plot with abundant references to the man's letters and sermons, situating them within the rich context of provincial, African Christianity. The persistent and simultaneous tug of contemplative inclinations against pastoral, practical controversies within the flock is standard stuff of ancient ecclesiastical biographies, but Brown was able to get out of the way with enough tact to let the details of Augustine's personal story stand up in clear but ornate relief against the backdrop of 5th century Hippo, Carthage, and Rome. The two great controversies of Augustine's life--over Donatism and Pelagianism--stand like pillars on either side of his episcopal ministry, and I realized that prior to this biography I hadn't understood what was at stake in either of them, having approached them through an exclusively theological lens. Brown bestows a measure of flesh and blood on the controversialists, for which I am quite grateful. Learning of Augustine's own development, from an intense, almost rigorist neophyte to a venerable man of affairs deeply acquainted with the mysterious nature of human sin, softened the portrait of this brilliant and devoted Christian without diminishing any of his greatness. The melancholy of the crumbling late Roman empire overrun by invasion after invasion struck me with consistent force, and gave me a sense of the tragic feeling of futility that must have gnawed at those with responsibility to preserve and hand on civilization.

Augustine's literary executor, Possidius, said upon his death that "I think those who gained most from him were those who had been able actually to see and hear him as he spoke in Church, and, most of all, those who had some contact with the quality of his life among men." Having read this biography does little to ameliorate our lack of experience of him, but does inspire a deep desire to be faithful to the graces of one's own life, no matter where they lead, in confidence that the contribution one single person can make in all this madness is worthwhile, no matter how small.
Saint Augustine by 17th century Spanish artist José de Ribera

No comments: