Saint Augustine -- the celebrated theologian who served as Bishop of Hippo from 396 C.E. until his death in 430 C.E. -- is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the Western world. His autobiography, Confessions, remains among the most important religious writings in the Christian tradition. In this eye-opening and eminently readable biography, renowned historical scholar James J. O’Donnell picks up where Augustine himself left off to offer a fascinating, in-depth portrait of an unparalleled politician, writer, and churchman in a time of uncertainty and religious turmoil.
Augustine is a triumphant chronicle of an extraordinary life that is certain to surprise and enlighten even those who believed they knew the complex and remarkable man of God.
Though labeled a biography, this book on the fourth-century North African saint is better read as a complex study of the man and his thought. Eschewing a chronological cradle-to-grave narrative, O'Donnell, professor of classics and provost at Georgetown University, circles back and forth in time, starting with a vignette of Augustine preaching, skipping back to just after his baptism, then ahead to after he became a bishop and so on. For a reader new to the subject, this will be confusing, but it is all part of O'Donnell's scheme to present Augustine afresh after centuries of overfamiliarity. In O'Donnell's view, there are many Augustines, two of whom he wants to illuminate: "the one who lived and died a long time ago and the one who lives to be remade by us and is known from his works." Balancing historical detail and interpretation of Augustine's works, the book proceeds through many topics, including the Confessions, Augustine as social climber, his role in inventing Christianity as we know it and his controversies with heretics. Throughout, O'Donnell introduces new approachesAconsistently spelling God as "god"; downplaying the sack of RomeAthat sometimes sound authentic and sometimes just gimmicky. The book is erudite and original, but the style can be glib and the discussion too abstruse for an introduction. The result is an opinionated, insightful meditation for more seasoned readers. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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O'Donnell, provost at Georgetown University and editor of the definitive edition of Augustine's Confessions, is admirably qualified to chronicle the life of the man who wrote history's most famous autobiography. But in this book, suffused with the methods (though thankfully not the tortured vocabulary) of postmodern critical suspicion, the Confessions is more hindrance than help at seeing the "many Augustines" who have been lost behind Augustine's own self-presentation. The Augustines that O'Donnell sketches include the aspiring social climber who transferred his ambitions from society to church; the bitter and dogged polemicist; and "Don Quixote of Hippo," whose "fantasy world of earliest Christianity has come eerily to be real." O'Donnell's pace is quick, his writing is sharp and there are lively and provocative interpretations on nearly every page. But his jaundiced portrait does not quite seem to do justice to the African bishop's perennial appeal, which O'Donnell acknowledges in characteristically backhanded fashion: "Call it codependency or Stockholm syndrome at its mildest; call it religious partisanship at its most extreme, but even Augustine's severest modern critics find something attractive or fascinating about the man and his work." Readers of this book will certainly wonder why. For O'Donnell, it seems, familiarity has bred contempt. (Apr. 5) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved