In his newest monograph On the Road with Saint Augustine, James K.A. Smith introduces the patristic theologian, philosopher, bishop, and—most importantly for this work—a spiritual traveler looking for home. Before reading this book, a warning is in order. This book is not a biography. It is not a historical theology. It is not a contemporary philosopher’s attempt to anachronistically claim Augustine as the first existentialist. It is not an academic book or a devotional for new Christians. It is not a postmodern apologetic for Christianity. It is not a gospel presentation. James K.A. Smith does not set out to do any of these things, but of course, by discussing Augustine, he does all of them. In this book, Smith invites us to get on the road that was traveled by Augustine centuries before us and discover how similar his own journey was to ours.
Smith invites the reader, a traveler like himself, to journey on the same road that Augustine went down centuries ago. We travel to find ourselves and become authentically us, and for someone living in a culture so distant and long ago from ours today, it may shock us to learn how similar Augustine’s journey is to our own. This book tells stories within stories. Every chapter is composed of a series of vignettes taken from Augustine’s life or connect with his experiences and ideas. These brief stories can seem random in their placement, but it does not take long to see how each stories connects to form a carefully-woven narrative. These chapters can feel similar to mind-bending films (such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento) wherein things may feel unsettled and random until one reaches the end and feels the satisfying (or unsettling in Nolan’s case) conclusion that brings the pieces together.
The ‘Idea’ Chapters
These chapters feel like a journey through life’s most prevalent topics. After setting the stage for Augustine being our contemporary in thought and deed as we, like him, are refugees looking for a place in this world to call home, Smith walks us through a series of topics. He opens this series of chapters by introducing the problem of freedom without end or without a goal. He then moves to address how ambition, though maligned in some parts of contemporary culture and worshipped in others, cannot be put into either category so neatly. When our ambition is rightly ordered for God’s sake, it becomes a great good, but this is difficult when the line between God’s sake and our own is rather fuzzy. Smith remarks that Augustine clearly admits that he still does things out of selfish ambition while still maintaining the desire to do them for God alone, and this does not make them entirely selfish or immoral or inconsistent—it just makes them honest. Throughout the book Smith address other topics of broad and sometimes theoretical significance such as enlightenment, story, and justice, but he also moves to some practical topics as well.
The Practical Chapters
Concerning the practical and everyday topics that connect with Augustine, Smith discusses family, friendship, death, and homecoming. Smith’s chapter on sex does much good in moving past some of Augustine’s hang-ups and misgivings almost certainly brought on by his own checkered past. For those familiar with some of Augustine’s claims concerning this topic, Smith gives a refreshing reinterpretation of Augustine that is honest and charitable.
In this book, we also glimpse at Augustine’s parental relationships. The chapter on Augustine’s mother relates the story of his rebellious emigration from her faith and home until he returns after experiencing her faith from another place in his life. Many people have similar experiences in scorning the faith and beliefs of their parents. Augustine finally realizes that, the whole time he left his geographical home to find one of rest, his mother was there pointing him to the proper home of peace. Augustine had an absent father like many others today, so Smith, in sharing that part of Augustine’s life, uses it as a platform to discuss our brokenness and the longing many feel for the place in their lives abandoned by absent fathers. Smith also talks about important topics such as friendship and death which have great significance in our lives as we seek loving companionship from others and await the fate that will reach us all.
I quite enjoyed On the Road with Saint Augustine. I had the typical experience of reading Confessions for the first time. As a college freshmen with no real idea who Augustine was, I was shocked when this bishop from Africa told my story. His struggle with sin and wrestling with God could not have described my own story better. His heartfelt pain and tears came through so clearly even though he originally wrote in a different language and different century. It opened my eyes to the universal journey of fighting sin and evil and finding God and grace. Smith writes like a master-weaver, bringing Augustine’s story together with ours. For those interested in a faith that may seem foreign yet oddly familiar, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly. My one personal caution is that this book is not your typical narrative.
Like those mind-bending films mentioned before, every piece is essential even if you may not enjoy it while it happens. Many of those films have moments that seem to drag on or seem to not contribute enough to the story to warrant their inclusion, but again I believe they all have their place. The same is true of Smith’s work. Is it superbly written? Does it demonstrate a well-seasoned writing career? Yes, but it may not always feel like it. This critique, my only critique, may also be a strength. I will let the reader decide. Take up and read.