Review: On the Road…

On The Road with Augustine (A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts) by James K. A. Smith (2019: Brazos Press)

I like to have my books all lined up in sections. I am not a neat freak, a quick scan of my office would dispel that myth. The main reason is so I know where they are if I need them, at least what section they are in. Next to me is a pile of unread books. When I finish them I tend to make some notes and then put them in the relevant section. The problem with On the Road with Augustine by James K. A. Smith is that I don’t know where to put it. Smith’s opening paragraph tries to set the tone and expectation of the reader:

“This is not a biography. This is not a book about Augustine. In a way, it’s a book Augustine has written about you. It’s a journey with Augustine as a journey into oneself. It’s a travelogue of the heart. It’s a road trip with a prodigal who’s already been where you think you need to go.”

This is not a biography but it is an introduction to the life of Augustine. A reading of his Confessions or a biography like that by Gerald Bray would be helpful but not essential to understand this book. Throughout the On the Road.., Confessions is referred to as Augustine’s self reflection and autobiography. If you really need to, the Wikipedia page is OK. But the book is not about his life as much as it is about his thinking and the influence of his thinking on others. If you are looking for an introduction to Augustine this could be a good place to start.

Why Augustine? Why a bishop from a the northern coast of Africa who was born C4th and we seem to have so little in common with? It is because on one hand he wrote a lot (I think it was John Piper who made the quip “if you claim that you read everything Augustine wrote you are a liar”) and what he wrote was and still is influential. He brought not just the Bible, but the implications of the Bible to all sorts of areas of life. For example consider City of God Book XI.5 for his views on the relationship between time and matter centuries before Einstein.

This book is more like a chaotic bunch of conversations at a party rather than a coherent lecture. Smith borrows a metaphor from another writer, giving us a scene of different philosophers, including Camus and the Salinger (the author of On the Road, a 60s beatnik book) sitting around a cafe talking about…everything. Augustine is described as the silent catalyst of most of the conversations who picks up the cheque at the end. But this is the tone of the book, it is about talking, honestly about things that matter. Augustine often raises the issue, and others contribute, but Augustine has the last word.

But this is what the book is about: conversations between writers and thinkers who are separated by centuries who are grappling with the same issues that effect all of us everyday, if we took the time to think about it. Therefore the book has all the poetry and untidiness of a conversation. Not everything is agreed with, not all issues are resolved. It is not just about ideas, but about how people have lived their lives.

The book covers a range of topics. Some of which you would expect to see in a philosophy text book: meaning, justice, death, freedom. And others that Augustine forces us to think about: mothers, fathers, ambition, story. Each chapter looks at why we are looking at this topic, what others have said, what Augustine teaches us in his life and his writing though not necessarily in order.

Honestly, I am not a fan of James K A Smith’s writing, but I read his books because I like his ideas. At times I feel like he is trying to make things harder to understand than they need to be. This book feels very different though. It is reflective and honest, at times brutally so. Smith does not write as “I am smarter than you”, but more humbly, “I am a failure and fellow sojourner like you”. Perhaps at times even poetically so.

This book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. I can see people starting to read it and think “what is this?” and, like me, will struggle to find its home on the bookshelf. Others will love it and savour it like an expensive bottle of wine toe be sipped and enjoyed. If you like to think and you can take the time to enjoy a good book, I would recommend it you try it with open expectations.

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