Delboy, Skinny Jeans, and the Freedom of the Wills
Back in Westminsterworld, I have been reading Garry Wills' biography of Augustine's Confessions, a truly wonderful little volume.
I confess I am a Wills fan. The man defies categorisation. Politically, is he left or right? On that score, he is a kind of American Rod Liddle. Academically, he has vast learning; yet he writes limpid prose which informs and entertains without drawing attention to that same vast learning which underpins it. He has profound insights; and just as often exhibits outrageous flaws and misfires. He is, I would suggest, the quintessential contrarian. And I for one am glad he is a Roman Catholic. Thus, his evident freedom to have a pop at his tradition and throw a few iconoclastic punches around is their problem, not mine. Indeed, I am not sure I would want to handle him as a Protestant. That would be akin to having Christopher Hitchens in my congregation, if not on my session. Some people are best appreciated from a distance.
Wills is the author of arguably the best introductory life of Augustine available. I have a soft spot for James O'Donnell's iconoclastic biography, simply because it is so perverse (and because he manages somehow to work The Grateful Dead into the narrative). But for a -- how can one put this? -- true account of Augustine's life, Wills is the man.
His volume on the Confessions is part of a series from Princeton University Press which looks at the life of great religious books. I read Paul Gutjahr's volume on the Book of Mormon last year and found it fascinating. Wills' contribution to the series is of the same high standard.
Wills spends much of the book analysing the text of the Confessions and, compared to the Gutjahr volume, less time on reception. He makes a good case for seeing the work as a prayer, rather than a psychological autobiography, though I remain unconvinced that it cannot be read as both. He also offers a persuasive rationale for seeing the last three books as connecting coherently to the first ten. Along the way, he offers brief but cogent accounts of Augustine on time and memory. He also effectively debunks the surprisingly influential view that sees some of the more literarily convenient events (such as the crisis moment in the garden under the tree) as therefore necessarily fictional.
I remain unpersuaded that the crisis in the garden is all about sex, though Wills' arguments have certainly given me pause for thought. And he is certainly correct to present it in a way that distances it from its rhetorical use by some later Protestants. He does, however, do an excellent job of setting Augustine's sex life in fourth century context. Not only that, he helps set Augustine's overall intellectual development within the kind of nuanced framework which is being developed by Lewis Ayres and other Augustine scholars of the moment.
This little book is a very readable example of the helpful revision of the life, thought and legacy of Augustine which has been emerging over the last ten to fifteen years. I recommend it highly.
Indeed, Delboy might even want to sell his latest pair of skinny jeans in order to buy a copy.
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