On the Road with Saint Augustine
On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts By James K.A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI., Brazos Press, 2019)
On the Road with Saint Augustine just might be the perfect read for those of us forced inside by the pandemic. In this fresh approach to Christian spirituality, Smith loads readers into a car alongside a great cast of characters and heads out—not for a lost weekend, but to find the nature of rest and home. An Augustinian-style road trip to spiritual rest may sound counterintuitive, but Smith’s narrative is energetic and even edgy, setting philosophical questions in the context of good music and good company.
The fourteen chapters of On the Road with Saint Augustine are divided into two parts: “Orientation” and “Detours on the Way to Myself.” Part one maps out Augustine’s massive influence across a host of thinkers, with the author including his own interest as a PhD candidate in studying the Bishop of Hippo. For example, in Chapter 1 (“How to Hit the Road”), Smith connects readers to Augustine in surprisingly fresh way by linking the Confessions with Kerouac’s endless journey. “We don’t know where we’re going because we don’t know what we want,” writes Smith, “Our interior life is confusing when it’s only ‘wants’ and so we never find the end of the road” (p. 11-12). The journey is ever homeward, and the contents to follow either get in the way or an integral part of the way home.
In part two, Smith connects Augustine to a vast array of contemporary issues, as indicated in the chapter titles: Freedom, Ambition, Sex, Mothers, Friendship, Enlightenment, Justice, Fathers, Death, and Homecoming. While the contents do not always seem to follow a strict sequence, the journey proves worthwhile, as Smith weaves his subjects together with fine narrative threads, accurate readings of difficult texts, and provoking cultural references—everything from Heidegger to Wes Anderson. His writing style is fast-paced and philosophically rigorous, yet also inviting and conversational. It’s the kind of conversation you’d hope to have on a road trip with good friends—although Heidegger may take your spot in the front seat and constantly change the music.
This is the kind of book I wish I’d read in my early twenties. Young, restless, and reformed readers with eyes for adventure will more likely identify with Smith’s energetic outlook on the contemporary Christian journey. I’m not reading Smith from a grumpy old calvinist perspective, but there are occasional passages that could have taken a more pastoral or theological direction to support his realist spirituality narrative. Chapters 7 and 13 (“Mothers: How to be Dependent” and “Death: How to Hope”) expound on the relationship between Monica and Augustine, drawing out a variety of ways that God points the maternal relationship toward the idea of home (especially pps. 118-119; 212-214). What’s missing, however, is a discussion of the Beatific Vision and its connection to the idea of home which the author has otherwise has successfully developed throughout the book.
Smith’s book might not make everyone’s top ten, but it should nevertheless be high up on this year’s reading list. On the Road with Saint Augustine is a smart, creative engagement with the spiritual realities of contemporary life, and a good conversation partner on the Christian idea of home.
Joel Heflin has written papers on Herman Bavinck for the Evangelical Theological Society and Puritan theology for Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is currently an assistant editor for a forthcoming edition of John Flavel’s Works (2020-2021). Joel lives in Chattanooga, TN with his family.
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