by James J. O'Donnell
The key to understanding James J. O’Donnell’s biography of Augustine is the word “new” in the subtitle. He remarks that Augustine “comes weighed down with the assumptions, expectations, and conventional narratives of many generations.” Then he asks, “Can he be set free?” O’Donnell’s book is an effort to accomplish this liberation.
To some degree the effort succeeds. O’Donnell is exceedingly well-informed, not only about Augustine but about the whole late classical world-and he looks afresh at Augustine. He does not, for example, simply tell again the familiar story of Augustine’s conversion. Rather he brings out noteworthy facts, such as the great African’s surprising lack of appreciation of the prophets. And he lays some emphasis on unattractive qualities of Augustine, such as his social climbing and political scheming. This is not to say, though, that he is bent on debunking Augustine: O’Donnell expresses a deep respect for Augustine’s intellect and spirituality. Nor is it to suggest that he is arrogant in his judgments. O’Donnell’s whole manner is unpretentious, his style casual and appealing. His book as a whole is both likable and provocative.
At the same time, though, it is sometimes disconcerting. Readers will find themselves facing some statements that are puzzling and others that are seemingly absurd. It is puzzling, for example, when O’Donnell suggests that Augustine’s whole story of the inner...
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About the Author
Glenn Tinder is the author of Can We Be Good Without God: On the Practical Meaning of Christianity (Regent College) and other books.