"Augustine" by James J. O'Donnell
(Ecco/HarperCollins, 352 pages, $26.95)
In the late fourth century in North Africa,
you couldn't tell the Christians without a scorecard. There were Manichees,
Caecilianists, Donatists and Pelagianists, with pagans still hanging around
despite the Roman Empire deciding that only Christianity
could be the official religion.
For Augustine, bishop of Hippo (there were some 700 bishops
in Africa), it was a trying situation. He wanted one
church, with clearly defined doctrine, disregarding geography. He labored
mightily and eloquently his entire life for that goal.
O'Donnell, professor of classics and provost of Georgetown
University, has an unusual, but
accessible biography of the man who did so much to shape what we know as
Christianity. The author continually looks behind what Augustine said to see what
he really believed, what led him to write as he did.
He is always looking for a modern-day equivalent to explain
his subject, at one point calling Augustine a Don Quixote and his congregation
something like a bowling league. To emphasize that views regarding God were
still fluid, he refuses to capitalize the word throughout
But he has written a respectful, if not a reverent, book.