"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 the book.


But he has written a respectful, if not a reverent, book.


Bob Trimble