An Augustine biography that stoops to gags, cuteness

By James J. O'Donnell
HarperCollins, $26.95, 396 pages

I pity anyone who decides, like James J. O'Donnell, to write a "new" biography of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the North African bishop, saint, and dauntingly prolific theologian. Besides having to digest Augustine's own voluminous works in Latin (about five million words in total), the biographer must wrestle with the shadows cast by Peter Brown, whose magisterial and beautiful "Augustine of Hippo" (1967, updated 2000), set the gold standard for Augustinian biography. Mr. Brown's book combined vast learning in ancient languages and history, meticulous footnoting of sources, an erudite but thoroughly readable style, and the newest findings in psychology, sociology, archaeology, and the history of art in order to recreate in vivid detail not only the fading but still glittering Roman Mediterranean world where Augustine lived but also the imaginative inner world that his mind inhabited.

Mr. Brown had plenty of help from his subject, one of the most complex and interesting figures of the world of late antiquity. In his "Confessions," Augustine left testimony of his journeys both physical and spiritual: from small-town boyhood in Numidia in North Africa to brilliant and worldly philosopher and teacher of rhetoric, first in Carthage, North Africa's largest city, then in Rome, and finally, in Milan; from practitioner of dualistic Manicheism to Platonist to orthodox Christian who returned to the port city of Hippo Regius in his native Numidia in 397 to spend the rest of his life there as priest and bishop.

The "Confessions" is not really a biography in either the classical or the modern sense. Augustine fails even to provide the names of his parents, Patricius and Monica (or "Monnica," as Augustine's disciple Possidius and Mr. O'Donnell spell it) or of the Carthaginian concubine he loved so dearly that his heart bled, he said, when he felt obliged for social reasons to get rid of her and who became the mother of his son, Adeodatus. The "Confessions" was instead a kind of dramatic monologue, its narrative a stage on which there were only two actors, Augustine and God. Indeed, the book is addressed to a "You" (or "Thou") before whose all-seeing eyes Augustine believed he had no course but brutal honesty as he explored his own failings in detail: failings of the flesh but also of pride and wanton self-regard.

Augustine wrote many other works: his "City of God," in which he pinned his hopes upon the heavenly order as the Vandals swept through North Africa (they conquered Hippo in 431, the year after he died), as well as countless sermons, biblical commentaries, letters, philosophical speculations and polemical tracts against heretics. But it is the "Confessions," oddly modern in its psychology and existential longing, that resonates most with today's readers: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

Peter Brown would be the first to admit (as he did in an essay appended to the 2000 edition of his book) that he did not have the last scholarly word on Augustine. Indeed, a recent discovery of two caches of long-lost sermons and letters by Augustine has led many scholars, including Mr. Brown himself, to question the conventional chronology of his works -- and hence, of his career -- on which Mr. Brown relied in 1967. So the time is ripe for a fresh look at the bishop of Hippo.

James J. O'Donnell, a longtime professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania who is now provost of Georgetown University, would seem to have the credentials. He has written several other books about Augustine and his contemporaries, he has edited the "Confessions" for Oxford University's Clarendon Press, and he maintains a website at Georgetown devoted to Augustine.

Sad to say, Mr. O'Donnell's book is grossly disappointing on every single level that I can think of. First of all, despite its subtitle, it is not really a biography, "new" or otherwise, as it fails to deliver a coherent chronological narrative of what the author might believe to have been the trajectory of Augustine's life. His thesis is that the "Confessions" was not the baring of the soul that readers have made it out to be but, rather, a carefully designed and implicitly fraudulent feat of self-promotion prompted by Augustine's neuroses: "an astonishing act of self-presentation and self-justification and, paradoxically, self-aggrandizement.

Mr. O'Donnell finds Augustine's meticulous examination of his own conscience "repellent" and his obeisance before God ostentatiously servile. The "Confessions," he argues, amounted to a blueprint for the rest of Augustine's writings, which "often carefully display . . . anxiety and self-mistrust in the midst of his most self-assertive and overbearing of public displays." Mr. O'Donnell's modus operandi is to pick around behind the "Confessions" and the other writings to find hints of the real Augustine as he conceives him. This may well be a useful analytical approach -- and Mr. O'Donnell may well be right about the "Confessions" -- but his methodology ill-serves the reader looking for a cohesive account of the bishop of Hippo's life.

Stylistically, Mr. O'Donnell suffers from the David Eggers Syndrome: terminal whimsicality. In order to drive home the point that Christianity was still a minority religion in the fourth-century Roman world, he invents an imaginary cult called "Glunchism" and titles one of his chapters "Augustine the Glunchist." Another chapter bears this wince-making title: "No Parties, Please, We're Christian!"

The opening sentence of his book describes Hippo Regius as a "nothing town," a cliche that fails to do justice to Hippo's status as second in importance only to Carthage in Roman North Africa. The author's brand of cuteness probably comes off well in undergraduate lectures. In cold print it is deadly, condescendingly assuming that a 21st-century reader could not possibly be interested in a fourth-century theologian without the aid of slapstick and topical gags.

Because Augustine's training had immersed him in the orations of Cicero, he was one of the most elegant Christian Latin stylists ever to write. But here is how Mr. O'Donnell translates a passage from one of Augustine's theological works, the "Soliloquies," a dialogue between Augustine and Reason: Augustine: "Okay, I've prayed to god." Reason: "So what do you want to know?" That lower-case "god," by the way, which appears throughout the book, is possibly Mr. O'Donnell's most grating tic, indulged in, he informs us, in order to "remind readers" that Augustine's conception of God was idiosyncratic and not necessarily in accord with Christian theology.

The jokey style and the tendentious translations point to the book's gravest problem: That Mr. O'Donnell does not like Augustine much. This is not surprising, for revisionist historians for at least two decades (Elaine Pagels is the best-known of them) have concluded that Augustine, who believed that Adam's fall had warped human sexuality, was a puritanical killjoy who ruined the sex lives of Christians for 1,500 years.

In a "thought experiment" that is supposed to represent how we would have regarded Augustine were we not mesmerized by the "Confessions," Mr. O'Donnell describes Augustine as an ambitious, unattractive social failure of "shabby genteel" background with "few friends," whose literary style was "plodding," his learning "superficial," his writings "muddled." His "City of God" defended "a rather forced Christian view of history." Worst of all, asserts Mr. O'Donnell, Augustine, by approving the suppression of the Donatists, a rigorist heretical sect in North Africa, "destroyed the organization and morale of the native African Christian church" (many historians would dispute this, as there were relatively few Donatists outside of Augustine's rural Numidia).

Mr. O'Donnell implies that this portrait may be "exaggerated," but it is actually not far off the mark of what he presents in the rest of the book. In the author's eyes, Augustine was a gloomy provincial pessimist who never got over his relegation to a second-tier bishop's see and never got over the flesh-denying Manicheism of his youth, who died "disdainful and remorseful and hopeful . . . thinking of the parents who had conceived him in the midst of their sins."

As I read Mr. O'Donnell's book, I kept asking myself: Who is its audience? The flip, folksy diction suggests young people who have scarcely heard of Augustine of Hippo, although I don't think that in the age of iPod many of them will plow through its nearly 400 pages. My advice: Don't bother. Read Peter Brown's fine biography. Or Garry Wills' eccentric but gracefully written "Saint Augustine." And hope that next time around, Mr. O'Donnell will put his scholarship to more serious use.

Charlotte Allen, author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus," is writing her doctoral dissertation in medieval and Byzantine studies for the Catholic University of America.