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Augustine: A New Biography Paperback – April 25, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
O'Donnell, provost at Georgetown University and editor of the definitive edition of Augustine's Confessions, is admirably qualified to chronicle the life of the man who wrote history's most famous autobiography. But in this book, suffused with the methods (though thankfully not the tortured vocabulary) of postmodern critical suspicion, the Confessions is more hindrance than help at seeing the "many Augustines" who have been lost behind Augustine's own self-presentation. The Augustines that O'Donnell sketches include the aspiring social climber who transferred his ambitions from society to church; the bitter and dogged polemicist; and "Don Quixote of Hippo," whose "fantasy world of earliest Christianity has come eerily to be real." O'Donnell's pace is quick, his writing is sharp and there are lively and provocative interpretations on nearly every page. But his jaundiced portrait does not quite seem to do justice to the African bishop's perennial appeal, which O'Donnell acknowledges in characteristically backhanded fashion: "Call it codependency or Stockholm syndrome at its mildest; call it religious partisanship at its most extreme, but even Augustine's severest modern critics find something attractive or fascinating about the man and his work." Readers of this book will certainly wonder why. For O'Donnell, it seems, familiarity has bred contempt. (Apr. 5) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* In a compelling new biography of the great north African bishop, O'Donnell sets out to read between the lines of the Confessiones, a book he knows superlatively well, since he edited the definitive edition. His interest here isn't in what Augustine reveals in that autobiographical classic but in what he did not mention, either because it would have been obvious to his readers or because he wished to distract attention from it. Among the obviousnesses are the conflicting Christianities of the period--Donatist, Arian, and Caecilian, which became Catholicism--of which Augustine's own, Caecilian, was a distinctly minority version helped into prominence by Augustine himself. And Augustine's language: although we may think nothing of his writing in Latin, his use of that language and his dialect of it spoke volumes to his typically polylingual readers. Augustine's contemporaries read him differently than we read him, and O'Donnell provides the theological, historical, and linguistic context in which those earlier readers functioned. As to what Augustine wishes us to not notice, O'Donnell is less expansive, looking for the "darker thread" in the great man's psychology but curiously not addressing such lapses as Augustine's failing to mention how his only son died. Despite such brevity on the personal front, this will become a classic on its subject. Patricia Monaghan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
The book's undertaking is ambitious: drag Christianity's most prominent thinker into the trash of modernism; tear down the Bishop of Hippo with sniffy skepticism; mock the model for centuries of penitents; make fools of those inspired by Saint Augustine's fusion of Platonic and Jewish traditions that became the philosophical foundation of the Western religious culture.
The author of this book, O'Donnell, would seem to have the credentials: he wrote volume upon volume of annotations, largely unnoticed, about Saint Augustine's "Confessions." The chapter titles and subtitles of O'Donnell's book taunt the great doctor of Catholicism: "Augustine the Self-Promoter," Augustine the Social Climber," "Augustine and the Invention of Christianity."
O'Donnell's book is the self-proclaimed "modern" understanding of Augustine, as in "modern attitudes," "moderns commonly say of Augustine," and "the dawn of the twentieth century's psychological age" (whatever that is).
O'Donnell's modernism has its own definitions and perspectives, which he claims can explain history "with ideas of rigor, objectivity and truth." But that claim highlights the book's lack of credibility, because O'Donnell's "Augustine" is so obviously the subjective, downright kooky ruminations of O'Donnell, not just on Saint Augustine, but upon all of Christianity and even all of history.
Thus, in O'Donnell's modern interpretation, Augustine becomes "a Don Quixote in a world that really takes him and his obsessions seriously;" Christianity becomes a "community of obsessives" or "like a bowling league or a condominium association;" and history for O'Donnell becomes something explained not "with ideas of rigor, objectivity and truth," but rather occasion for O'Donnell's flights of fantasy, literally. Throughout the book, O'Donnell asks that we join him in his own petty, modernist alternative realities of the past, in page after page of O'Donnell's drag-in-the-dirt brand of "what if?"
O'Donnell tries to preach his "modern" viewpoint with catchy contemporary references and definitions. Classifying pagans is equated with labeling one a "Pinko." On the death of a friend, Augustine reverts to "sex, drugs and rock and roll." Every possible heresy of the time is capitalized (along with "Pagans"), e.g. Donatists, Pelagians and Gnostics. But O'Donnell finds the license to spell "catholics" throughout. Ultimately O'Donnell's "modern" definitions are pretentious, contemptuous and profoundly ignorant, and it simply gets boring wading through O'Donnell's "modern" theses, little more than pedestrian psycho-babble, liberal political correctness and academic pomposity.
Any subsequent biography of Augustine will be compared to Peter Brown's work. The comparison here is very instructive. Written in 1962, Brown's "Augustine of Hippo," like its subject, has stood up well to time. Brown wrote about Augustine with a timeless human reference. Where O'Donnell provides cheap quips, Brown tells us that Augustine "had chosen to see the great complexity of his own view on grace and free will, veiled to the unenquiring mind, a source of wonder to the philosopher." O'Donnell's central interests are mundane human sexuality, ambition and weakness; Brown probes a mind and life consumed in a beatific vision of true human happiness in the illumination of a timeless God (O'Donnell's "god"). Peter Brown presents a human person easily recognizable as he passes through the ages of his life while leaving a posit of millions of words that still resonate with those living today, just as O'Donnell's "modern" retrospection on Augustine will be so quickly forgotten.
O'Donnell's "Augustine" is a mean book by an author without capacity. If it reveals the truly modern man, he is not someone you would want to meet.
* Using Don Quixote to illuminate Augustine (pp.202-208).
* Comparing Christianty at that time to "a bowling league or condominium association" (p. 205).
* Or this pithy observation: "Christianity became not a religion but an umbrella surrogate for a religion." (p. 202)
Augustine is significant for our time in two ways. The Christendom that we know was shaped by him--and, in O'Donnell's view, not for the better. Second, to a surprising degree Augustine shaped many of the the guiding assumptions of Western civilization, assumptions that go largely unquestioned. (pp.328-330)
Because of O'Donnel's deep scholarship, you will learn more that you ever imagined could be known about this hinge of history. It is a rich and rewarding read.