James K.A. Smith
Brazos Press, 256 pages
Reviewed by Paul Rowland Jr.
James K.A. Smith tells us that he has written neither a biography nor a book about Augustine, but “a book Augustine has written about you … a travelogue of the heart.” Smith says that Augustine is a commendable guide because “he knows where home is, where rest can be found, what peace feels like, even if it is sometimes ephemeral and elusive along the way.” And our trip with Augustine is led by Smith, a superbly articulate and imaginative guide.
He recounts how he went to Villanova to study others, but found Augustine as his guide and came to see that Augustine has “shaped the way we understand our pursuits.” Augustine is not so much an ancient as a contemporary. We go on the road, Smith suggests, because we are searching for something, though we know not what. In his orientation to this journey, Smith recalls the parable of the prodigal son with a startlingly surprising take of this very familiar story, sounding themes he will return to later in aching self-revelation.
As with many journeys of self-discovery, most of this book deals with what Smith calls “detours on the way to myself.” You could say that the 10 chapters of this section constitute a how-to guide, including how to: escape, aspire, connect, be dependent, belong, believe, be a character, protest, be broken and hope. Along the winding road of this journey, Smith interweaves Augustine’s story with his own… and with the reader.
This is no desiccated, bloodless account of an ancient church father. It is a lively, engaging mix of Augustine’s journey and our own, with sparkling prose portraying the significant places where Augustine lived and where he is remembered still. Smith even provides a Spotify playlist to accompany this road trip, with songs you may have heard, but never before called Augustine to mind.
Smith blesses readers with vivid descriptions of places, memorable stories and profound pronouncements. For example, he writes: “Grace is the answer to the call for help. Grace isn’t just forgiveness, a covering, an acquittal; it is an infusion, a transplant, a resurrection, a revolution of the will and wants. It’s the hand of a Higher Power that made you and loves you reaching into your soul with the gift of a new will.” He writes that our idolatries aren’t so much decisions, but “more like learned dispositions to hope in what will disappoint. Our idolatries are not intellectual; they are affective — instances of disordered love and devotion.”
Smith focuses on Augustine’s parents as illustrative of the challenges everyone struggles with, summing up by saying, “Fathers you can leave, but the reach of mothers transcends geography and chronology.”
This review is written as the coronavirus terrorizes the vulnerable and holds hostage the economy, and while America struggles with questions about race too long unasked and unanswered. Neither Augustine nor Smith addressed such issues directly of course, but in “On the Road With Augustine,” Smith has written a book that prompts equally discomfiting questions and takes readers on a road trip you’ll be glad you took. Good road trips inspire more, so I’ve bought another of Smith’s books and will soon travel with him again.
Since retiring as the psychologist for North Carolina’s Services for the Blind, Paul Rowland Jr. has served as commissioned pastor of Berea Presbyterian Church of Four Oaks North Carolina.