Encountering an ancient saint in modern times

What does the ancient African bishop, Augustine of Hippo, have in store for 21st century American readers? According to Calvin philosophy professor James K.A. Smith’s new book “On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless

Photo courtesy James K.A. Smith
“In Ostia, the port city where Augustine arrived en route to Rome, and where his mother, Monica, later died and was buried.”

Hearts,”  Augustine insights into the human condition have withstood the test of time. According to Baker Book House’s website “Augustine spent a lifetime searching for his heart’s true home and he can help us find our way.”

Smith, noting the human tendency to search for love in things like ambition, sex and power, says that Augustine understands the disappointment these things inevitably bring. “Those disappointments are a gateway to grace… Augustine shows us how [we’ll] only ‘find’ ourselves when we are found,” Smith said. 

Smith retraced the steps of Augustine’s journey in Italy, which culminated in Milan where Ambrose, another church patriarch, ultimately helped convert and even baptized Augustine. Retracing his steps “helped to not only picture Augustine’s experiences but also see how these cities of aspiration haven’t changed much,” Smith said. Although, Smith thinks the writings of Augustine, his sermons and letters, are even more critical for understanding “the human Augustine.”

But the modern reader may encounter a few challenges when reading Augustine. Smith said, “The biggest hurdle, I think, is a perceived familiarity that is mistaken. Some pictures of Augustine’s legacy are so selective and caricatured that people might assume that [they] know Augustine when all they really know is a cartoonish stand-in.” As Smith tries to critically “deconstruct these caricatures,” he thinks “we need to read Augustine against himself.”

Photo courtesy James K.A. Smith
The Piazza Sant’ Agostino in Milan

To complement the new book, as with his previous works, Smith created a Spotify playlist that is available to the public. He says this is because music does things that prose can’t. “So I appeal to the soundtracks as a way to get the ‘vibe’ of a book.” His playlist for this latest publication includes tracks such as “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2, “Leaving” by the Indigo Girls and “Cover Me Up” by Jason Isbell. 

As for upcoming projects, Smith has a few ideas: a small book called “When Are We?” that would consider history and time’s influence on Christian life and culture, and a larger project relating to several philosopher-novelists.

“On the Road with Saint Augustine,”  published by BrazosPress on Oct. 1, can be purchased at Baker Publishing.