Worst thing you’ll read all millennium: Confessions of Saint Augustine

, | Book reviews

You know how sometimes you think it would be cool to be back in school? Just learning about neat things, sampling a broad array of subjects, getting back to the classics of art, the fundamentals of science and mathematics, the greatest hits of history? Spending entire days just getting smarter? That would be cool, right?

But hold on a second.

The problem with school is that they can make you do tedious stuff. For instance, reading The Confessions of Saint Augustine, by Saint Augustine. This is the sort of thing some professor would spring on a Religion in Literature 101 class. You’d take the class figuring to learn all kinds of neat things about writers grappling with religion. Some Dostoyevsky, Walker Percy, a few TS Eliot poems. But now you’ve got to read The Confessions of Saint Augustine by Saint Augustine by next Thursday and there’s gonna be a test. School sucks.

I read Confessions because it won a Patreon review request. Well, I sort of read it. I started off intending to read it. I got pretty far before I just started skimming, then just reading the first line of the paragraph, then just the subject headers at the top of each section, and finally the Wikipedia page. The book, which is actually a collection of thirteen books, is really long and full of repetitive plaintive stuff about how much Augustine loves God. He will not shut up about it. Profound love is all good and well, but when the other party is entirely silent, it’s a little creepy. In fact, it sounds at times like he’s trying desperately to convince himself. It can’t be easy to be in a relationship with someone so uncommunicative.

The conventional wisdom is that this is the first autobiography of all time, which is probably why your professor is making you read it. Before this book, people told and wrote stories about other people. It didn’t occur to people that they were interesting enough to be the subject of their own stories. This idea will take some time to catch on, but it will eventually flourish. Autobiographies won’t just be a genre. They’ll be a way of thinking. They will become the foundation for social media: it’s happening to me, so it’s of interest to others. Facebook posts, Instagram pictures of what’s for dinner, Tweets about being tired at work, Minecraft Let’s Plays. Nice work, Augustine. See what you’ve done?

By the standard of other people with popular autobiographies, Augustine’s life wasn’t that interesting. He didn’t conquer anyone or invent anything. He didn’t sail across the ocean and discover someplace. He didn’t languish in a gulag. He wasn’t martyred for a cause. He didn’t even do any miracles, really. At least not any good ones.

Here’s a guy who grew up in the Roman Empire, but in Northern Africa, which made him a kind of rube in the overall scheme of things. He was obviously a genius. I mean, duh, your Religion in Literature professor wouldn’t make you read him if he wasn’t. He spent his early years in academics, and then moved to Rome in his 30s to start his own school. That didn’t last long. Because while he was there, he got bit by the Christianity bug, which had been an official part of the Roman Empire for about a hundred years. Then he hightailed it back to North Africa, where he was appointed priest of a city named Hippo. That’s where he parked himself for the rest of his days, teaching, writing books, sending letters, laying groundwork that would help define Christianity for the next 1500 years or so. He died at the age of 75, probably of starvation, during a months-long siege of the city by barbarians.

Confessions was written right around the time Augustine turned 40. It’s his mid-life crisis. Fancy sports cars hadn’t been invented yet, so he looked back on his life, interpreting it through the lens of his religion. For instance, he’s clearly hung up on being hung up on sex. It’s very once removed, since he was celibate while writing Confessions, and probably thinking a lot about thinking about sex. It’s a little uncomfortable how he tries to subsume it into his religious life. Christianity has centuries of sexual hangups to get underway, and this is one of its starting points. Before converting to Christianity, Augustine was a Manicheist, which means he loved opposed dualities. Christianity by this point has started to go all-in on the divide between spirit and flesh, and part of that process is lionizing the spirit at the expense of the flesh. Souls are pure and Godly and eternal. Bodily stuff is icky. Naturally, sex goes into the icky category. It helps if you’re nursing a deep sense of guilt.

To me it was sweet to love and to be loved, the more so if I could also enjoy the body of the beloved. I therefore polluted the springwater of friendship with the filth of concupiscence. I muddied its clear stream by the hell of lust.


There’s a lot of stuff like this in Confessions. But probably the most famous bit is Augustine obsessing hard over stealing pears from an orchard when he was a kid. Pears he didn’t even need. He wasn’t even hungry for them. He just stole them. That’s what juvenile delinquency was like back then. Plus Christians have a thing about fruit going way back. Fruit can get you into trouble. Do you dare to eat an apple, a pear, or a peach? Before cars and drugs and keg beer, there was produce.

I can identify with the basic idea. I stole Stormtrooper action figures. A kid can’t just have one Stormtrooper. That would be dumb. How can one Stormtrooper action figure recreate the scene where Han Solo goes running down the hallway with a bunch of Stormtroopers giving chase? That takes at least a half dozen. You might need a few more to recreate the battle of Endor, or to populate the Death Star playset. Ten Stormtroopers should probably be enough for any kid. But I had way more than ten. I probably had twenty. Most of them were stolen.

I would stand in front of the display of Star Wars figures, pretending to consider which one to buy. While holding the package in the manner of someone considering whether to buy this one, I surreptitiously ran my finger between the plastic bubble and the cardboard back. I lifted the plastic bubble just enough so the Stormtrooper would slide into my hand. Then I slipped it into my pocket, put the empty package back on the display, and strolled out of the store, trying hard to look like someone who wasn’t shoplifting. There. The Confessions of Tom Chick.

For Augustine, these childhood pecadillos illustrate original sin. For me, they just illustrate that children have poor impulse control and should be taught the value of money early on. Also that Star Wars is cool (Augustine’s Star Wars is the Bible, as you can tell by the fact that he won’t stop quoting it). But in the language of Christianity, Man’s fall from divine grace makes everyone a sinner, including “innocent” children. This is a significant part of Confessions, and one of three tenets of Christianity that I find valuable even though I’m not a Christian. The other two are salvation and sacrifice. These tenets are almost universal in Christianity, regardless of denomination or church. Put very simply, we are all sinners, we are all in need of salvation, and sacrifice is a fundamental part of salvation. Or, in more prosaic terms, people suck, they need to try to be better, and the key is to do things for others instead of yourself. I consider these important and valuable things to believe. Anyone dismissing Christianity as flying spaghetti monster nonsense has missed the point. Why you believe something doesn’t matter as much as what you believe.

Really, only about half of Confessions is an autobiography. The last half is a deep dive into theology in the 4th century AD, which will be particularly galling to the students in a Religion in Literature 101 class. Now they’re reading straight up religion, hold the literature. Bait and switch. You showed up for the confessions and now you’re getting an extensive director’s commentary on Christian theology.

For me, theology is to me one of the least interesting aspects of religion. Unlike unfettered philosophy, which just goes wherever it goes — shadows in caves, ubermensches, cogito ergo sum, carpe diem, 42 — theology has to fit a worldview centered on whichever god or gods you worship. You don’t seek an answer so much as try to make one fit. It’s like algebra, where you know both sides of the equation, but now you have to calculate the value of X. For instance, why do children steal apples? The answer is God. Now show your work. Augustine Confessions is the formula demonstrating that X equals original sin.

Some theology can be fascinating in the same way good science fiction is fascinating. At one point, Augustine tackles the question of what God was doing before he made creation. This was apparently a hotly debated topic back then. So if God is eternal, the naysayers asked, sticking their thumbs cockily into their togas and rocking back on their heels, then what was he doing before he created everything? Answer that, smarty pants Christians. Was he just hanging fire, chilling out for eon after eon after eon, passing time in a vast expanse of nothingness?

Of course not, Augustine concludes, because time hadn’t even been created yet.

Time could not elapse before you made time…In the sublimity of an eternity which is always in the present, you are before all things past and transcend all things future, because they are still to come, and when they have come, they are past.

In about a thousand years, Shakespeare will put it like this in a famously ambiguous and arguably religious bit from Hamlet:

If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come.

Augustine rolls the point up in a tidy package that would make any existentialist proud:

Take the two tenses, past and future. How can they ‘be’ when the past is not now present and the future is not yet present? We cannot truly say time exists except in the sense that it tends towards non-existence.

That’s pretty cool. Time is only a means to not existing. Whoa. But because Augustine is a devout Christian well on his way to becoming a bishop, he comes up with the value of X by suggesting that God doesn’t experience time like we do.

Your ‘years’ neither come nor go. Ours come and go so that all may come in succession. All your ‘years’ subsist in simultaneity, because they do not change; those going away are not thrust out by those coming in.

The question is what was there before existence. The answer is God. The value of X is “because time works differently for him”. That’s how theology works. Just come up with something for X.

But right when I’m ready to conclude that theology is irrelevant, something happens. This week, James Comey admitted that he had been tweeting anonymously under the name Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was an American theologian in the 20th century who extended the idea of original sin to society at large. In other words, if people suck, more people suck more. So his theology embraced sometimes controversial ideas of social justice. A religion reporter for the Washington Post named Michelle Boorstein considers why Comey would have chosen that name for the Twitter account. Citing an article on Thinkprogress, she considers that Comey’s undergraduate thesis was about the political implications of Niebuhr theology.

Comey embraces Niebuhr’s version of nationalism, one that “champions a different kind of civic duty, one that requires ‘prophetic’ criticism of leaders and loyalty to the divine over country,” [the Thinkprogress writer] summed up.

“For Niebuhr the true prophet is an internationalist who casts all national pretensions in the light of divine judgment,” Comey’s thesis said. “The prophet measures all collective human action against the norm of love, and all groups fail to measure up.”

Well that’s certainly relevant these days. Even a little reassuring? There must have been times in the last 1500 years that reading Augustine might have been similarly relevant or reassuring. There might even be people today who turn to Augustine’s fruit guilt and time shenanigans to grapple with religious ideas. But unfortunately for me, Augustine’s Confessions is a relic as relevant, fascinating, and timely as a piece of cloth that Jesus was supposedly buried under.