on 5 November 2015
Stephen Cooper's book on Augustine is a disappointment. I am familiar with the series having read the book on Calvin, and the inclusion of an irritating number of rather spurious cartoons in the text. Frankly they contribute nothing and merely distract. But even ignoring them (well, I tried to) I still feel this is a book with the wrong title. I wanted a summary of the teachings of Augustine that have been so influential through the centuries, not least on Luther and Calvin, and the title led me to think that this was what I was buying. It is, after all, aimed at 'Armchair Theologians' so it's not unreasonable to expect theology. What Cooper has given us is not a theology at all, but a biography. If that's what you require, buy the book. If, like me, you want a concise theology go elsewhere. You will be well over a hundred pages into the book before you find more than a sentence or two about his mature teachings, and you will be almost at the end of the book before you find a few consecutive pages about them.
There is room for a different book with the same title (and without the cartoons) that sets out in concise form Augustine's theology and its historical importance through the Reformation and since.
Stephen Cooper, associate professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, has produced a very readable and practical guide to Augustine in this text, 'Augustine for the Armchair Theologians'. At first glance, one might think that the text is not a serious text (not always a bad thing to assume, mind you), as there are line-art drawing of a cartoon-ish nature throughout, but this is no book for dummies (although it is very accessible). Cooper does not dishonour the text of Augustine's 'Confessions', instead following very closely the autobiographical portion of the 'Confessions', deviating only to bring in outside material (from Augustine or from other sources) to further enlighten the reader.
Augustine remains a pivotal figure, both in church history, and history of the world generally. A man of great passion and great intellect, he combined these in fascinating ways, producing what many call the first real autobiography (in his 'Confessions') and putting together a mammoth collection of practical and philosophical theological writings, such that the scholar Isidore of Seville wrote that 'he who claims to have mastered all of Augustine is a liar'.
Augustine lived at the time of the fall of Rome and the initial breakdown of Roman society, a time when the primary surviving institution was the church, and the world longed for stability of 'the good old days'. Augustine himself was a man of great passion who had in his youth no problem of acting out of that passion; he had deep, powerful relationships and a keen intellect and personality that attracted people to him. It is perhaps this social aspect, Cooper states, that is the primary aspect of Augustine, both in his relationship in the world and his desiring a relationship with a God who also desires to be in relationship.
Cooper follows the first nine books (chapters) of 'Confessions' closely, and gives a brief overview of the rest of the 'Confessions', to some extent doing in some regard what he criticises others for doing - Cooper mentions that often when 'Confessions' are assigned as reading in college, only the first nine books are required. The tenth book is a remarkable piece of psychological self-study (centuries before psychological study was born), and the rest give insights into the way Augustine read scripture (a vitally important piece in understanding Augustine's overall thought development) as well as the kinds of unanswered questions that followed Augustine throughout the rest of his career.
Cooper's concludes with an overview of Augustine's life as a bishop (after the death of his mother, his best friend, and his son) and some of his actions, particularly with regard to controversial issues such as the dealing with the Donatists (an officially heretical group still in vogue in northern Africa). Cooper gives some discussion of major issues and writings in Augustine's life post-'Confessions', but given the massive amount of work Augustine produced, this could be in Cooper's book little more than a sampler and outline.
One might wish for a few more chapters to give depth to the issues in Augustine's later works, including some of his sermons, biblical studies, and his work in the massive 'City of God'. Hopefully the easy and energetic writing of this text will inspire readers to further study in Augustine's works, and to that end, Cooper provides suggestions for further reading, which includes brief pieces (Chadwick's 'Augustine: A Very Short Introduction') and magisterial works (Fitzgerald's 'Augustine through the Ages'), as well as the scholarly standards (Brown's 'Augustine of Hippo: A Biography'). There is a brief index as well.
The illustrations by Ron Hill give to a certain extent the same kind of comedic pause in the drama that a short scene by a fool would give in a Shakespearean play - never detracting from the text, they highlight certain points while relieving the reader in key spots of any monotony of text-on-page that might be developing. Hill has also illustrated other 'Armchair Theologian' volumes.