The Confessions | St. Augustine

  • The Confessions ©2001 (originally AD 397)
  • Translation by Philip Burton
  • Introduction by Robin Lane Fox
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • li+370=421 pages

The peril with reading classics is my insufficiency to write a proper review. As with The Imitation and Revelations of Divine Love, you’ll have to be content with my amateurish reflections instead.

When I first sat down to begin Book One of The Confessions, I was prepared for a war. I figured if I could get through five or ten pages, I’d be doing well. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how readable and compelling this spiritual autobiography is. The work is divided into thirteen separate “books”, and it’s no problem to lose yourself in one book per sitting—even if you’re not trained in history or theology. I’m sure much of this is due to Philip Burton’s fine translation.

Speaking of the translator, he did the reader a favour by setting all scriptural quotations in italics. Augustine was pickled in scripture—especially the Psalms. He can’t praise God without the Psalmist’s phrases springing to his pen. While with some this style could seem cumbersome (little more than parachuting in proof-texts), it’s endearing with Augustine. There’s no wonder why his name is prefixed with Saint.

Augustine’s heart was tender. When he sinned, he grieved over it. Not just so-called big sins, either. In one section he delves into his motives for steeling some fruit he didn’t even need from a neighbour’s tree. It’s encouraging to read someone who takes their spiritual life so seriously, and who admits their faults so freely. (Where else on the spiritual best-seller list can you find a chapter entitled, “Farewell My Concubine”?)

I have to admit that I was frustrated by the last three chapters. They were a reminder that ancient writers don’t follow the same conventions that we moderns do. After ten books of beautiful and gripping autobiography he spent the last three explaining his philosophical and allegorical understanding of Genesis 1. I know his break with Manichean philosophy runs through both biography and commentary but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating to read. Even so, endure the last three books. There are still gems to be found.

With a work so classic as The Confessions, you can find any number of editions. I choose the cloth-bound Everyman’s Edition from Knopf, published in 2001. The binding is solid and the typesetting is elegant. More importantly, the translator was clear and authentic and Robin Lane Fox’s substantial introduction helped to put the entire work into perspective.

Don’t fear the “classic” moniker. This work is a gem any thinking Christian would do well to read.

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