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Augustine's Confessions: A Biography, by Garry Wills

Princeton University Press has launched a series called Lives of Great Religious Books. Each volume is a "biography" of a significant religious text. That is, each volume looks at the origins and the effects of significant works of theology. The first three volumes deal with St. Augustine's Confessions (by Garry Wills), The Tibetan Book of the Dead (by Donald Lopez Jr.) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (by Martin Marty.)

These initial books are very well done: brief, fascinating in what they reveal, contentious (especially those by Wills and Lopez) and vivid introductions to works one may not be familiar with. (I knew Bonhoeffer's work only by reputation. So, for me, Marty's book has been a real spur to read the Prison Letters.)

The volume with the most "kick" (that is, amusing detail: from Madame Blavatsky to hippies by way of American spiritualism, etc.) is Lopez's look at The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But I'm reviewing Wills's Augustine. For one thing, I'm most familiar with Augustine's Confessions. For another, Wills's combative tone is welcome in a discussion of a book one would not have thought could elicit quite so much passion. And, finally, many of the virtues of Wills's approach are present in the other two volumes as well.

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The single most important thing for Wills, the thing he'd most like you to accept, is that Confessions is not autobiography. For Wills, this misreading of Augustine's best-known work has given us any number of interpretations (Freudian, sociological, historical) that obscure the point. And that point is? According to Wills, Confessions exist as a kind of "training ground" or preparation for a reading of the Bible. He shows us how Augustine uses incidents from his life (some actual, some allegorical, some difficult to place on either side of the ledger) to turn the reader's mind toward holy writ, specifically Genesis. In other words, to prepare us to see/read/feel God's presence as it is revealed in Genesis.

As Wills writes in reference to the Confessions final chapters: "Now that Augustine has limbered up, doing his spiritual calisthenics, he is ready, with the help of grace, to plunge into the depths of mystery, to open the book of Genesis and find God there."

Augustine's Confessions is meant for the general reader. Though Wills is carrying on a kind of military manoeuvre against certain readings of Augustine's work, the language is clear and Wills's thinking easily accessible. The book is in nine short chapters. It begins with Confessions' birth. ("To write the biography of Confessions, we have to start in the delivery room - how and when was it born.") He goes on to show how the book finds its pillars and posts in Augustine's intellectual life, his journey as a bishop and follower of Manichaeism. He ends with a too-brief account of the book's influence and an attack on some of Augustine's critics.

Wills is, by nature, a polemicist. He goes straight to his point as often as he can. But his ideas about grace and his convictions about which passages are to be taken literally are not made explicit, so reading his account of the book is, at times, like watching shadows fight.

Also, being a polemicist - a very good one - Wills sometimes overstates his case. For instance, one of his reasons for denigrating the biographical reading of Augustine's book is that God, to whom the book is dedicated, must already know the details of Augustine's life. In that case, the first eight chapters of Confessions are very puzzling indeed. Augustine actually does mention details of his life, details that, if we take Wills literally, are superfluous.

Also, there are times when Wills's reasoning fails him. In attacking Wittgenstein's criticism of Augustine, he gives a potted version of Wittgenstein's case and then writes: "But this is another example of people's problem when they read only Confessions and not Augustine's other works." Aside from the fact that (as Wills himself points out) Augustine has written too much for anyone but a scholar to know fully, it invites two questions. First, does one really need to know all of a writer's work to criticize it? And, second, has Wills read enough Wittgenstein for us to trust his account of Wittgenstein? (My guess would be no.)

Wills's qualities as a writer and the quality of his thought are what lead the reader - well, this reader anyway - into Augustine's world and work. His arguments make for vivid reading. In offering an account of a book and its influence, he is, unavoidably, offering an account of himself.

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That's part of what makes Princeton's series intriguing. (I look forward to Jonathan Spence's account of Confucius's Analects.) The other part is: I never thought I'd feel quite so passionate about books of theology. I am, unfortunately, far from my library, so for the past few months I've been itching to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Bonhoeffer's Letters. It's like Christmas, but the presents have been around for millennia, some of them.

André Alexis's most recent book is the collection of stories and essays, Beauty and Sadness. His play Name in Vain: Decalogue Two opens at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre in the fall.

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