Book Review: ‘On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts’ by James K. A. Smith

“On the Road With Saint Augustine” and author James K.A. Smith. Courtesy images

Review by Mike Cosper. Cosper is the founder of Harbor Media and the host of Cultivated: A Podcast About Faith and Work. He is the author of Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World (InterVarsity Press).

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is an American classic. It is easily (and often) parodied for its freewheeling style, but it is also full of magical sentences and encapsulations of life in postwar America. At its heart, the book is about longing: for transcendence, for love, for experience, for a sense of place and belonging. And, more deeply, for a sense of self.

In one revelatory scene, Kerouac writes, “I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

That sense of hauntedness permeates Kerouac’s writing. For most of his life, he was a wanderer. A sometimes-Catholic, sometimes-Buddhist. A chronic alcoholic. A restless soul crisscrossing America in search of a sense of self. And that hauntedness makes him a kindred spirit with Augustine of Hippo, the early Christian theologian who penned that time-honored phrase, “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee.”

This affirmation is at the heart of James K.A. Smith’s new book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. “In a way,” Smith writes, “it’s a book Augustine has written about you. It’s a journey with Augustine as a journey into oneself.” Later he adds, “If he jackhammers his way into the secret corners of our hearts, unearthing our hungers and fears, it’s only because it’s familiar territory: he’s seen it all in his own soul. Augustine isn’t a judge; he’s more like an AA sponsor.” But unlike Dean Moriarty, the thrill-seeking adventurer who leads Kerouac’s character out onto the road, Augustine has found his way home.

The Geography of Grace

Although Smith tells us much of Augustine’s story, On the Road with Saint Augustine isn’t a biography. Likewise, while we get to know a good deal about Augustine’s theology, the book isn’t quite a theological work either.

Smith, for his part, calls it “a travelogue of the heart.” He uses Augustine to survey the human heart and its multitude of longings, exploring themes like freedom, ambition, mothers and fathers, friendship, and death. The underlying message? You are not alone. Whatever you may feel—whether it’s conflict over ambition, complicated feelings towards your parents, or the desire to live a more meaningful life—your feelings are perfectly normal. Augustine and Smith (who shares candidly from his own story) make for wise and generous guides.

Smith’s books, most notably his three-volume Cultural Liturgies series, tend to lean heavily on his expertise as a philosopher. On the Road with Saint Augustine is no exception—readers can expect a good bit of Martin Heidigger, for instance—but the manner of writing is more personal and devotional. There are profound depths here, but there are also ladders that help you reach them with ease.

As his Kerouac-invoking title suggests, Smith uses “the road” as the book’s unifying theme: specifically, the road taken by the Prodigal Son. Augustine’s work, he argues, is deeply indebted to that story—a story Smith believes we desperately need to hear today. Given the many dead-ends and wrong turns in our world, it’s easy to conclude, as Kerouac seemingly did, that life is about the journey itself rather than the destination. To that, Augustine would issue a clear dissent. “Oh the twisted roads I walked!” he writes in his Confessions—before praising God for “freeing us from our unhappy wandering, setting us firmly on your track, comforting us and saying, ‘Run the race! I’ll carry you! I’ll carry you clear to the end, and even at the end, I’ll carry you!”

Commenting on this passage, Smith writes, “To map our roamings like that of the prodigal is not a cartography of despair or self-loathing and shame; to the contrary, it is a geography of grace that is meant to help us imagine being welcomed home.”

Smith is willing to argue with Augustine at times, as he does in his chapter on sex. But the debate reads like a charitable conversation between friends. “At times,” Smith writes, “the vision of healthy sexuality that Augustine extols—prioritizing celibacy—simply looks like the inversion of promiscuity and suggests his failure to imagine a sexual hunger that runs with the good grain of creation.” (This, I suspect, could be said of much early Christian writing on sexuality, not to mention a good deal of evangelical teaching on “purity.”) Yet he credits Augustine with helping him appreciate “the gift of chastity,” which “trains us not to need; it grants us an integrity and independence and agency in the face of various drives and hungers.”

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Source: Christianity Today