Augustine’s Confessions, Part 1—Overview

Augustine's Confessions

Augustine’s Confessions, Part 1—Overview

Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
(Goto Part 2; Goto Part 3; Goto Part 4)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the late seventies as I worked on a master’s degree in agricultural economics, my best friend, who had just entered seminary, encouraged me to undertake study of classics in the faith and early on I read Augustine’s (1978) Confessions. The Confessions proved to be a challenging read both because of my lack of seminary training and because of the old English translation. When I undertook this year to write my own memoir, my friend encouraged me to return to the Confessions both because the Confessions provided a template for all memoirs to follow and because this time I also had seminary training.

Introduction

Convinced of the wisdom to return to the Confessions, I sought a more modern translation that would be easier to read and, to my delight, found a translation by E.J. Sheed with an introduction by Augustinian biographer, Peter Brown. Brown (2000) is revered as one of the leading Augustinian biographers of our time and I had used his biography during my days in seminary.

I break this review up into four parts. First, I give an overview of the Confessions and why we are interested. Second, I review the life of Augustine and sin, as he describes it. Third, I will focus on Augustine’s coming to faith. Lastly, I will review his theological writings, which focus on the creation accounts in Genesis.

Background on Augustine

For those unfamiliar with church history, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD)[1], which was in modern-day Algeria, lived right after the time of Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337 AD)[2] who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Bishop Ambrose baptized Augustine who had such contemporaries as Jerome, who translated the Bible in Latin. The fourth century posed a heady time for the Christian church and Augustine’s theology influenced much of what followed. For example, Martin Luther (1483-1546), a leader in the reformation more than a thousand years later, was an Augustinian monk (Bainton 1995, 25).

Of contemporary significance is the point that Augustine hailed from Africa where some of the best theology and early Bible manuscripts were copied.[3] African scholarship dominated the early church and this dominance continued until the Islamic invasion in the sixth century, following the life and work of Mohammad (570-632 AD).[4] The statement that Christianity is a “white man’s religion” (widely touted in developing countries) is not historically accurate and denigrates the significant contribution of African scholarship to the early church.

What Are the Confessions?

Augustine came to Christ as an adult. In his introduction, Peter Brown writes:

“On Easter day, April 24th, 387, he [Augustine] had ‘put on Christ’ by receiving baptism at the hands of Ambrose.” (xv)

Shortly before the death of his mother, Monica, who was a devout Catholic, later that year. Augustine supported himself teaching rhetoric, was heavily influenced by the writings of Plato, and wrote the Confessions to be read aloud. Each of the thirteen books could be read in about an hour’s time (xvi-xviii). Brown writes:

“For, as Catholic bishop, Augustine did not simply know ‘about’ the Bible, or preach ‘on’ the Bible. He prayed out of it every day, using especially the book of Psalms, which he believed to be the direct, personal prayers of King David, and so the model of all Christan, as they had been of all Jewish, prayer.” (xvii-xviii)

Biblical Influence

The influence of the Bible on the confessions is obvious to any reader because Augustine frequently begins a particular section in prayer and cites scripture throughout, allusions to which the editor has conveniently footnoted.

Less obvious to the reader is the definition that Augustine used for confession. As noted by the editor’s glossary, for Augustine confession could be:

  1. a profession of faith,
  2. praise of God, or
  3. an act of penance (self-accusation).

Today, we primarily assume the last definition (329).

Augustine’s Conversion

In his book, Confessions, Augustine of Hippo describes his life before and after converting to Christianity as an adult. Augustine shamelessly lays out the sins of his life, saying:

“Let the mind of my brethren love that in me which You teach to be worthy of love, and grieve for that in me which You teach to be worthy of grief.” (191)

I take this statement to mean that Augustine proposes to be frankly forthright in confession so that he can be an example to others. Is it any wonder that people trusted him and followed him into the monastic life? Having read the Confessions as a young man, I truly believe that they helped lead me to live an ascetic lifestyle, even after it was no longer a financial necessity. I commend the Confessions to anyone who wishes to deepen their faith in Jesus Christ.

References

Augustine. 1978. Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguin Books.

Bainton, Roland H. 1995. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Meridan Book.

Brown, Peter. 2000. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Orig pub 1967). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Bart D. Ehrman. 2005. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. New York: Oxford University Press.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great.

[3] Before mechanical printing, manuscripts had to be copied by hand and copyist sometimes “corrected” texts as they reproduced them. African scholars, centered in Alexandria, were much more careful in copying manuscripts than others, including their European rivals (Metzer and Ehrman 2005, 278).

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad.

 

Also see:

The Christian Memoir 

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage with me online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2slSaTM

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The Christian Memoir

Photo of Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Christian Memoir

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Memoir talk scheduled for Sunday, March 19, 2017, at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, McLean, Virginia (www.Lewinsville.org) in the Chapel following the 11 a.m. worship service. All are welcome.

Introduction

A memoir is an autobiography with a theme.[1] A Christian memoir is an autobiography with a focus on God’s role in our own character development, which requires both the passage of time and reflection. The Christian memoir communicates the Christian walk effectively because, like Jesus’ own use of parables, we remember stories better than other forms of communication.[2]

Some philosophers believe that Western Civilization, for example, began with a Christian memoir, Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, which related the prayers of his mother to his confession of sexual sin, and conversion to Christ. Augustine’s biographer, Peter Brown writes:

“The Confessions…is not a book of reminiscences. They are an anxious turning to the past. The note of urgency is unmistakable. Allow me, I beseech You, grant me to wind round and round in my present memory the spirals of my errors…

It is also a poignant book. In it, one constantly senses the tension between the ‘then’ of the young man and the ‘now’ of the bishop.” (Brown 2000, 157)

Do you feel the theological strain here? The New Testament has been described as both the breaking out of the Kingdom of God (already) with the cross and resurrection and yet the unresolved spiritual warfare of the current age (not yet). This tension between the “already” in Christ and the “not yet” of our human sinfulness occurs, not only in the New Testament, but also in our own faith journeys. Christian memoir is therefore painful not only because we must relive our past but also deal with this spiritual tension.[3]

The Spiritual Discipline of Writing

Part of the need for distance arises because pain forms our character more radically than pleasure. With each pain in life, small or large, we are confronted with a decision—do we turn into our pain to throw a pity party or do we turn to God to give it over to Him? In a real sense, our characters are formed by these “Gethsemane moments” as we journey through life (e.g. Matt 26:39).

Questions that might be asked to help expose our Gethsemane moments include:

  • What were the important milestones in your faith journey? (e. g. Jos 4:1-7)
  • Who were your most important mentors in the faith? (e.g. Luke 24:25-31)
  • What faith stories were especially meaningful to you? (e.g. Exod 12:17)
  • When was God’s presence especially obvious? (e. g. John 8:28; Blackaby 2002)

Writing a memoir helps this process of reflection, which makes it an important spiritual discipline.

If writing is in general a spiritual discipline, writing memoir is especially challenging. In preparing my own memoir, mechanically, I mapped out the different stages of my life into an outline and then looked for key challenges during the stages. This process parallels the Greek distinction between chronos time (the stages) and kairos time (the challenges). Reflecting on these challenges turns up raw, unprocessed emotions, which can hijack the whole effort. Part of the incentive for writing was to lay claim to my past and to work through those emotions. Still, not everyone is so adventurous and willing to spend their spare time reliving their Gethsemane moments.

It is worth pointing out that while my own memoir, Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir, is a call story, a call story is a special type of Christian memoir which focuses on vocation (e.g. Acts 9:4-6). But memoir need not focus on vocation and the vocation need not be pastoral ministry. We are all called to faith (Mark 10:49) and we are all called to different vocations, which may be only for a season. Thus, not all Christian memoirs are call stories.

Recognizing Important Stories

The importance of storytelling has been long recognized among clinical psychiatrists. Child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (1976) saw fairy tales as playing a key role in child development because the stories offered children a template for understanding their own emotional struggles. Another psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, was famous for his ability to reach particularly difficult psychiatric patients through hypnosis; yet, under hypnosis when presumably he had more leverage to offer patients suggestion, he preferred to tell them stories of healing, which allowed him to step around the problem of patient resistance (Rosen 1982).

Savage (1998) writes about using stories to identify emotional content in the context of pastoral visits. Savage cites five classes of stories as particularly helpful to recognize:

  1. Reinvestment stories where our loyalties change dramatically, as in switching careers.
  2. Rehearsal stories where events from the past have current meaning, such as Bible narratives.
  3. “I know someone who” stories which oftentimes mask the true storyteller.
  4. Anniversary stories which occur regularly at a particular calendar time, such as Christmas.
  5. Transition stories which are three part stories, such as a trip to the hospital (why, what happened, and what comes next) (Savage 1998, 95).

Savage makes the point that we cannot help but tell our stories. It is particularly interesting when you catch yourself telling a story, perhaps one that you have told for years, and suddenly realize that that story captures a painful experience that you had either forgotten or suppressed.

Motivation to Write

Identifying the stories that people tell points to the motivational content of their communication and allows the pastor to relate to them on a deeper level. This is why storytelling is important in pastoral ministry and it helps explain why Christian memoir provides especially poignant witness.

Consequently, the current need to write Christian memoirs arises not only from our desire to claim our own history, but also to witness to our children and grandchildren. For many of us, it has been painful in this generation to watch our children fall away from the faith. While historically children would fall away from the church during their single years and return when they have children, this pattern has been broken in the millennial generation (Kinnaman 2011). Still, as Christians we know that the stresses of life invariably lead us back to God, we do not know when that will occur. Consequently, a Christian memoir could serve as a trail of crumbs for our kids to follow their own way home in Christ after our own passing.

Mechanics of Writing

Earlier I made reference to the mechanical process of writing, which for me has been rather lengthy. Even before I started my own memoir, I assisted my father in publishing his, which served to help me understand my own history better (Hiemstra 2016). I started out with a chronological outline of the stages of my life: childhood, youth, young adult, college, graduate school, places worked, and so on (Peace 1998). Then, I looked for important points in my character development and difficult transitions which I then ordered with my outline. I then blogged this outline writing a reflection each week on Friday from January 1, 2016 through February 2017.

The actual writing was finished in November 2016 and I finished my first edit in December. An important task in the first edit was to bring each of my reflections up the standard of writing that evolved over the course of the year. In particular, Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace had an important influence on my writing style mid-year and I needed to go back to earlier reflections and re-write them to incorporate the insights learned.

In the second edit in January 2017, I organized my draft into four parts,[4] still roughly chronical but focused on my faith transitions: coming to faith, consolidation of faith, realization of call, and beginning of seminary. These four parts highlighted the theme of my memoir—the call to ministry—and, in doing so, it became obvious that I left out several important stories, which then had to be written.

Note on Writing Styles

While autobiography tends to focus on reminiscences, Christian memoir focuses on divine encounters, which may be told in the first person or through narratives about the people and events that help stage them. For someone who has been a technical writer for most of his life, I found books on writing fiction most helpful in drawing out the most important events and influences on my life.

Fiction writers are experts in observing character and character change, and they often write with an indirect style, where character is revealed through description or dialogue rather than naming emotions and perspectives.[5]  For this reason, I have included a number of references that were helpful in my own writing and thinking.

Footnotes

 [1] (Silverman 2009). Also see: (Karr 2015).

[2] Sachs (2012) talks about this point a great length. King (2012) writes some of scariest horror stories and talks about his own life and craft.

[3] Spiritual tension was a theme in my last book, Life in Tension (Hiemstra 2016b).

[4] Warren (2016) sees fiction written best as a four-act play. I applied her framework to my own story and realized that I had left out stories from my past that were key to my development but which I simply did not understand the significance of.

[5] This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).

[4] This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).

References

(Many of these books are reviewed on T2Pneuma.net)

Angelou, Maya. 2015. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Orig Pub 1969). New York: Ballantine Books. (Review)

Augustine. 1978. Confessions (Orig Pub 398). Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguine Books. (Review)

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1976. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf.

Blackaby. Henry and Richard.  2002. Hearing God’s Voice. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers.

Brown, Peter. 2000. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Orig pub 1967). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hiemstra, Stephen J. 2016a. My Travel Through Life: Memoir of Family Life and Federal Service. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2016b. Life in Tension: Reflections on the Beatitudes. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Karr, Mary. 2015. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.

King, Stephen.  2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins. 2011. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith.  Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Kress, Nancy. 2005. Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Lee, John E. Jr. 2014. Born Rich: In a Time That is Gone Forever. Aliceville, Alabama.

Peace, Richard. 1998. Spiritual Autobiography: Discovering and Sharing Your Spiritual Story. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Rosen, Sidney. 1982. My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. New York: W.W. Norton.

Sacks, Jonah. 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening & Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Silverman, Sue William. 2009. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Warren, Susan May. 2016. The Story Equation. Minneapolis: My Book Therapy.

Williams, Joseph M.  2003. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman.

 

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