Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine, by James K.A. Smith
The point of a story is not to be original. The point of a story is to relate to other people.
We may be different, you and me. We may even be vastly different. But there are some aspects of our stories that make it possible to see ourselves in each other. If I told you my experience facing a trial and fearing the trial but ultimately overcoming that fear, you’d probably be able to relate to that. It might even inspire you to overcome anxieties you’re currently facing.
That inspiration is the purpose of sharing testimonies in a recovery program. No one who’s been in the testimony-sharing circle of such a program for any length of time thinks to themselves, “I hope my testimony is unique. I hope I’m original.”
In the trenches of my own depression, though, that’s exactly what I thought.
The two beliefs that kept me from seeking help were “no one understands” and “no one wants to hear this.” Then came an involuntary all-expenses-paid vacation to a psychiatric hospital. Within 24 hours of sharing a 60-foot linoleum hallway and a too-small day room with ten other patients, my thought “no one understands” got shattered. Quickly. Everyone there understood. And their stories helped me face my fears.
In On the Road with Saint Augustine, James K.A. Smith shows the extent to which people can relate to and learn from stories. He’s concerned primarily with the story of Augustine of Hippo, the 4th/5th-century theologian most known for Confessions and The City of God. But Smith didn’t write a biography on Augustine. It’s more like a 200-ish page game of compare and contrast. He weaves together the stories and views of such diverse characters as Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, Jack Kerouac, Leslie Jamison, and James K.A. Smith himself.
If you didn’t recognize any of those names, I don’t blame you. The first two, Martin and Albert, are philosophers you probably memorized for your “Intro to Philosophy” class and then never thought about again. Martin Heidegger is the father of a philosophy called “existentialism,” which searches for the real you, the authentic you. This seeking of a self apart from external influences is the root of the postmodern problem, and James Smith shows how Augustine wrestled with similar ideas but overcame them in Christ. Albert Camus is native to North Africa, like Augustine. Albert was also a French national, though, which caused him to be rejected as authentically either African or French.
Similarly, as James Smith demonstrates, Augustine never felt “at home,” either in Africa or Europe.
The following two, Jack and Leslie, are novelists. Jack wrote an enduring work called On the Road in 1957, which captured the essence of the Beat Generation. The foundational concept in On the Road, to accept that happiness is the pursuit of experience, catalyzes Smith’s book (hence the title). Leslie is a recovering alcoholic whose realization that stories don’t need to (can’t) be original Smith returns to again and again.
Now, if you can keep all those names straight without looking back at what I just wrote, you’ll do great with On the Road with Saint Augustine. If, however, you struggle when lots of names are floating around simultaneously, you might not do great with it. My only contention with Smith’s work is that he’s very well-read, and it shows. In tying together so many different stories to show how they’re all the same, he mentions many people and works in a concise amount of time. While Smith always introduces them initially, you may be flipping to the index, to the first reference, and then back to where you were if you struggle with a wide cast of characters.
Now let me go back to singing Smith’s praises. Through this book, he shows how the life and writings of an ancient African man named Augustine can help us navigate the modern and postmodern challenges we face.
Smith organizes his book topically through the road of life (ambition, fathers, mothers, death, etc.), so a single main challenge isn’t readily available for analysis. The subtitles of his chapters, though, provide something to consider. Smith subtitles each chapter with the formula “What do I want when I want (to be liberated, to be noticed, etc.)?” Quite simply, what is it you really, ultimately want? What is it that will finally satisfy you? Is it the thing you say you want, or is there a more profound desire lying behind it?
The Augustinian answer is that what you want is God, even if you don’t know it. What Smith does so well in this book is demonstrate how the philosophical road which has led to our postmodern moment is paved with the same questions Augustine asked as a teenager and young adult. The difference is that after arriving at so many destinations that failed to satisfy us, we’ve exchanged the ultimate destination for the asphalt the road’s paved on. We’ve decided that “the road is life” and all that matters is the present. The past is irrelevant, and the future is unknown, so live now and live fast.
Smith, through Augustine, shows how we can re-orient ourselves to our ultimate destination and travel the road together.
What you want is God, even if you don’t know it.