I’ve always believed it is important for pastors and writers to read widely. How else will our sermons and articles remain relevant? Outside of reading, where do we continue to learn and develop our skills? So, for the last few years, I worked hard to read widely and expose myself to a variety of topics, world-views, and writing styles.
To help with this, I’ve leaned on the well-curated list provided annually by Tim Challies, a thoughtful blogger that has encouraged many in their walk with Christ (here’s his 2020 Reading Challenge).
I still love Challies’ list, so much so that I recommend it to those who haven’t tried. I remain convinced of the value to be found in reading widely.
Still, I’ve decided that reading widely will not be my goal for 2020. Instead, I’m going to read deeply.
Rather than broad exposure, I want to soak in material that will stir my love for Jesus and equip me to serve his people.
So as we enter a new decade, I’m going to dedicate this year (and perhaps more) to the world-changing writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo.
Why him? Here are three reasons.
1. Saint Augustine is the greatest theologian in church history.
Augustine’s importance cannot be overstated. Listing Augustine among the great philosophers of the world, Oregon State’s website contends, “The bottom line is this: if you identify yourself as Christian, then familiarity with Augustine’s thought is crucial to knowing the sources of your beliefs.”
Or, as Ryan Reeves has said, “Certainly for all Western Christians Augustine is an unrivaled figure in the history of Christian reflection. Indeed, there is hardly a subject that is not shaped by his writings and ministry.” In fact, given that Augustine’s work held influence before the Great Schism, I can imagine his work has helped shape the Eastern Church as well.
His insights into sections of Scripture like the Psalms and the writings of John ought still be considered alongside modern commentaries. City of God, considered his magnum opus, is particularly relevant in our polarized day. And few memoirs can hold a candle to the vulnerability on display in Augustine’s Confessions.
Yet none of this makes Augustine the theologian that he is. No, the power of his theology is that it was born not of the academy or the vacuum of scholarship but rather from the crucible of the pulpit and the congregation, the funeral and the font. Above all, Augustine was a pastor, “the Bishop of a small port town in North Africa”.
The collision of theological consideration and pastoral care elevates Augustine beyond greatness to the greatest. He’s worth reading deeply.
2. Saint Augustine speaks to restless hearts.
I first considered devoting a year to Saint Augustine while reading James K.A. Smith’s new book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. In this book, Smith takes readers into the heartbeat of Augustine and, in so doing, exposes our own restlessness. I don’t think Smith is manufacturing a reading of Augustine for the sake of a book. Instead, Smith has provided a pathway for twenty-first century Christians back into these ancient writings that we might rediscover the God that Augustine cherished, a God that saved Augustine from his sins, doubts, and wanderings.
Pastors aren’t “supposed to” feel restless. They’re not “supposed to” have doubts, struggle with sin, or grapple with the absurdity of life. But I do.
Thank God, Augustine did too. When faced with the chaos of his world, Augustine didn’t turn to despair or give in to his worst instincts. He persevered. He moved deeper into the things of God. He turned his heart over to his creator and asked that he be remade into the image of Christ.
Augustine’s honesty and refusal to wear a mask of piety welcomes in a restless heart like mine and points it away from me and toward Jesus.
I pray this time with Saint Augustine will result in a deeper commitment to my Savior.
3. Augustine was a Mestizo.
I am mixed. Mestizaje. The blood of Mexico and Wales and the United States flow when my finger is pricked.
Because of this, I’ve always felt like a person out of place. I was born in the United States in the same hospital my father was born in nearly sixty years earlier. His father had brought his wife to the nearest hospital so that my father could be born, crossing an invisible political boundary in the process. Was my father born a Mexican? An American? Was I?
But what of my mother? I am not only Latino, I am white. My mother’s family traces back into the towns and villages of England and Wales until my grandmother gave birth and my grandparents welcomed twin girls into their Cardiff home. This bloodline’s experience of poverty, profound dedication to work and family, and willingness to find joy in all circumstances has formed me in ways I will never know. Am I Welsh? White?
A mix of world-views and cultures rattle around in my DNA. Histories in Catholicism and a skeptics eye toward the Church of England find their expression in me somewhere. A reliance on God when there was no one else to turn to has molded my own understanding of faith.
I am mestizo.
So was Augustine.
He lived occupied Africa, his mother a Berber and his father a Roman. Monica held a deep faith in Christ; his father appears to have had little faith at all.
Augustine took all the disparate parts that God used to create him and allowed them to speak as he developed his theology and pastored his flock. There was no straight line to this of course. At times he appears to reject both “sides” of who he was. But in the end, he embraced them. He leaned into “being mestizaje” (an anachronism, of course) and in so doing created some of the greatest reflections on God and man that have ever been put to paper.
I haven’t known many people I could relate to, mestizo like me. But when I realized, thanks to Justo González, that the greatest theologian in history was as confused as I was, knew a life as conflicted and complex as mine has been, then I found someone who could speak into my life as a guide. I pray that this year with Saint Augustine will help me plumb the depths of my own soul in ways that few others have.
Perhaps in the future I will read widely again.
Not in 2020.
I am going to slowly meditate on the writings of the greatest theologian the world has ever known, the theologian for restless hearts, the mestizo, in the hopes that I will love more deeply my Creator and King. This year, I read deeply.