Friday, March 16, 2012

The City of God - Augustine - Book Review

Imagine for a moment a disaster of unspeakable proportions. You wake up, check the news, and to your horror, you learn that New York City, London, Washington DC, Paris, and many other major Western cities have been taken over. The Western World as you've always known it will never be the same again.

That honestly sounds like a good blurb for a science-fiction book. But the thing is, something similar has already happened in Western history.

The year was 410 AD. The date was August 24th. On that day, the city of Rome was invaded and sacked for the first time in over 700 years. At the height of its power, Rome had ruled the world. Now the city had dwindled into insignificance.

Here's where a man named Augustine comes into the picture. Augustine began writing The City of God shortly after Rome was sacked. Thus, Rome is one of the main subjects Augustine focuses on in his book.
The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity. (City of God (Penguin Classics), 1984, Book II, Chapter 29)
For the first several sections of the book, Augustine defends Christianity in light of Rome's fall. The pagans of his day had been arguing that Rome fell because of Christianity. Their argument went something like this:
  1. Before Christianity, Rome flourished and did not lose battles.
  2. After Christianity, Rome declined and was ultimately sacked.
  3. Therefore Christianity was the cause for the fall of Rome.
One way Augustine refutes this argument is by showing that Rome did lose battles in its Pagan-run days. In fact, Rome was even sacked once in its Pagan days. Throughout the first half of the book, Augustine refutes this argument in many other ways, reasoning from both history and theology.

The second half of The City Of God addresses a vast range of other subjects. Although Augustine covers many differing topics in the first half, he jumps from one subject to the next with more freedom in the second half, often with little transition.

When I say that Augustine jumps from subject to subject, I really mean it. If I had to sum up the entire book in one sentence it would be this:

The City Of God is about everything.

Really, it is. After defending Christianity against Pagan attacks, Augustine launches into a commentary on the entire Bible. His comments concerning the early parts of Genesis are very thorough. As he continues, his comments tend to be less thorough.

If there was one thing that I liked the most about reading The City Of God it was seeing how much Augustine treasured the Scriptures. The Bible was his source of authority. Did he sometimes give wild interpretations of certain passages? Yes. In spite of that, his beliefs were primarily based on Scripture. Clearly, the idea of the Scriptures being the authority is not a new idea, but an idea as old as Christianity itself.

In conclusion, I would recommend reading The City of God if you're interested in deepening your understanding of Church (or Roman) History. If you tend to only read modern Christian literature, reading this book (or at least parts of it) is a good idea. It will show you that Christian doctrine, for the most part, has not undergone any changes. Have there been refinements? Yes. Clarifications? Sure. But none of it is totally new.

If you decide to read The City of God, know that it is probably not one of those books that you can sit down and read for a few hours. It's not an overly entertaining read, but it is a helpful read.

There are some parts in the book that you will probably skip over, simply because they're not that relevant anymore. Augustine, for instance, spends time refuting some strange beliefs, such as the idea that the position of the stars at the time of your birth affects your destiny in life.

Some of the stuff Augustine discusses is so far removed from today's culture that you will be left wondering "What...?". So before you read this book, know that if you are not intensely fascinated by ancient history, you will be bored with some of the subjects (for example, Augustine discusses subjects such as whether or not it was reasonable to separate Janus and Terminus as two divinities, Nigidius the astrologer: his argument about twins, derived from the potter's wheel, and How Numa was fooled by hydromancy and a vision of demons).

A lot of the material Augustine discusses, however, is still relevant (especially the subjects that appear in the second half of the book). Augustine devotes space to topics that are actively discussed today, such as the problem of evil, textual criticism, Heaven, Hell, abortion, what our resurrected bodies will be like, and more.

If you decide to read The City of God, I guarantee that you will find something interesting in the book. After all, Augustine really does discuss everything.

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