On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Book Review

by David McLemore October 29, 2019

As a freshman in college, I would take long drives. In Lexington, Kentucky, there is a lot of open space. Where was I going all those nights? Nowhere, really. I wasn’t trying to arrive; I was going because I couldn’t stay where I was. I was looking for a place to be, knowing the place I was wasn’t it.

Have you been there? The 4th century Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine, has. He didn’t have a car, but that didn’t stop him from going, and he has something to say to all who wander.

That is what James K.A. Smith wants us to see in his latest book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. He wants to hop in the car with us, but he’s bringing a friend along for the ride. And he’s not just any friend. He’s “a prodigal who’s already been where you think you need to go” (xi).

Channeling Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Smith takes the form of Sal Paradise, giving us the view from the backseat, interpreting what’s taking place in front of him between two new friends. This isn’t, as Smith clearly states, a biography of Augustine. He writes, “In a way, it’s a book Augustine has written about you.” If anything, this book, while giving bits and pieces of Augustine’s life and work, is a book written for the modern age and the modern questions of modern people. What we see is that for all our modernity, we’re as ancient as they come. Our problems are not new. Our longings have not evolved. We’re all searching for the same things: freedom, ambition, sex, mothers, friendship, enlightenment, story, justice, fathers, death, and homecoming. Taking us on the road, Smith lets Augustine speak to each of these topics in successive chapters. As the road would have it, some of these views took my breath away. Others left me nodding off before I finally got around the bend. Through them all, I saw the destination he takes the reader, and I was glad to have been along for the ride.

On the Run

The first page of the first chapter is like a microscope turned toward your heart. No matter who you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve seen and done, it’s all there. His point is clear: we all react the same way to life. After the burden has grown large enough and the offer of freedom looms large enough, we pack it in and run. We all leave.

“It’s like all we ever do is leave, ‘Honey, all I know to do is go,’ the Indigo Girls confess in ‘Leaving.’ You can leave without a bus ticket, of course. You can depart in your heart and take an existential journey to anywhere but the ‘here’ that’s stifling you. You can be sleeping in the same bed and be a million miles away from your partner. You can still be living in your childhood bedroom and have departed for a distant country. You can play the role of the ‘good son’ with a heart that roams in a twilight beyond good and evil. You can even show up to church every week with a voracious appetite for idols. Not all prodigals need a passport” (1).

We like the idea, Smith says, of “the road is life” (2) mentality. Where “to be on the way is to have arrived” (3). We’re like Kerouac’s characters. Are we going to get somewhere or just going? Augustine was just going (4). He was climbing the ladder of the ancient world. From Algeria to Rome to Milan. Wherever life happened is where Augustine wanted to be. Why? Because that’s what we all want. We want to be important. We want to matter. So we make other things our god, coveting what others have.

Once on the road, we find the weariness of it all. Another long stretch of highway. Another hotel room. Another lunch from a gas station. It’s empty and unfulfilling. A nagging question begins to repeat itself. “What if I went home?” (11) We are all, Augustine helps us see, the Prodigal Son wondering if our Father will have us back. We might not even know it’s he that we’ve left. We might not even know if our Father will be there. But we sense he is. Our heart aches for a home that perhaps we’ve never been to. That’s why we’re on the road in the first place. That’s why sex, money, and fame seem to be where it’s at. The draw of the world taps into the world we’re made for. It’s only a counterfeit. As the 20th-century Scottish author, Bruce Marshall, put it, “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” And God we shall have if we’ll not end the search too early.

Looking for Home

While Smith is a Christian and writes as a Christian, this book would sit well in a non-Christian’s hands. The longings Smith brings to the surface are those we all have, no matter our religion (or lack thereof). Our friend Augustine knows what it’s like. “One of the reasons,” Smith says, “I’ve found Augustine a comforting companion on the way is that he is honest about how hard the road is even once you know where home is” (15). What we need is a companion who writes not from the sky but from the road (16) because the way home is impossible. We can’t get there on our own. In one sermon, Augustine says, “It is as if someone could see his home country from a long way away, but is cut off from it by the sea; he sees where to go, but does not have the means to get there.” Smith finishes the thought.

“You can’t get there from here. Not even a map is enough. You might already have realized where you need to go, but the question is how to get there.

What if God sent a boat? What if the Creator captained a ferry from that other shore?...

God sends a raft from home: ‘For no one can cross the sea of this world unless carried over it on the cross of Christ.’ Get on, God invites. Hang on. I’ll never let you go” (14).

Augustine is our contemporary, Smith says. “He has directly and indirectly shaped the way we understand our pursuits, the call to authenticity. In some ways, he puts us on the road we’re on. It’s why he continues to fascinate…We’ve been asking Augustine’s questions for a century. Perhaps it’s time to consider his answer” (34-35).

What is his answer? It’s perhaps the only Augustine quote many people know by heart. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” Here is the heart of the book, and, in my estimation, the best chapter. Augustine knows the kind of restless heart that puts one on the road. He had it himself, and he had to learn to live in between the world he saw and the world he knew he was made for. He has what Smith calls a “refugee spirituality, an understanding of human longing and estrangement that not only honors those experiences of not-at-homeness but also affirms the hope of finding a home, finding oneself” (44). We’re all looking for a place where the Father comes running, wraps his arms around us with a tearful smile, and throws a party. We’re all looking for home.

Finding Ourselves

The second part of the book is comprised of what Smith calls “detours on the way to myself,” a series of way stations in which we all find ourselves: freedom, ambition, sex, mothers, friendship, enlightenment, story, justice, fathers, death, and homecoming. Each chapter is relatively short but punchy. Filled with philosophical questions and Augustinian answers, these chapters serve as worthy stops along the way. Some of them will resonate more deeply than others. Not all of us take the same route, and not all interests are shared. That’s not to say these are wasted chapters because even if you haven’t been to that particular waystation, someone you know has. Though not his original intention, Smith gives us a book that teaches us to share the road with others, that gives us words to say and things to point out along the way when we jump in the passenger seat next to our co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family. We’re all on a journey to finding ourselves.

Our culture is constantly looking for itself. So when a book comes across that seems to provide some answers, I’m skeptical. Maybe you are too. Does Smith help us find ourselves? Or is this just another book to add to the shelf with promising-but-disappointing others? Is it a road-trip better off not taken?

In the end, I think the trip is worth the ride. You’re going to get somewhere, even if that somewhere is a new awareness of yourself. For that, this book is worthy of being put on another shelf—the shelf where the books that offer real help reside. It’s not an exhaustive book. How could it be and cover so many things? This book is diagnostic. It shows you what’s wrong with you and points you in the right direction. You will not find every answer here. There are no deep dives. This is a road trip, after all, and you might want to pull over and stay awhile on the way back.

Whether or not Smith does Augustine justice in all respects isn’t the point (though I think he does a fine job). You may wish he covered more details here or there, but this isn’t a biography. This is one friend introducing you to another. If you want more, go to the source. You don’t need a mediator: Augustine laid himself bare for the world. Go to him and find what you seek. But beware: Smith shows how piercing Augustine can be. If you go to him, prepare to go to Christ, because in Augustine’s faith you will meet the one Friend who ties us all together, the one friend we need to really understand life, the one Friend who not only has the answers but can bring you home from the far country to the Father waiting for you.