Book Review: Augustine as Mentor – By Edward L. Smither

Smither Augustine as Mentor.pngLetter TThe first line when opening this book reads “How could a fifth-century African bishop be relevant to the twenty-first century?” and goes on to note that “Many pastors today… are struggling in isolation without a pastor to nurture their souls.”

The goal of Augustine as Mentor is to answer that question while providing for the concern of pastors in isolation. It is a text meant for aiding spiritual leaders in the task of mentoring, as well as being mentored.

The text is fairly simple in setup. It begins with a brief discussion of what mentor-ship is and uses the New Testament to develop a set of eight characteristics present in any good mentoring strategy, including: a group context, the mentor as a disciple, discernment in selection, a personal mentor-disciple relationship, sound teaching, modeling and involvement in ministry, releasing to ministry, and resourcing leaders. Following this introduction to the mentoring model Smither goes on to evaluate the most prominent First Century Christian leaders and demonstrate how each of them followed this model, including Cyprian, Basil, and Ambrose of Milan. This is followed by a discussion of who exactly mentored Augustine, so as to better understand his own mentoring strategy.

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With this groundwork laid Smither comes around to the focus of the text, Augustine’s approach to mentoring and his thoughts on mentoring, finishing up with a short chapter on mentoring in the contemporary setting.

Smither’s work is certainly ripe with information and it can’t be held against him that he doesn’t provide plenty of backing to show that Augustine and the early church fathers did indeed employ all the characteristics of mentoring which he listed. And this is where he stops. As mentioned, the first line read when opening this book is “How could a fifth-century African bishop be relevant to the twenty-first century? ” What is the chief criticism to be had of this book? That it doesn’t answer the question that it starts out with.

The chapter on contemporary application is two pages long, that’s two out of two-hundred-fifty-nine. The other two-hundred-fifty-seven pages are all one long list of examples showing how Augustine demonstrated each of the characteristics presented. Smither claims in the preface that “From this evidence I will make an argument for his principles and convictions for mentoring spiritual leaders.” The problem is that he spent all his time putting forth the evidence and forgot to make his argument – the reader is left on their own to judge and figure out how to apply these characteristics of mentoring.

When reading a book one wants to know just what it is that the author is building up to, what insights they’ve gleaned through all their study. Smither shows you that he’s done his homework, but doesn’t bother to tell you what he’s learned from it – it’s all academia without application.

One thing to be said for the text is that it does serve to greatly widen the scope of just what it is that one should consider in terms of mentoring. It doesn’t just say that an older person needs to take a younger person under their wing or use similarly vague analogies, but presents a wide number of aspects through which mentoring can be done. While this particular aspect is helpful, it doesn’t seem to have been the actual goal of the book.

In the end, the book is an academic history book, not a book on spiritual leadership or mentoring. That said, it might serve as a decent source for somebody wanting to write a book that’s actually about spiritual leadership or mentoring, for somebody who wants to give legs to the academia provided by Smither.

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Memorable Quotes:

-“Mentoring and discipleship, as observed in the New Testament and early Christian writings, was the work of on Christian helping another disciple or group of disciples grow in their knowledge and application of the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures.”

-“His teaching philosophy was student centered, and discussion topics were driven by participants’ interests because he believed that the external dialogue served to encourage the internal dialogue in each person.”

-“As Augustine took on the cares of the ministry, his focus went from philosophical speculation to practical Christian living.”

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Specific Criticisms

A few more things to point out about his book.

1) The book, which is called ‘Augustine as Mentor’, doesn’t start talking about Augustine as a mentor until almost exactly halfway through the book – that’s 125 pages you have to wade through before you get to the topic at hand. And not only do you have to wade through all that, but almost every point made in those early chapters in terms of mentoring strategy are just repetitions of what’s going to be said about Augustine; thus, unless you just want to know a little more about Basil or Monica (Augustine’s mother) then in terms of this book there is absolutely no reason to read the second or third chapters (which between them are roughly 100 pages long).

2) The author is very monotonous, and is entirely too fond of merely listing things as if it somehow adds something to the text to have twenty examples of the same thing as opposed to one or two. Maybe he’s trying to demonstrate that he’s not simply picking a few isolated instances and extrapolating from them – and good for him if that’s his goal – but he could have put that information in an appendix instead of cluttering up the main body with it.

The absolute worst instances of this are when he talks about how people wrote letters or books as a form of mentorship. Smither isn’t content to say that they wrote letters, but proceeds to go on for multiple pages listing letter after letter that they wrote and giving a few word summary of what each letter entailed. Why? His only point is that they wrote letters, he doesn’t go on to say anything about the content of the letters or tie it in to any grander scheme, he just seems to think you might want a cursory knowledge of every letter and book Augustine ever wrote. Lets give an example:

“In Letters 42 and 45, written in 398, Augustine lamented that the had heard nothing from Pualinus and reiterated his request for Paulinus’s book. Around 404, he wrote Letter 80 inquiring from Pualinus about how to discern God’s will. In Letter 95, penned around 408, Augustine dialogued with Paulinus over the notion of eternal life while also responding to Pualinus’s questions about the nature of the resurrection body. Also, Augustine posed once again a question about Christian leisure that Pualinus had apparently failed to address. Finally, Letter 149, written in 415, was purely an exegetical resource in response to Pualinus’s questions on passages in the Psalms, in Paul, and in the Gospels… Augustine sent Letter 28 to Jerome via his disciple Profuturus in 394 or 395, though Profuturus was unable to fulfill the mission because he was ordained bishop of Cirta in 395. Meanwhile, the letter took nine years to get to Bethlehem… and on and on for TWENTY-SEVEN PAGES.

Twenty-seven pages of list after list addressing letter after letter. What is the point of this? Why does the reader need these dates and letter numbers? Why does the reader need to know that Profuturus wasn’t the best choice for messenger or how long the letter took to reach Bethlehem? And most importantly, what insight is the reader gaining into mentoring by wading through this, especially for modern-day application (which is supposed to be the point of the book)? The best thing the book can be compared to are the essays many students write in college where they have to meet a certain page limit, and while they have vast amounts of information they don’t necessarily have a thesis or a way to tie all the information together. If the deadline is near the solution is to just hope that they can hide behind a wall of information, hoping that their lack of exposition is masked by the sheer amount of information. This is the feel the reader gets from this book, as if the author had to reach a certain page limit and decided the best way to do that was to throw in a few dozen pages of fluff here and there.

3) Again, two pages of application. The main thing the author needs to do is balance his book. 99% evidence and 1% extrapolation is not a balance, its an afterthought – it’s as if the author made it to the end and thought “oh yea, I was supposed to be making an argument” but only had five minutes before he had to send off his manuscript.

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