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

Date: Oct 1st, 2011
Book: Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders by Edward L. Smither

Overview

Every now and then I read a book solely because it’s been spoken highly of, this was one of those books. The 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.

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 I said before, 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 my chief criticism of this book? That it doesn’t bother answering 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 just one big long list of examples showing how Augustine demonstrated each of the characteristics. 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 I will say 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 I do think this particular aspect is helpful, I don’t think it was the actual goal of the book.

Memorable Quotes:

Most of the memorable quotes from this book are themselves quotes from people other than the author, so I don’t count them here. These aren’t particularly memorable but they’re about the closest it gets…

-“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.”

Specific Criticisms

Ok, a few more things to criticize about his book.

1) The book, which is called ‘Augustine as Mentor’, doesn’t even 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 even 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 happen to 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 absurdly monotonous, and is entirely too fond of just 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 just trying to show that he’s not just picking a few isolated instances and extrapolating from them, and good for him if that’s his goal, but he could have put all that in an appendix instead of cluttering up the main body with them.

The absolute worst instances of this are whenever he talks about how people wrote letters or books as a form of mentorship. Smither isn’t content to just say that they wrote letters, he’s going to go on for a few 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 thinks 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 and on for TWENTY-SEVEN PAGES.

27 pages of list after list addressing letter after letter. What is the point of this? Why do I need these dates and letter numbers? why do I 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 am I gaining into mentoring by wading through this drivel, especially for modern-day application (which is supposed to be the point of the book)? The best thing I can compare it to is essays I wrote in college where I had to meet a certain page limit, and while I had tons of information I didn’t necessarily have a thesis or a way to tie all the information together. My solution if the deadline was near was to just hope that I could hide behind a wall of information, hoping that my lack of exposition was masked by the sheer amount of info. This is the feel I get when reading this book, like Smither just 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) Alot of what’s pointed out are things that people are going to do anyway, just because they’re people, like keeping up with folks after they move away, talking to them when they’re having a hard time and pointing out where they’re misinterpreting things.

4) Again, two pages of application. The one thing the author needs to do is balance his book. 99% evidence and 1% extrapolation is not a balance, its an afterthought – like he got to the end and said “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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