Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

On the Road with Saint Augustine
Published: 2021-10-19
Page Count: 256
★ Publishers Weekly starred review One of the Top 100 Books and One of the 5 Best Books in Religion for 2019, Publishers Weekly Christianity Today 2020 Book Award Winner (Spiritual Formation) Outreach 2020 Resource of the Year (Spiritual Growth) Foreword INDIES 2019 Honorable Mention for Religion This is not a book about Saint Augustine. In a way, it's a book Augustine has written about each of us. Popular speaker and award-winning author James K.…

I’ve not (yet) read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But it has persistently haunted me from a distance over the years. I first became introduced to it more than a decade ago, reading Mark Sayer’s excellent book The Road Trip that Changed the World. Sayer’s book was quite revolutionary for me at the time, and has left an imprint on my life ever since. In the ensuing years, Kerouac’s novel has popped up time and again in other things I’ve read. And then James K. A. Smith wrote this treasure. I would become haunted once more.

In fact, it wasn’t so much Kerouac that haunted me this time. It was Augustine. He would surely have haunted the characters of Kerouac’s novel just the same.

In this work, three distinct entities in my world have collided: the undertow of Kerouac’s haunting; the all encompassing philosophy and theology of one of my favourite dead guys in Augustine; and one of my favourite living authors in James K. A. Smith.

How could I not love this book?

Well, as it turns out, that was not such a difficult task. In fact, I first began reading this several years ago, when it first came out. I didn’t get very far. Smith is rarely a simple and straightforward read. It takes a little patience, but the rewards have always proved enormous for me in reading much of his previous published work. But throw in the subject of a 4th century bishop writing on philosophy and theology, presented as a rather (at times) confronting mirror to myself, and it’s easy to see why I shelved this book the first time around. I truly wish I hadn’t. But I knew at some point, I’d be ready to try again. And here we are.

This is not a book about Augustine. In a way, it’s a book Augustine has written about you. It’s a journey with Augustine as a journey into oneself. It’s a travelogue of the heart. It’s a road trip with a prodigal who’s already been where you think you need to go.

Under the guise of offering a counter-narrative to Kerouac’s The Road, Smith takes us on an incredible journey into the life of Augustine, especially through the lens of his Confessions. “A real-world spirituality for restless hearts” reads the subtitle of the book. If you’re less than familiar with Augustine (a travesty!), you might be surprised at just how down to earth, honest and – indeed – helpful he is to a modern reader. Western society owes a great deal to Augustine. Arguably one of the single most influential people on so much of what we take for granted.

Smith takes us to countless sights of unimagined beauty, raw honesty, and confronting reality. It truly is a book that reads its readers. It would be hard not to know yourself a little clearer by the end. And to be a little more thankful, humble and genuinely comforted. It’s by no means an easy read, but there is a deep treasure here to be uncovered for those who can dig.

Who wrote it

James K.A. Smith teaches philosophy and theology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. He’s one of my favourite authors to read.

Why I read it

I’ve read almost everything by Smith (apart from a couple of early works), and my affection for his writing and insights only grows with each work. To write on Augustine was the equivalent of Christmas and birthday coming at once.

What I liked

I greatly admire and appreciate Smith’s style of writing. He uses countless pop-culture references that can often fly over my head. But the sentiment is not lost because of them. And the references I do get prove all the more poignant.

In some ways, this book is not completely different to his excellent (and by far his most accessible writing) You Are What You Love. The approach is quite different, and this is certainly no rehash of old material. But in terms of a deeply thoughtful exploration into our very souls through a kind of microscopic mirror that shows us what is really there, Smith is again bang on.

In some ways, it was pleasant to simply get caught up in the journey with Augustine. But I also greatly valued Smith’s own honesty of his own journey that he provides little snippets of throughout the book. It’s a wonderful invitation to join Smith on a journey with Augustine, who in turn invites us on a journey to discover the riches of God in Christ.

What I didn’t

I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t persist the first time. That’s more on me than Smith. His books do take a bit of work to read, and this is no exception. It is hardly a fault though. It’s simply a recognition (in part) of the complexity of the subject matter.

Major Takeaway

There is plenty that will simmer away. Here’s a couple of special thoughts:

The question isn’t whether you’re going to believe, but who; it’s not merely about what to believe, but who to entrust yourself to. Do we really think humanity is our best bet? Do we really think we are the the answer to our problems, we who’ve generated all of them? The problem with everything from Enlightenment scientism to mushy Eat-Pray-Love-ism is us. If anything looks irrational, it’s the notion that we are our own best hope.


We cultivate indifference as a cocoon. We make irony a habit because the safety of maintaining a knowing distance works as a defense. If you can’t find what matters, conclude that nothing matters. If the hunger for home is always and only frustrated, decide “the road is life.”


“It is easy and natural to hate evil persons because they are evil,” Augustine replies, “but it is rare and holy to love those same persons because they are human beings.”

Who should read it

Anyone willing to give it a go! (Though, you have been warned…)

4.3Overall Score

On the Road with Saint Augustine

I've not (yet) read Jack Kerouac's On the Road. But it has persistently haunted me from a distance over the years. I first became introduced to it more than a decade ago, reading Mark Sayer's ...

  • Difficulty to read
    Not for the faint hearted.
  • Overall Rating

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