Augustine may well be the most gifted, and most influential, theologian the Western church has ever produced—and perhaps the most misunderstood. Garry Wills's compact 152-page portrait is an impressive corrective.

Wills is an adjunct professor (Northwestern University) and a writer of books about more recent figures like Richard Nixon and Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer). In Saint Augustine, Wills looks all the way back to 354, the year of Augustine's birth in Thagaste, North Africa. He follows Augustine's life and career until his death in 417, in the city of Hippo, not far from where he was born.

Even those of us who nurture a love for tradition have, Wills argues, a skewed understanding of Augustine and his work. Augustine was a bishop during a time when there were nearly 700 bishops in Africa alone, and so his significance rests somewhere else: in his writings. Wills says they are "staggering in quantity"—93 books and 300 letters and 400 sermons (out of an estimated 8,000 he preached) remain extant. What Augustine said of the historian Varro was even more true of Augustine himself: "Though he read so much we are amazed he found time to write, he wrote so much that few, we believe, can have read it all."

From the first page of the introduction, Wills works hard to reorient our thinking. For example, he says, "People feel … that they understand intuitively Augustine's testimony to his own sexual sins. They are convinced that Augustine was a libertine before his conversion and was so obsessed with sex after his conversion that they place many unnamed sins to his account"—that he had incestuous feelings for his mother and possibly even homosexual longings for a friend.

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