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Introducing the Hip-hop-potamus!
The Apostle from Hippo is a short book by David Bentley-Taylor exploring the life and thought of probably the greatest Christian thinker outside the bible; Augustine of Hippo. For those who aren't aware of him, he was the Bishop of Hippo, a city in North Africa, in the 5th century and is best known for his autobiographical work about his conversion entitle 'Confessions' and his enormous work 'The City of God.' But he also defended the Christian faith against various errors which were around at the time.
Hippo descriptor - The author
David Bentley-Taylor was a missionary, speaker and author who died in 2005. He is also known for writing autobiographical sketches of Josephus and Erasmus.
This book was developed from two previous (one written originally in Korean). This book combines the two investigating both his life and his thought.
The Shape of the Hippo
Bentley-Taylor divides his story into 19 short chapters each covering an element of Augustine's life or his confrontations with other thinkers which are a launch pad for considering an aspect of his general though.
The author is not afraid to consider the less attractive aspects of Augustine's life; his de facto marriage; his persecution of the 'Donatist' Christians in Africa; the difficulties of his early life. These are the thought of things that enemies of Augustine's ideas use to attack him, even today and Bentley-Taylor never sweeps them under the carpet. But nor does he dwell on them. So for many it is Augustine's dealings with his own sexual thoughts that they use to attack him. Bentley-Taylor is willing to take them into account when considering Augustine's psyche but will not let them over-rule his general perception of the man, as if all he were was a guilt ridden man.
Instead this is pitched as an introductory text for the interested lay person. And in its length and level it is ideal for this. It is only 160 pages long but more the style of writing is light and breezy and I sailed through it in a couple of hours.
His final chapter about the end of Augustine's life is particularly interesting. He describes Augustine having to flee to the hills after the Vandals invaded North Africa. And how Possidius set about writing the first autobiography of him within a few weeks of his death. And how before his death he made his followers write out Psalms and stick them to the ceiling so that he could recite them continually. This man was at the very least inspiring in his dedication.
Considering the Hippo
And here lies part of its problem. Augustine was a man with a huge brain and a huge life, just like a Hippo. But at this length neither can really be done justice in the space given to it. How can one truly consider Augustine's ideas on original sin (which have remained hard to stomach for many) in mere 9 page chapter. The problem is that I came to the end of the book feeling like I still knew little about his life or his thought. Too many details of his life are passed over in brief where they are rich in excitement. It's not that he has pitched it too low, rather that the thought of Augustine himself cannot be pitched low.
If you knew nothing of Augustine and only wanted to read one short book then this is probably the best you will find; but my fear is that you will get to the end thinking you know the man when the surface has not even been scratched.
Other oddities of the book are that the back of the book offers an introduction by another well known theologian which is not actually present. And the 'recommendations' are actually recommendations for how important Augustine is and not for how good the book is.
Similarly there are some maps at the back of north Africa in the time of Augustine and of the city of Hippo. To be honest these may as well have been left out as they are of no use to man nor hippo and are pretty much illegible.
However what the book lacks in its length it does make up for in its clarity. What Bentley-Taylor puts, he puts clearly and engagingly and this was an enjoyable if somewhat, ultimately, frustrating read.