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Books: Eternal culture wars

Books | Even after 1,500 years, Augustine is still quite up-to-date

Issue: "Ashcroft 2000?," Oct. 11, 1997

One of the greatest men and most brilliant minds Africa ever produced was Augustine of Hippo. He was born in 354 at Tagaste-in present-day Algeria-of a pagan father and a Christian mother. He studied rhetoric at the great University in Carthage in order to become a lawyer, but later decided on a career in teaching. His study of philosophy resulted in a complete renunciation of Christianity. He lived a self-confessedly debauched life-including for 15 years keeping a mistress by whom he had a son.

In pursuit of opportunities to improve his academic standing, he took teaching posts-first in Rome and later in Milan. It was in this latter city that he fell under the sway of the great bishop and rhetorician Ambrose. After a long battle of the soul-described in his classic work Confessions-Augustine was converted under Ambrose's ministry and was baptized in 386.

After two years of intensive discipling and catechizing, he returned to Africa and established a scholastic community in Hippo. There he founded his famous Classicum Academae-devoted to study, writing, and the work of cultural transformation. The school was famed for its emphasis on logic, rhetoric, art, music, politics, theology, and philosophy. In 391, Augustine was ordained, and in 396 he was elevated to the bishopric of the city.

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Most of his brilliant writings have endured the test of time. His commentaries-on Genesis and Psalms particularly-are of inestimable value. His refutations of theological heresies continue to set the standard for orthodox apologetics. And he wrote the first, and arguably the best, systematic theology the church has ever produced.

But he perhaps made his greatest contribution with his analysis of the culture war here on earth and its relation to the war in the heavenlies. The City of God continues to define the terms of the debate better than any other work written before or since. I recently reread the massive work and was struck by its stunning relevance some 1,500 years after it was first written.

According to Augustine, cultures are not reflections of a people's race, ethnicity, folklore, politics, language, or heritage. Rather they are an outworking of a people's creed. In other words, culture is the temporal manifestation of a people's faith. If a culture begins to change, it is not because of fads, fashions, or the passing of time; it is because of a shift in worldview-a change of faith.

The book broke new ground for Christian theology in its day-indeed it would be rather avant garde even today. Augustine spent much of his life and ministry so precisely critiquing the pagan philosophies of the world and so vehemently exposing aberrant theologies within the church because he understood that such things matter both in the realm of eternity, determining the spiritual destiny of masses of humanity, and in the realm of the here and now, determining the temporal destiny of whole civilizations.

Unlike Tertullian, who decried the cultural applicability of the church-asking, "What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?"-Augustine recognized that a people's dominant worldview inevitably shapes the world they have in view. And he also recognized that the church is the genesis point for the development of that worldview as it faithfully fulfills its calling. This rather ancient tome is the most up-to-date book I've read in recent memory.

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