Confessions is good for the soul

Ryan NealCulture, Devotions, Ministry Tools, Ryan Neal


I don’t like the word “should.”

I read books, encounter articles, surf the radio, come across blogs and happen upon tweets that offer up advice on how I should live my life, spend my money, raise my kids, and the like. There are times that such advice is genuinely helpful. But most of the time I don’t like “should” or perhaps I don’t like the effect of the word “should.” In 99.99% of the cases, “should” implies or explicitly demands me to act differently, because if I don’t then I’m “doing it wrong.”

So, I don’t like “should” unless the kernel of advice and instruction is set in the frame of doing less. For example, if I “should” stop doing X or consider changing my habits and consider eating fewer vegetables, then I like “should” posts. But, typically, “should” pieces take on a self-righteous, guilt-trip vibe and my guilt shield goes up (sarcasm, not guilt, is my love-language apparently) and I deflect – as much as I can – any guilt-inducing thoughts designed to increase my self-loathing. I have enough “real” things that induce genuine guilt that I do not need more help in that department.

But, what if a “should” post – one that adds to your work, tasks, “to do” list actually reduces guilt? Then, we have the perfect scenario where I like the grammatical and moral term “should” because by imposing a demand it can help reduce guilt, once completed.

Who is the target audience?

Good question. Glad you asked. It’s an item for virtually everyone you know. A friend, a neighbor, and also the beloved in your life. Your kids? Your parents? Sure, they “should” read it, too. But, don’t forget to include yourself. You “should” read it, too.

To that end, I announce my “should” advice for this Christmas season: You “should” read Augustine’s Confessions, and while you’re at it, buy one to give away. Ok, maybe it’s not the best item for your babies, toddlers, elementary kids, or tweens, but beyond those specific groups (and ages) I’d argue that it’s the perfect item to give as a gift this Christmas.

Don’t take my word for it. Recently, it was rated/ranked at the very top of the top 100 books.

Why Augustine’s Confessions? It’s “out of date,” someone might say. Or “it’s from such a different world that I cannot relate to it very well” another might chime in.

I’ve read it a few times and with each reading I am reminded why it’s revered by so many. It’s an enduring piece. It’s classic literature with all of the positives and negatives that may entail. It is old. Parts of it sound as if from a different world, and yet it seems timeless, and much of it could have been written from someone in my town; or yours.

Here are just a few passages that I’ll reference to see if I cannot plant a seed in your mind that might hang around and grow up and bloom. Eventually, perhaps, my “should” advice might bear fruit.

Note: Confessions is divided into 13 “books” (this is the term used in the work, so I use it below, but it’s closer to what we call sections or chapters).

On Learning

I’ll begin with the end because it’s so telling.

The work – which is an extended prayer – ends on an expectant note: “What human can empower another human to understand these things? What angel can grant understanding to another angel? What angel to a human? Let us rather ask of you, seek in you, knock at your door. Only so will we receive, only so find, and only so will the door be opened to us. Amen” (XIII.38.53; Trans. Boulding, p. 307). The message conveys the truth that learning never stops, well beyond college or formal degrees and training, even – apparently – for saints.

It might appear to be an odd conclusion, unless you first realize that Confessions is an instructive piece of literature because the author shares his struggle of changing his mind regarding tightly held beliefs. Augustine serves as a model of how difficult this can be, while also implicitly underlining its importance.

This particular point (changing one’s mind) is implied and exhibited in the book, rather than asserted or explicitly stated as an important lesson. Even the greatest minds of the past did not just arrive at their conclusions whole cloth. No, they wrestled, fought, reconsidered, judged, and only eventually settled on “the” answer, and then – for some – the process begins again.

On Bravado

In book II, he touches upon an issue that relates to sociology and ethics against the backdrop of self-reflection and depravity. He writes: “But I was quite reckless; I rushed on headlong in such blindness that when I heard other youths of my own age bragging about their immoralities I was ashamed to be less depraved than they. The more disgraceful their deeds, the more credit they claimed; … Afraid of being reviled I grew viler and when I had no indecent acts to admit that could put me on a level with these abandoned youths, I pretended to obscenities I had not committed, lest I might be thought less courageous for being more innocent….” (II.3.7; Trans. Boulding, p. 36). Here he diagnoses the locker-room scene as if a prophet looking into the future.

On politics, media, and current events

In the spring I’m teaching a class on “Theology & Pop Culture” and information literacy will be a key ingredient. What is worth reading? What is trustworthy? What is accurate? With this in mind, the following quote (from book VI) may serve as a guiding plumbline:

“…nothing should be regarded as true because it is eloquently stated, nor false because the words sound clumsy. On the other hand, it is not true for being expressed in uncouth language either, nor false because couched in splendid words. I had come to understand that just as wholesome and rubbishy food may be both served equally well in sophisticated dishes or in others of rustic quality, so too can wisdom and foolishness be proffered in language elegant or plain”  (V.6.10; Trans. Boulding, p. 82).

In summary, I’ll end where I began: you really should read Augustine’s Confessions. He might teach (or reteach) you something. And at the very least reading it might inspire you to compose your own confession.