Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Critique of Augustine as Mentor

         In his book Augustine as Mentor Dr. Edward L. Smither brings us a seminal work about the importance of mentoring, and the many things that are involved. Dr. Smither is a well respected and known professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. This is not a very large work it weighs is at 259 page consisting of five chapters. Chapter one deals with mentoring in the first century. Chapter two is what he calls the mentoring matrix, which is where he focuses on four different church fathers other than Augustine. Chapter three delves into those who actually mentored Augustine. While chapters four and five become more personal looking at his approach and thoughts about mentoring. Before getting too far into the critique of this work I must be completely honest, due to physical ailments I was unable to read the whole work but did get in to chapter four of this work.  This authors intentions are to give the most far and balanced view of this piece of material I possibly can.
            In discussing this work you could say that the main themes that play themselves out are the history of mentoring, Augustine’s approach to mentoring and his thoughts on its importance. Dr. Smither did an elaborate job in laying the foundation of mentoring in the centuries before Augustine. To be honest with you the first chapter was very intriguing, while the further along the second chapter went questions of its importance began to arise. If a general consumer were out looking for a book on mentoring and discipleship and knew the name Augustine they would automatically think this a great book to read. This would be a false assumption. That being said because as you read through this work you do not embark upon Augustine’s’ ideals until chapter four which is half way through the book. Chapter four begins on page 125 and deals with Augustine’s approach to mentoring; so for the casual reader expecting this work to deal specifically with his thoughts and approach. However, if this book is approached from the perspective of a historical lesson on mentoring as a whole with additional attention paid to Augustine then you will be very pleased with the read.
            After coming to an understanding that the first portion of the book is more of a historical survey, Smither did an immaculate job on this work. In chapter one he goes back to where every good Christian doctrine should come from Christ himself. He lays the ground work of the disciple giving several different definitions of the word to make sure it is clearly understood what is meant (pg 5-6).  After he defined disciple he expounded upon the duties of a disciple showing the reader that it is not merely just an act of learning, but also required the steps of obedience to what has been taught (pg 11). Once he has fully established the role of the disciple he begins to unravel the semblance of what a true mentor should resemble. While most people today think of mentoring as a one-on-one relationship Smither points out that neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul mentored in that manner. He specifically says, “In summary, mentoring in the context of a group, as demonstrated by Jesus and Paul, is most effective because it meets the inherent relational needs of the disciple” (pg 15).
            While chapter one lays a foundation of mentoring chapter two becomes a little more muddled (at least in this authors opinion). Chapter two begins to deal with four church fathers specifically Cyprian, Pachomius, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose of Milan. Smither literally takes sixty five pages of his work to discuss these four men and their approach to mentoring and the difficulties they faced. When reading a work whose title is specifically about Augustine, one should be confused or at the far least concerned as to why so much of this work has been dedicated to these men. It is understood that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it (unsure of the quote or I would site it).  However, I noticed no evidence of the input of these men in his approach that stood out of any major importance. While they could have all made minute increments of influence upon his style of mentoring there is nothing overtly noticeable to commend so much space to these men.
            There is a personal appreciation for chapter three of this work because it deals directly with those in Augustine’s life who mentored him. It also gives some historical background on the man himself which could have taken place in chapter two had the book been developed differently.  Chapter three shows the reader the importance of a loving Christian parent even while the other may be a non-believer. This chapter also reveals that Augustine valued a lifestyle type of mentoring more so then a sit-down hash it out kind of relationship. There were many different people who played a role in his life as mentors, he had his mother, his friends (or peers), and then he had men who we more mature in life as well as the faith who played a major role in his life. One relationship in particular hit close to home and that was his friendship with Alypius, their relationship reminds me of one of the closest relationships I have; especially when Smither says of the two,
While Augustine needed an intellectual sparring partner, he also needed someone for support and encouragement on this delicate and uncertain journey. The two continued as friends, providing mutual support after their conversions and were ordained to the ministry roughly at the same time. While Augustine will forever appear the genius and the strong one, he clearly needed Alypius (pg 101).   
            This work as a whole was very informative about mentoring throughout the history of the church. It also shows the importance and need for men to be willing to step up and disciple the younger generation (not just in age but in Christian maturity). Smithers work could have been repackaged or re-titled a little differently, but as a whole there would not be a problem recommending this work to someone looking for a historical survey of mentoring and discipleship in the early church.

Smither, Edward L. Augustine as Mentor. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2008.

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