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Missing the Point

Book reviewing, as the Literary Review recently noted, has lost its serrated edge. Critics who used to rip the masks from charlatans are now more concerned with quid pro quos. Except, perhaps, in Books & Culture, where Sarah Ruden still sharpens her pen. I am all for reviews that do not merely laud, but when an author fails to bite into the texts she critiques, her writing become more like a rant than a review. Ruden's misleading takedown of my and Miles Hollingworth's recent books on Augustine fails on that score ["Missing the Point," May/June]. While Ruden was expressing cynicism about the state of academic publishing and the prices of books, I was trying to figure out what her essay had to do with our scholarship.

Ruden portrays my Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ as a condescending attack on Augustine. To the contrary, my book is actually an attempt to understand and defend the conceptual core of his often maligned doctrines of original sin and operative grace. Half of the book is intellectual history. Augustine's anti-Pelagian sermons, letters, and treatises have been widely denigrated as merely polemical, but I show that they are rich and insightful. In the second half of the book, I argue that Augustine's ideas, including his use of medical analogies between sin and sickness and grace and surgery, offer insight into our own agency and into ways of thinking about freedom that we have largely forgotten.

Among my targets are those who believe that Augustine's mature soteriology is, as Hollingworth puts it, at odds with the laws of ownership and responsibility and their relationship to virtue. But Ruden lumps my work together with Hollingworth's, apparently because we both read Augustine for more than his literary value. Who are we, she wonders, to criticize or try to improve upon a literary genius?

The suggestion that Augustine should not be criticized either makes him infallible or consigns him to the status of a museum curiosity. Theologians from ...

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