Authors aren’t perfect -Tips from St Augustine for when you’re struggling with that book or blog.

Apparently my granddad was fond of saying “it must be true, it’s in a book.”  Nowadays he might say “It must be true, I read it on the internet.” So here are some helpful tips from St Augustine to help us get books and blogs in perspective.All authors, even the best, are fallible. We all make mistakes, we all get things wrong. But mind you, readers are fallible too. So, if I read something and I disagree then this advice from Augustine is helpful.

“Further let me ask of my reader, wherever alike with myself he is certain, there to go on with me, wherever alike with myself, he hesitates, there to join with me in inquiring; wherever he recognises himself to be in error, there to return to me, wherever he recognizes me to be so, there to call me back so that we may enter together upon the path to charity and advance towards Him of whom it is said ‘Seek His face evermore.’ “[1]

Sometimes, it isn’t that I disagree with the author. It’s just that I struggle to understand what he is saying. Or I find I can’t get intot he book because the writing style just doesn’t appeal.  In such cases, Augustine says:

“If, then, any reader shall say, This is not well said, because I do not understand it; such an one finds fault with my language, not with my faith: and it might perhaps in very truth have been put more clearly; yet no man ever so spoke as to be understood in all things by all men. Let him, therefore, who finds this fault with my discourse, see whether he can understand other men who have handled similar subjects and questions, when he does not understand me: and if he can, let him put down my book, or even if he pleases, throw it away; and let him spend labor and time rather on those whom he understands. Yet let him not think on that account that I ought to have been silent, because I have not been able to express myself so smoothly and clearly to him as those do whom he understands. For neither do all things, which all men have written, come into the hands of all.  And possibly some, who are capable of understanding even these our writings, may not find those more lucid works, and may meet with ours only.  And it is useful that many persons should write many books, differing in style but not in faith, concerning the great questions, that the matter itself may reach the greatest number—some in one way, some in another.”[2]

In other words, “if you don’t like my book, don’t panic and don’t struggle on complaining.  Just pick up  a book you can follow.”

I would add the following to what Augustine says. I hope he wouldn’t disagree.

  1. This also demonstrates the benefit of plural leadership in churches. One preacher will not be able to help every member of the congregation grasp every part of Scripture to the extent he would like.
  2. This isn’t an excuse for lazy communication. Those of us who write or speak should still work hard at communicating effectively to our chosen audience.
  3. Sometimes when reading older works, the problem isn’t the author but the translation. So if you are struggling with Calvin, Augustine or Luther, see if there’s another translation out there.
  4. Sometimes even though it’s a struggle, it’s still worth persevering. You may still glean something. You may also find that after wrestling with the author that you can put it clearer yourself and so help others. (Oh and if you’ve been set someone’s book by your teacher then I don’t think you can use Augustine as an excuse for skipping your homework!)
  5. On the other hand, some stuff just is rubbish and there’s no escaping it. If it’s neither correct nor readable then definitely bin it!

Having said that, I think that this advice is a useful guard against becoming enslaved to a book. Just because the author is famous, recommended or even that you liked something else they read, does not mean that you have to stick with the book, article, film, whatever to the bitter end.  At the same time, it’s good to be gracious. I might not have found it helpful but that doesn’t mean someone else won

[1] Augustine, On The Trinity, III.v.

[2] Augustine, On The Trinity, III.v.