Book Review: Augustine As Mentor

Introduction

Dr. Edward L. Smither, a Baptist Theological Seminary’s assistant professor, has written a book entitled Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders, which deals with the life and teachings of Augustine of Hippo. In his work, Smither has examined how Augustine’s teachings and life are valuable today as mentoring resources for the modern church. Through the book, Augustine comes out as an effective mentor to spiritual leaders. He reveals what is needed within the ministries in the church to them. Over the course of five chapters and epilogue, readers can see how mentors of the early church built and fostered relationships with their followers or disciples based on eight key principles. These include: “The Group, The Mentor as Disciple, Selection, The Mentor-Disciple Relationship, Sound Teaching, Modeling and Involving in Ministry, Releasing to Ministry and Resourcing Leaders” [1]. This paper seeks to critically review this book, pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses of the author and how they affect the themes in the book.

Brief Book Summary

In the first chapter, “Mentoring in the First Century”, Smither explores the topic of mentoring, particularly that in the first century. In this case, he provides a definition of mentoring as the act of “someone with significant experience has impartial knowledge and skills to a novice in an atmosphere of discipline, commitment, and accountability.” [2] Therefore, by incorporating questions such as “what is mentoring?”, the author underscores the impact of mentoring and its necessity in Christian discipleship. Smither depicts the relationship between Jesus and the 12 disciples as a perfect model that the modern church can use when it comes to mentoring.

In the second chapter, “The Mentoring Matrix”, Smither provides a historical linkage between the New Testament era and the Augustine’s day. He does this primarily to examine the lives of some prominent leaders of the third and fourth centuries as a basis for his primary focus on the theme of mentoring. In this case, he describes the lives of Cyprian of Carthage, Pachomius, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose. Each of these leaders made important contributions to the practice of mentoring. He thus used them to illustrate the prerequisites for effective leadership, which is a core factor in the enhancement of the art and craft of mentorship. The author also emphasizes the need for leading through influence when he points out to the direct influence that Ambrose had upon Augustine.[3]

In chapter three, “Who Mentored Augustine”, Smither discusses the various roles that had been played by Augustine’s mother, Monica, and his close friends, Ambrose, Simplicianus, and Valerius. In this case, he draws the reader’s attention to the specific contributions of other figures in mentorship.

In the fourth chapter, “Augustine’s Approach to Mentoring”, Smither takes an interactive approach to examining the forms of mentorships which resembled those of the leaders discussed in chapter two. In this regard, the author first examines Augustine’s understanding and practice of spiritual leadership based on his own role of being a bishop and leader of numerous clergy. This is followed by detailing of how Augustine actually practiced mentoring, especially based on his monastic life. He also emphasized the need for mentors to write books as a way of addressing and clarifying mentoring aspects which are critical to Christianity.

Finally, in the concluding chapter, “Augustine’s Thoughts on Mentoring”, Smither takes the reader back to the initial principles and practices of mentoring found in the New Testament. He points out that, “his (Augustine’s) conviction on mentoring not only serve to complement his behavior, but enable us as well to make an argument for a set of mentoring principles.” [4] This helps in assessing Augustine’s legacy of mentorship.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Book

A close study of Smither’s book reveals the importance of a mentor remaining teachable. This theme is effectively presented in the book, bringing out the strengths of the author in articulating his concept to the readers. The book Augustine as Mentor (especially chapter three), makes the readers aware of how Augustine benefited from the continued guidance of those individuals who played an important role in his life. This entire chapter is devoted to the very people who mentored Augustine, with a special consideration given to his mother, Monica. Smither notes that Monica may have been responsible for Augustine’s ability to communicate, especially “with less-educated audiences in a simple, understandable manner.”[5]

Even more important is the fact that even being a mentor, Augustine continued to embrace humility in order to understand what he did not know. He even invited others such as Valerius, one of his friends, to learn from him.[6] This brings out the author’s ability to articulate his topic as he demonstrates the high importance of enhancing disciple’s relationship even after becoming a mentor in order to foster mentorship.

Another significant theme of this book is the presentation of Augustine as an ideal, very real, and very practical leader. In this case, Smither accentuates that Augustine struggled and explored various philosophies before coming to Christianity. It is important to note that it was the relationship that Augustine had in his early career that shaped him. It gave him a desire to form the character of those under him. In this regard, Augustine was of the view that caritas, Christian friendship, brought out unity of mind and heart of any group.[7] It is this concept of Christian friendship that he used in his mentoring at the monastery which was later adopted by the church.

Another vivid characteristic of this book is its stylistic use of both historical evidence and scriptural knowledge in creating believable thesis and supporting the same by historical proofs. The book covers almost four centuries of the church history. Obviously, Smither’s eight principles of mentoring are primarily based on scriptural evidence from the life of Jesus, who is the greatest mentor of all and stands out as Biblical mentor. Therefore, the fact that the author uses historical evidences in his writing provides a proof of validity which helps to better understand the issues under study.

However, the weakness of the book is its tendency towards repetitiveness. Augustine as Mentor features some information that does not deal directly with the subject matter. Thus, it can be viewed by readers as imaginative, thereby leading to inadequate understanding of the subject. In particular, the chapter two illustrates the necessity of understanding mentoring matrix for Augustine’s mentoring model. However, incorporating readings about Cyprian and Pachomius who were dead even before Augustine was born is completely irrelevant. This takes a whole sixty-seven pages of this chapter and leaves the reader confused about the actual theme of the book.

Moreover, the sheer volume of information that this book incorporates makes it much cumbersome for one to analyze its content. For instance, it may not be easy for one to analyze chapter four’s eighty-eight pages. Thus, Smither’s work becomes very difficult to interpret.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Smither’s book Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders is highly useful in equipping church leaders with the necessary mentoring tools. He highlights various aspects of mentorship which led to success of the church during its establishment. He has managed to illustrate how this was fostered by the practical approach of most influential scholars such as Augustine of Hippo. Thus, Smither has effectively proved his thesis statement, especially by detailing the methods and forms of Augustine’s mentoring. It confirms that historical relationships can be an essential model of promoting mentor/disciple relationship in the modern Christianity. It sets out mentoring as an ongoing process. That is, one should never cease being a disciple because of being a mentor since the process of mentoring should be recognized and passed on to the next generations.

Bibliography

Smither, Edward L. Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009.

Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009), 13-23.

[1] Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009), 13-23.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 78.

[4] Ibid., 213.

[5] Ibid., 96.

[6] Ibid., 223.

[7] Ibid., 221.

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