Why Augustine’s ‘Come to Jesus’ Moment Tells an Incomplete Story

The same church father who experienced a radical turn to faith also preached a gospel of continual conversion.

My parents bought me my first copy of Augustine’s Confessions when I was a young teen. In this classic of the Western literary canon, the church father Augustine describes his sometimes wayward youth, his eventual conversion to Christ, and how God transformed his way of seeing the world. The book has captured the imagination of countless spiritual and intellectual seekers and shaped the ethos of entire literary, theological, and cultural traditions. But I did not take up and read. While most other books my parents recommended made it to my nightstand, this one sat on my shelf and collected dust. It stayed there through high school, through college, and as I took my first full-time job. I knew a little about this fourth- and fifth-century titan of the Christian tradition but not enough to tempt me to read him for myself.

Truth be told, despite now having devoted years of my life to the study of Augustine, I have never enjoyed the easy familiarity with Confessions that so many people talk about. “This could have been the story of my teenage years; I know just how he felt here,” I have heard umpteen times.

To me, Augustine’s specific temptations and preoccupations seem as foreign as the geographical, cultural, and philosophical worlds he inhabited. And the climax of the entire narrative—his dramatic conversion—is something the likes of which I have never experienced myself. Only after years have I come to see Augustine’s story as in some sense “mine,” and this understanding has been hard-won by listening to master interpreters and squinting through the lens of scholarly analysis.

Whereas most people know Augustine through Confessions, I most identify with him through his …

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