Friday, March 18, 2016

Review ~ The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe

Hello Friends,

I have a treat for you today! I just finished an incredible book called The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe.* This beautiful work of fiction brought the life of St. Augustine of Hippo, and his unnamed concubine to life in an incredibly poignant and heartwarming way.This is her story told in her voice, a play on Augustine's own work Confessions. 

Now, before you get all hung up on the word concubine and wonder how this could possibly be Christian fiction, or how a saint of all things could have something as seedy as a concubine, let me explain a few things. 

Let me begin by sharing my love for history, in particular my love for early church history. I didn't always enjoy it. In fact, for much of my life I thought it was incredibly dull - until I took an early church history class in seminary taught by Dr. Ed Smither. I was fascinated by the history and the stories of these men and women. I realized they weren't just barbarians who stumbled around until they found the Gospel, or only understood the most basic principles, nor were they all pagans who had no knowledge of Jesus Christ. Instead, many were highly intelligent, well learned men (and a few women), who not only knew philosophy and theology, but helped shape it. 

In a second class I took by Dr. Smither, we focused specifically on the early church fathers, their lives, and their teachings. This also included many of the sects, cults, and heresies the early church dealt with. I was fascinated. I learned all about Athanasius and Arius and their verbal sparring, which lead to the Council of Nicaea in 325,  Constantine and his conversion a few years before, Cyprian, Iraneus, Origin, John Chrysostom, Basil, Perpetua and Felicitas (two women martyred for their faith) and many others. I realized much of the theology we believe and debate today was the same ideas debated and written about by these men. Many of the cults and heresies are the same too - just under different names. 

But what I really remember is learning about Augustine of Hippo. (Dr. Smither even wrote a book about Augustine, entitled Augustine as Mentor which you can buy here). We learned about his life before his conversion, his mother's faith and lifelong prayer for her son's salvation, his love of philosophy, and learning, his association with the Manicheans, and eventual conversion to Christianity. We also learned about his personal life, his son, and his concubine, which brings me back to The Confessions of X.

As Ms. Wolfe points out in the Author's Note, a concubine in Augustine's time was not what it implies today. It was almost always a monogamous relationship, usually between two people of different social classes where were not allowed to marry. Many women were buried with the title on their tombs as a point of honor. It did not mean mistress, prostitute, or anything untoward. While it did not guarantee a woman the same rights as a wife, and any children would be the man's not her own, it did give her security, and provision. It is very much like a common law marriage today. We must also realize that Augustine took X (her name has been lost to history) as his concubine many years before his conversion to Christianity, and therefore, he cannot be expected to have obeyed the laws of traditional marriage as defined today, particularly since laws were also different then. We also do not know if she was a pagan, or a Christian, or if she converted somewhere along the line. What history does tell is is that she and Augustine were in love, they were faithful to each other, and they had a son together. Eventually, X was put away from Augustine as his mother arranged a marriage for him (he later refused that marriage to become a celibate priest in the Christian church), as she was not a legal wife, Augustine kept their son. Augustine and their son both converted to Christianity, and their son died as a teenager soon after. 

What I liked: Normally, I don't care for flowery or poetic type prose, but this is an exception. Beautifully narrated, the voice of X is clear. I could feel her presence, could see the pictures she painted with her words. I loved that the story followed her entire life, and while the majority was focused on the thirteen year period she was with Augustine, the rest was fascinating as well. X brought the late fourth century to life. It is so easy to forget that people lived then like they do now: get up, go to work, make dinner, take care of the house, pay rent, etc, but they did. I enjoyed getting to see what North Africa was like during this time. I also enjoyed seeing a different side to Augustine. While I realize this is fiction, it still makes him, and her, more real. I felt the pain of their son as he was told his mother was leaving him. I felt her fears of abandonment that were all too soon realized when she was put away. I felt her joy at knowing true love, and the love friendship. I feel as though I know her, and hope she is in Heaven someday so I can meet her, and finally learn her name. 

What I didn't care for: Honestly, I really can't think of anything. It was a little slow at times, but in a mostly good way. It flowed with time more than anything. Also, I wish there had been some conclusion as to her faith, but since history is mute, I guess The Confessions of X should be as well. 

Warning: While not graphic as some have said, there are a few lines here and there that imply sexual situations, which considering they were married in their minds, is understandable. The inclusion here may make some readers uncomfortable, but it is literally just a sentence or two in a few places and easily skipped over.     

Overall, this is a beautiful story of who Augustine's love might have been. It is filled with the wanderings of life, and gives a fresh look at the humanity of one of Christianity's greatest theologians. I'd recommend this to anyone who loves history, or who wants a fresh perspective on Augustine's life. 

Happy Readings,

Sarah K. 

* I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.