In a live special aired Wednesday, Oprah Winfrey challenged St. Augustine of Hippo on whether the events recorded in his Christian classic, Confessions, occurred exactly as recorded.
The exchange was marked by swings between confusion and serenity, a marked change from the caustic James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) interview of three weeks ago. St. Augustine appeared courtesy of the Communion of Saints. Excerpts of the conversation are found below.
Oprah: St. Augustine, the first thing I have to say is, for a man of the 4th century, you sure knew how to have a good time.
Augustine: Well, yes, the conversion was a powerful experience.
Oprah: No, sir, I mean a "good" time...you know, sleeping around with women, this thing with the concubine, an illegitimate son, throwing stolen pears at pigs, generally flirting with excess and pleasure....
Augustine: Ah. A problematic use of "mutable good." Well, I had been a notorious public sinner before my conversion, and some of the people in my diocese called the Donatists were disturbed that I could have been graced by God to become a bishop of the Church. So I decided I should be as candid about my history as possible, in order to more greatly glorify God's work in me. But my youth was my undoing with the Donatists.
Oprah: And you give them lots of ammunition, given that you start with your failings as a baby. Like that piece about being jealous of another baby nursing before you....
Augustine: Not quite. I obviously can't remember what I was like as a baby, but I have seen babies get quite jealous when they want something. I argued that was evidence of original sin, this inherited break from God, and that I surely sinned in the same manner at the same age.
Oprah: Still, I respectfully think you need to get a grip, Augustine. I mean, you're talking about six month old babies. They're too cute to do wrong. And everyone knows you can't do wrong until you learn how to do wrong.
Augustine: Really? I beg to differ. The sinful will is what twists our hearts. That is what my life is meant to teach others, at sad cost to me and others who suffered for my sin.
Oprah: Yes, well, before we indulge in theology, I have an audience to appease, so let's jump right to the sex. There's a lot of it in this book.
Augustine: Um, yes.
Oprah: From Book II: "Clouds of muddy carnal concupiscence filled the air. The bubbling impulese of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so it could not see the difference between love's serenity and lust's darkness." I must admit, that's a line!
Oprah: But you were clearly young at this point of the book--perhaps twelve years old at the time--so how could your guilt around sexual impulses to "lust," as you say, be anything but a guilt imposed by society's expectations? Clearly you couldn't be responsible for your actions at that age. Once again, this is clearly over-the-top to the point of being illogical, and a clear example of overstatement.
Augustine: But there you go with that "socialization to wrong-doing" again. If your culture cannot see that we are born with this tendency to do wrong and an attraction to evil, you cannot understand the work of grace in the world--the whole point of the book. Instead, every urge to sin becomes a self-help project that you can manage on your own. I couldn't change my life on my own; I needed to depend entirely on God. I don't see many people acknowledging that on your show, frankly.
Oprah: (surprised) You watch the show up there?
Augustine: I did some research, sure.
Oprah: So...is there anything you do like about it?
Augustine: (Pause) The emphasis on daily gratitude is good. I just wonder who you are thanking.
Oprah: Well...(silence, looking at cameramen)...our sponsors, for one. Time for a commercial break; back in a minute with "All those Pears: Is this for real?"
--I.C. (to be continued Friday)
(Augustine and Oprah Part I, Part III)