Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of "and" in an Either-Or World

Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of

What if certainty isn't the goal? In a world filled with ambiguity, many of us long for a belief system that provides straightforward answers to complex questions and clarity in the face of confusion. We want faith to act like an orderly set of truth-claims designed to solve the problems and pain that life throws at us. With signature candor and depth, Jen Pollock Michel h...

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Title:Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of "and" in an Either-Or World
Author:Jen Pollock Michel
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Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of "and" in an Either-Or World Reviews

  • Andy Springer

    Things aren't always either/or and maybe they aren't supposed to be. Faith can be much more beautiful and reciting when things that seem contradictory are held as true without need for resolution. Jen Pollock Michel does a fantastic job of showing beauty in mystery and uncertainty.

    God becomes one in whom we are drawn more deeply into through paradox and uncertainty. Our faith is enhanced when experienced as a journey without the constant push to have the correct ideas and understandings.

  • Michele Morin

    Wild extremes live on the bandwidth that comprises Christian faith. At one end of the scale are those who believe scarcely a thing at all, but even this is not as frightening to me as those on the end of the spectrum who have God all figured out. With algebraic precision, they are able to reduce God to his component parts. Their certainty factors out mystery and puts unyielding parentheses around an orthodoxy with no room for questions–and no surprises.

    In Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “An

    Wild extremes live on the bandwidth that comprises Christian faith. At one end of the scale are those who believe scarcely a thing at all, but even this is not as frightening to me as those on the end of the spectrum who have God all figured out. With algebraic precision, they are able to reduce God to his component parts. Their certainty factors out mystery and puts unyielding parentheses around an orthodoxy with no room for questions–and no surprises.

    In Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World, Jen Pollock Michel asserts that biblical faith “abides complexity rather than resists it.” (4) She wonders aloud about doubt and certainty, humility and hope, and then settles into the examination of four themes in Scripture in which paradox abounds:

    1. Incarnation: God and Man

    Nowhere is God’s delight in both/and over either/or more apparent than in the truth that the incarnate Christ was fully God AND fully man. This is a mystery that defies logic, and it invites believers to delight in our own duality. We are intensely physical beings with appetites and space/time limitations that anchor us in the quotidian and the earthy. And yet, our spirits commune with The Spirit, our souls will live forever, and we have been created in the image of an unseen God who is wholly spirit.

    The incarnation brings unity to the spiritual and the material, the secular and the sacred, and we find, to our great surprise that “in Jesus Christ, we are more unimpressive than we ever dared admit, more glorious than we ever dared dream.” (57)

    2. Kingdom: Plain Truth and Mystery

    Jesus wasted no time in announcing that he represented another kingdom, far removed from the Roman Empire or the religious hierarchy of Judaism. Reading his story with the Kingdom of God in mind uncovers “the scope of God’s ambitions. He wills to reign. And he will reign over more than human hearts.” (71)

    However, it is clear that the righting of our upside down world which began with Christ’s resurrection is not readily apparent and often seems completely missing in a world so larded through with suffering and injustice. In the meantime, those with little find their places alongside those blessed with much, and we all trust for grace to do life with those who don’t look like us, who vote in ways we find scandalous–and who are positively indispensable in our process of learning to set our hope fully in Jesus alone.

    3. Grace: Rest and Response

    If God had bones, grace would be in his deepest marrow. This is good news, for how else would any of us find our way into relationship with the Most Holy?

    The paradox of grace lies in God’s requirement for obedience and his rejection of legalism; the gift of hard words delivered with love; and the invitation to rest while carrying his yoke. The reality of grace means spiritual disciplines that look like work and feel like deprivation are the very thing that clear the channels for grace to flow freely into our lives.

    4. Lament: Howling Prayer and Confessing Faith

    North American Christians with our lives of relative ease rely heavily upon inspired words for our language of lament. There we find faithful Jeremiah pausing dead center in Lamentations to gulp air, declare God’s faithfulness, and then resume his tearful mourning over lost Jerusalem. Habakkuk and Job sing testy songs of impatience with God’s slow mercy, and psalms of lament read like “nasty letters to the editor.” (155)

    Ironically, it is only those whom we trust and value who will receive the brunt of our anguish, disappointment, or rage. We affirm belief in a God who is there by railing at him when he feels absent. Our forays into lament keep sorrow from unraveling into despair.

    God’s promise of And in this Either/Or World means that “just because it can’t be explained doesn’t make it false.” (24) The dissonance we feel when we bump into God’s inscrutable ways is an invitation to worship and to find, buried within the struggle to understand, the gift of wonder.

    Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

  • Darryl Dash

    Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian, believed in paradox. He believed that in God we see many traits that don’t seem to belong together: infinite greatness and infinite care, infinite justice and infinite mercy, and infinite majesty displaying itself as stunning meekness. So did G.K. Chesterton, who said, “An element of paradox runs through the whole of existence itself.”

    I confess I’m not always comfortable with paradox. I like my theology neatly defined. I understand and accept the

    Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian, believed in paradox. He believed that in God we see many traits that don’t seem to belong together: infinite greatness and infinite care, infinite justice and infinite mercy, and infinite majesty displaying itself as stunning meekness. So did G.K. Chesterton, who said, “An element of paradox runs through the whole of existence itself.”

    I confess I’m not always comfortable with paradox. I like my theology neatly defined. I understand and accept the idea of paradox, but it sometimes makes me nervous.

    According to Jen Pollock Michel, author of the new book

    , paradox isn’t the exception in life with God; it’s the rule. “From the way Jesus’ life unfolds (from the incarnation to his public ministry, and then to his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascent), everything is full of surprise. God upends our expectations along the way, which seems to insist that we must approach theology with a great deal of mystery.”

    Michel is no enemy of theological certainty. Her book is crisp with theological insight. I’m often taken when I read her by her grasp of good theology and her ability to express it clearly and beautifully. But Michel also knows that Scripture doesn’t resolve every apparent paradox. It leaves room for mystery. We live with tension and perplexity. We must worship with humility, wonder, and trust, understanding that there’s a lot we don’t understand.

    Surprised by Paradox traces the paradox in Scripture contained within four biblical themes: incarnation, kingdom, grace, and lament. Michel takes us through the major events of Jesus’ life as she also reflects on the tensions and struggles in her own life.

    Michel does a good job handling these themes, but that’s not the only reason to read this book. It’s also worth reading because it’s written so well. I decided a while ago that I would read every book that Michel writes. This one reminded me how much I enjoy her writing. Michel is artful. There are sentences in this book (for instance, “Pretense in prayer is a lot like kissing with your clothes on”) that made me put down the book and pray that I would one day be able to write half as well as she can.

    But here’s the main reason I recommend reading this book: because the older you get, the more you will recognize the reality of paradox. “This book began in a counselor’s office,” she starts — and that’s enough to get me interested. Michel does not write in the abstract. She writes as someone who has suffered, someone who has questions, and as someone who can relate to you and to me.

    I think you’ve probably guessed by now: I loved this book. “As soon as we think we have God figured out, we will have ceased to worship him as he is,” she writes. Well, I want to worship God as he is, and to understand life as it is, and that means living with paradox. This book helps. Read it, enjoy it, and allow it to help you embrace both the certainties and paradoxes of Scripture and life.

  • Laura

    I have learned to love the tension of paradox, the way paradox disciplines me to allow two seeming contradictions to coexist. Jen Pollock Michel admits that much of her writing has been born from the tension between two ideas. This book is her celebration of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith. With her trademark care and eye for detail, Michel sifts through her own memories of the world and her reflections on scripture to celebrate paradoxes she's come to love.

    I will be writing a more tho

    I have learned to love the tension of paradox, the way paradox disciplines me to allow two seeming contradictions to coexist. Jen Pollock Michel admits that much of her writing has been born from the tension between two ideas. This book is her celebration of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith. With her trademark care and eye for detail, Michel sifts through her own memories of the world and her reflections on scripture to celebrate paradoxes she's come to love.

    I will be writing a more thoughtful review soon, but I will mention here that my personal disappointment with the book was that she didn't dwell longer on the nature and beauty of paradox itself. The title should have been Surprised by Paradoxes, because the majority of the writing was about various paradoxes she appreciates. While I enjoyed her tour of the paradoxes that undergird our faith, I was hoping for more time discussing the nature, power, and beauty of paradox. Perhaps I'm the only one who was expecting this, but I wanted a celebration of the way that practicing with paradox can help us be "perplexed but not in despair" when we discover new mysteries (2 Corinthians 4:8). But I generally loved the way she was able to allow paradox to surprise her rather than insisting that mystery submit itself to her own understanding. She models a curious, gentle, persistent faith that longs for truth and revels in complexity.

  • Catherine Norman

    For non-fiction, Christian books, I often turn to the endnotes to determine whether or not I will read the book. Anyone who quotes Fleming Rutledge and Ta-Nehisi Coates in the same chapter will get moved to the top of my to-read list, and I was not disappointed with Jen Pollock Michel's new book. Divided into four sections (Incarnation, Kingdom, Grace, Lament) that come with reflection questions, this book led with more questions than answers. It was refreshing to consider the great mysteries of

    For non-fiction, Christian books, I often turn to the endnotes to determine whether or not I will read the book. Anyone who quotes Fleming Rutledge and Ta-Nehisi Coates in the same chapter will get moved to the top of my to-read list, and I was not disappointed with Jen Pollock Michel's new book. Divided into four sections (Incarnation, Kingdom, Grace, Lament) that come with reflection questions, this book led with more questions than answers. It was refreshing to consider the great mysteries of the faith, and be invited into the wondering, as she writes "Mystery is inherent to the nature of the gospel, whose wisdom confounds more than assists."

    The section on lament resonated with me most deeply, and I would appreciate an entire book on lament, hope, and suffering from the author. There are no easy, pat answers given, only the opportunity to see that lament leads us back to God: "Lament isn't the road back to normal. It's the road back to faith."

    Thanks to NetGalley for the Advanced Readers Copy in exchange for my review. All opinions are my own.

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