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.

  • Anita Yoder

    Simple and profound writing--a paradox in itself! I've loved Jen's writing ever since her first book, and she's only getting better, more succinct, more practical. Post-modernists and millennials will warm to the concept of paradox. Fundamentalists might be disturbed by it because it allows for truth beyond propositions.

    To my strong tendencies to extremes and all-or-nothing way of living, Jen offers a gentle invitation to consider another way of looking at life, people, and God. It's freeing, b

    Simple and profound writing--a paradox in itself! I've loved Jen's writing ever since her first book, and she's only getting better, more succinct, more practical. Post-modernists and millennials will warm to the concept of paradox. Fundamentalists might be disturbed by it because it allows for truth beyond propositions.

    To my strong tendencies to extremes and all-or-nothing way of living, Jen offers a gentle invitation to consider another way of looking at life, people, and God. It's freeing, beautiful, and true.

  • 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.

  • Angie Thornton

    Jen once again produced an excellent text for much reflection in "Surprised by Paradox." I was expecting this book to be a pleasurable read (I wish I could write like her!). What surprised me was just how riveting it was. I couldn't put it down! I'm already looking forward to reading it again in order to ruminate on the subject matter more fully. Jen writes with such depth and passion. She seems to have such ease in weaving beautiful word pictures to help bring to life theological concepts that

    Jen once again produced an excellent text for much reflection in "Surprised by Paradox." I was expecting this book to be a pleasurable read (I wish I could write like her!). What surprised me was just how riveting it was. I couldn't put it down! I'm already looking forward to reading it again in order to ruminate on the subject matter more fully. Jen writes with such depth and passion. She seems to have such ease in weaving beautiful word pictures to help bring to life theological concepts that could be onerous to consider if penned by a less gifted author. In our polarized world of black and white, Jen forces us to step back and ponder the possibility that there is perhaps more nuance and uncertainty than we would like. But that in the midst of our questions, we will discover a deeper, more reverent love for our Triune God, who cannot be fully comprehended nor narrowed down to serve our simple minds.

    While I could share more quotes than the characters permitted here, this one was gold:

    "Maybe the mystery of suffering isn’t only that this world could be so fragile; maybe it’s also that God could be so close, bending his ear to the earth to let every grieving heart crawl inside and find rest. Not answers, but comfort. Not certainty, but trust. And perhaps this is enough to tide us over till the dawning of a new world when the heavy boots of death are sent straight to hell and everything fragile is made unbreakable again, where falling becomes rising and faith becomes sight."​

  • Catherine Blass

    This book was exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it. The most life-giving book I have read in quite some time.

  • Lyndon Jost

    In consideration of God, his ineffable world and ways, Jen Pollock Michel begins where most of us leave off: once we’ve given every possible answer to why and how divine realities and worldly complexities (paradoxes!) are what they are, we finally admit mystery--or “paradox”--as though admitting loss in Logic’s cruel game. Pollock Michel, on the other hand, repositions paradox from logic’s end to its beginning. Paradox here is not the unfortunate final word but an opening better word (or “postur

    In consideration of God, his ineffable world and ways, Jen Pollock Michel begins where most of us leave off: once we’ve given every possible answer to why and how divine realities and worldly complexities (paradoxes!) are what they are, we finally admit mystery--or “paradox”--as though admitting loss in Logic’s cruel game. Pollock Michel, on the other hand, repositions paradox from logic’s end to its beginning. Paradox here is not the unfortunate final word but an opening better word (or “posture”) which rightly positions us to see, hear, and receive God’s Word and world in all the rich complexities each offers. Put differently, she begins by presupposing that paradox is built in to the world as God has given it, and this opens us up to receive rightly and appreciate more fully the wonder of our great God and the world He’s made.

  • 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.

    My full review:

    A clock radio was the most sophisticated piece of technology in my childhood bedroom. Late into the night, I’d tune the crummy radio to stations that played pop or country or classics, the volume set just barely above a whisper so my parents wouldn’t hear. I would fall asleep with my ear pressed against the speaker, music swirling through my waking and sleeping. It was in these not-quite-conscious moments that I first learned to listen for harmony.

    Lying still, I could hear the notes around the melody. I can still remember the sheer joy of recognizing certain harmonies, the clarity of two singers holding a chord or letting the tension build or resolve as their voices rose and fell together. It felt like an invitation I couldn’t resist. I would sing along with every song where I could find harmony. Eventually I could hear the possibility of new harmonies, notes that no one sang but seemed to hang just above or below the melody. I began experimenting with my own harmonies, inserting my voice and delighting in the ways a new harmony enriched my favorite songs.

    Harmony might be the best way to understand paradox. A paradox is two possibilities at once, two distinct ideas that seem as if they cannot co-exist but turn out to be true together when investigated more closely. Like two notes that sound at once, each note distinct but somehow transformed by the presence of the other, harmony produces the possibility of beauty rather than conflict. In her new book Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of "And" in an Either-Or World, Jen Pollock Michel brings ideas that seem to be at odds with one another into lovely harmony—ideas that seem appear contradictory somehow exist at once, interpenetrating one another without diminishing each other.

    To acknowledge where you find paradox is to confess your expectations. It is to say, “I thought that this was what grace meant.” Or, “I thought the kingdom of heaven was going to look like something else.” In one of her more compelling personal confessions, Michel acknowledges her apprehension about her husband’s generous salary because she assumed the kingdom of God was meant for those with empty hands. The paradox she discovers is that somehow the kingdom is large enough to bless the poor as well as the privileged.

    The book reads less like a cohesive album and more like a playlist. Loosely connected observations about paradox flow from Michel’s personal stories and what she has learned from the Word. Michel ponders an assortment of paradoxes, such as the truth that hard words that can also be a means of God’s grace; that our God is one who both reveals himself and hides himself; that the kingdom of God is both unstoppable and vulnerable; and that “the spiritual life, for all its presumed holiness, can be so distinctly unspiritual.”

    Michel does not try to ease the tensions presented by each paradox. Instead, she collects them like curiosities, picking up one paradox at a time to explore their surprises. In four sections— Incarnation, Kingdom, Grace, and Lament—Michel explores paradoxes both big and small, turning over foundational concepts of the faith to find the points of tension. By embracing paradox, Michel models how we can be “perplexed, but not driven to despair” when we encounter the mysteries of our faith (2 Cor. 4:8). She writes about “faith in its lived-in condition—as it abides complexity rather than resists it.”

    Allowing paradox to exist without trying to explain it away or simplify is a sign of a mature faith. It seems to me that a great deal of heretical thinking begins with a discomfort with tension and a need to simplify, clarify, and reduce complexity. Paradox, like harmony, elevates each distinct idea without calling for a compromise.

    When Michel describes the paradox of lament, she recognizes that even our complaint is a “practice of faith” as we seek to reconcile our trouble with the faithfulness of God. The Bible is filled with laments that “seem to violate all the rules we assume must govern our conversations with God,” but even these complaints demonstrate “the persistence of faith that hounds God until he answers.” Describing the paradox of grace, Michel reminds us that grace is not simply leniency. Rather, “the cross speaks a thundering word about the cosmic big deal that is sin.” The cross is a paradox because it speaks both of leniency and violence. Both are required to fully understand grace. To understand God’s work in the world is to recognize that ideas that seem like they ought to cancel on another out actually exist together, like distinct notes played simultaneously to produce a chord.

    And therein lies the heart of Surprised by Paradox. It is a book that seeks to find the harmony by choosing and instead of or. It is not a comprehensive exploration of the counterintuitive complexities of our faith nor is it a full explanation of paradox itself. It is, however, an invitation. Much like the harmonies in one song invited me to find the harmony in other songs, Michel’s love of paradox will usher you back towards your own faith journey to notice the paradox.

    After reading Michel’s words, I want to go back to the Word prepared to see the fruitful tensions that enrich our theology. As Russ Ramsey points out in the foreword, paradox is an admission that we only know in part, and this admission helps us make the important distinction between theological understanding and faith. “Studied rightly,” Ramsey insists, “theology should lead to awe and wonder.” Michel offers a tour of the paradoxes that have surprised her so that we can all learn to “appreciate the knowable—and welcome that which is vast, untamable, mysterious, and awesome.” For when we approach paradox, we come to the end of our understanding. And the end of our understanding can be the place where we learn to pause, but also to praise.

    (For Fathom Mag)

  • 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.

  • Bob

    Whether it is schism in the church, political divides, or just a good old marital conflict, the parties often have defined things sharply in either-or terms, one way or another. Jen Pollock Michel explains how she began to look for a third way, and to write this book. A

    Whether it is schism in the church, political divides, or just a good old marital conflict, the parties often have defined things sharply in either-or terms, one way or another. Jen Pollock Michel explains how she began to look for a third way, and to write this book. A family member had been lying to her, repeatedly. She described her dilemma to her counselor.

     (pp. 22-23).

    She discovered that paradox ran through the pages of scripture, that Christian orthodoxy is full of and, beginning with the incarnation, this idea that the Son of God came to earth, fully God, and also fully human. If paradox is at the heart of the nature of the Lord we trust and follow, might we look for God in the and, rather than insisting on answers to either-or questions. This paradox also suggests that we find the spiritual in the material, the living God in the stuff of everyday life. It also suggests that to conform to God's ideal for our lives, is to live fully the "one wild and precious life" that is ours, expressing in our own uniqueness, the image of God in our lives.

    She goes on to explore three other paradoxes. There is the paradox of the kingdom, which is already here and not fully come, where the least are the greatest, where we both give lavishly and enjoy lavishly what we are given, and where strength takes the form of vulnerability whose crowning hour is the cross. Grace confronts us with other paradoxes. Treasured, yet not for any personal excellency. Finding favor when the wrath we deserved falls upon his favored Son. Michel writes, "We don't get grace because we change our lives--but our lives are indelibly changed because we get grace. Finally there is lament, the raw, unvarnished plea to God of people in pain that God has not shielded them from, that is a paradoxical kind of faith. It takes God seriously enough to become angry, to speak with blunt honesty rather than pretty pieties when what has happened in one's life doesn't square with our understanding of who God is.

    Michel is a compelling author, one who can relate the depths of theology to teaching her daughter to drive, and her need for grace. She weaves scripture, teaching of the theological "greats," contemporary realities, images, and personal stories into a narrative that sings and helps us examine with fresh eyes what we thought we knew down pat, helping us by asking, "did you notice this and this?"

    A friend once observed that when we try to get rid of the tensions in our faith, or our lives by getting rid of one side of the tension to focus on the other, we make life simpler, but also smaller and more confined. Jen Pollock Michel invites us to live with paradoxes, and to celebrate the ands of God. She proposes that this opens us up to mystery, to surprise, and to the depth of the riches of knowing our God and what it means to live in the and of his purposes, to experience how grace transforms our work, and how our laments in all their perplexity may be among the most robust acts of faith. What might this "third way" mean as Christians are present to a world mired in "either-or?"

    ________________________________

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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