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Surprised by Paradox

It may just be me, but of all the new books I have come across or read this year, there don't seem to be many whose purpose is to inspire worship. There are lots (as there always are) on living the Christian life well, or understanding Scripture better, or handling contemporary issues, but few that I would describe as doxological or devotional, or (in language I always like using) as "joy fuel." That may be one reason why I was so blessed and encouraged by Jen Pollock Michel's Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World. This is a book which provokes worship in every chapter, as well as a good deal of thought, practical application and biblical reflection. I highly recommend it.

What I expected, on picking up the book, was a series of meditations on how paradoxes are essential to our understanding of God. I thought most of the book would be about things like the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, sovereignty and responsibility, now and not yet, or the sorts of apologetic dilemmas addressed in Krish Kandiah’s Paradoxology. But much of the book was much more immediate, tangible and earthy than that, and as a result (at least for me), more fresh. Jen takes one important insight—that mystery and paradox have always been at the heart of Christian faith and life, a point that she contrasts beautifully with the perspective of a Jehovah’s Witness she knows—and applies it to areas that I have never really thought about before. Here are five.


“It isn’t the absence of conflict that makes for a happy, stable marriage. Our wedding vows don’t simply bind us to the politeness of yes; they also bind us to the courage of and, which is to say the bravery of moving toward places of paradox. In Christian marriage, we choose to love, serve, and submit to one another, even on the days that wring us out bone-tired. But Christian marriage isn’t built on mute self-sacrifice alone. We must also learn to practise rigorous, risky honesty. We name our desires (however fearfully) and admit our disappointments (however angrily). Yes is the daily work of marital faithfulness; and is our practised resistance to apathy.” (27-28)


“Christian humility is great pride as well as great prostration. On the one hand, we must recognise that we are the ‘chief of creatures,’ crowned with glory and honour, to quote the words of the psalmist. Unlike anything else in all of creation, we alone bear the image of God. In the beginning, ‘Man was a statue of God walking about in the garden.’ And on the other hand, we must acknowledge that we are the ‘chief of sinners’ … Union with Christ requires I and he.”


“It’s the stories of Tozer and Bonhoeffer, John the Baptist and Jesus, that keep me wondering: what is the shape of a kingdom life? Just how worldly—or how ascetic—is it? Paradoxically, I seem to be offered examples of both kinds of lives, which leaves me with more wondering. Am I meant to be Tozer, wearing out the knees of my [trousers] and refusing proceeds from the sale of my books? Or am I meant to be Bonhoeffer, seeing no inherent crisis in privilege and obedience?  … In the kingdom of God, I am paradoxically called to give and to enjoy.”


“There is a fruitful tension between grace and law, law and grace, and paying attention to that tension helps us avoid the either of legalism (which separates God’s law from grace) and the or of antinomianism (which separates God’s grace from obedience). It is a paradox that God’s gratuitous grace should rain on the righteous and the unrighteous—and that obedience should be demanded for no other apparent reason than “it is his word ... We are not saved by effort, but neither are we saved from it.”


“For all its seemingly impolitic, impious qualities, lament is a confession of faith. Maybe mustard seed faith, maybe angry faith, but faith nonetheless. It is not an abandonment or denial of God, but an affirmation of his reality, even his goodness and power. It might shock us to learn that in the book that is purportedly a collection of praises, there are more psalms of lament than psalms of thanksgiving and praise. In other words, most psalms are not tame and tepid; instead, they read like nasty letters to the editor … That is complaint, to be sure—but it is also the persistence of faith that hounds God until he answers.”

As you can see, Jen can write. Her book is real, thoughtful, clear, and peppered with helpful insights from paradoxmongers like Chesterton, Dallas Willard, various missionaries and of course Scripture itself. It’s well worth a look.

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