Surprised by Paradox: a Review

In Worldviews class, our teacher quoted Robert Capon’s lines: “Man cuts the wine of paradox with the water of consistency,” and deep inside me, the words rang clear and true.  My soul knew that categorical propositions don’t explain all of reality and the human experience, and contrasting wine and water seemed an eloquent metaphor.

I’ve written before about the paradox of being a Third Culture Kid. There are many more paradoxes I live with, such as

  • God’s sovereignty and man’s free will
  • a woman’s veil affirms beauty and highlights humility
  • writing is simultaneously blankety-blank hard and life-giving
  • the human body is both sacred and broken

Enter a beautiful, thoughtful new book: Surprised by Paradox by Jen Pollock Michel. I love that its title joins the lineup of  the other rich surprised books: Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and Wright’s Surprised by Hope. And I love, love the creativity in its cover design! If you could judge a book by its cover, this book would already be a winner. This is my copy as I read it, with a pen to make notes and a pansy on a stem for a book mark.

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Five years ago, I read Jen’s first book, Teach Us to Want, and found her words and way of thinking so compelling, honest, and practical, that I’ve been following her ever since. When I read that she was looking for volunteers to join the launch team for her Paradox book, I applied, and was delighted to be accepted.

I’ve spent much of my life looking for answers to questions, solutions to problems, explanations to mysteries. In the last few years, I’m finding that more than answers, I need Jesus. More than tidy formulas, I need the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through me. Jen says paradox is the tension between certainty and mystery, and in that space, we meet God.

It’s true.

Since I tend to be all-or-nothing, either-or, the concept of paradox in my relationships, daily life, and my perception of God gives me a third way–an option that fits reality and frees me from needing to scrunch unwieldy, vast ideas into tidy, stackable boxes. And the current Postmodern air we breathe is kind to a book like this, when other eras might have labeled it as heresy. These days, most of us aren’t satisfied with Bible-thumping, simplistic explanations that don’t acknowledge the complexity of the issues, and we’re open to mystery, ambiguity, and paradox.

But claiming paradox isn’t a cop-out. It’s not fixing an easy answer onto complex questions, and it doesn’t mean we can’t be sure of anything. In fact, paradox delights in certainty. Jen wrestles well intellectually and theologically, taking in the wisdom of orthodoxy and her current gritty  experiences, and inviting us to recognize the wonder and humility of holding opposing ideas in tension. Her footnotes reflect wide, respected, delicious resources. Jen’s theology is sound and conservative, not pop evangelical, which makes me feel that I can trust her. I even felt that in the sections about Grace and Kingdom, she sounds very Anabaptist.

 

We are not saved by effort, but neither are we saved from it.

We don’t vote the kingdom into office; we live its compelling hope every day.

A kingdom life is always a nonconforming life, and subversion is a form of witness.

The book covers four themes that reflect Jesus’ life:

  • incarnation: His birth
  • kingdom: His public ministry
  • grace: His crucifixion
  • lament: His resurrection and ascent

The section on lament spoke most deeply to me. It’s rare to hear such profound honesty and powerful invitation to weep over what God weeps.

Lament tells us there are complaints worth raising, and God’s suffering assures that someone hears.

From the epilogue:

Let us have certainty when it’s available; let us have humility when it’s not. Let’s remember that paradox, with its attendant wonder, is its own way into the meekness of wisdom James describes in his letter.

Mystery draws us to wonder, which is also to say the limits of our wits. But rather than our finitude bringing us to despair, paradox can cause us to praise.

In the month coming up to the book release date, Jen shared weekly video chats with the launch team. These were lovely points of connection with her as a person and with the content we were reading. But she really had my attention on launch day with these:

paradox

This screen grab shows a pair-a-ducks a friend gave her, used to help TCK’s debrief their experience. The clean duck illustrates their yay feelings, and the bandaged, dirty duck illustrates the yuck feelings. Since I’m a TCK and a pushover for a good pun, this pair-a-ducks fit me perfectly.

We can hold both the yuck and the yay of our experiences, not discounting or denying one at the cost of the other. Embracing all the aspects of life and all the complicated realities of loving God and our neighbors makes us bigger and better people, with wide hearts that are more prepared to worship–which is the ultimate reason He created us for.

I’m so grateful for Jen’s careful, curious, wise work in Surprised by Paradox. Read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and order your copy!

 

 

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