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.
Always in awe of the paradoxical ways of God,
I’ve been following Jen Pollock Michel’s work for quite some time, so I was thrilled to review her 2017 release: Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home. It was so insightful I devoted two posts to my review, the first dealing with thoughts around a “theology of home,” and the second focused more on the steady thrum of activity that holds a home together.
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