The Fruitful Tension of Paradox
A review of Jen Pollock Michel’s Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of "And" in an Either-Or World
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.
Finding Health in Paradox
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 Bible. 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. She writes about “faith in its lived-in condition—as it abides complexity rather than resists it.”
The Harmony of "And"
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 one 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 Bible 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.