Book Reviews

Book Review: “Surprised by Paradox” by Jen Pollock Michel

Paradox has a long history in Christian theology, as much as some have tried to eliminate it. Jen Pollock Michel, in Surprised by Paradox, reclaims some of that theological heritage and encourages Christians to acknowledge that we do sometimes live in a world of “both and” rather than “either/or.”

There are many aspects of Christian theology that incorporate both/and. The Incarnation is perhaps the most obvious, with its acknowledgement of Jesus Christ, the God-Man. I love the language Jen Pollock Michel uses here, with a chapter title like “The Great I AND” to parallel the notion of the great “I AM.” Jesus Christ as both God and human being seems paradoxical, but rather than rejecting this truth, Christian theology embraces it fully. Other aspects highlighted for these both/and statements are the Kingdom of God–with its embrace of all people from every walk of life and corner of the planet; grace, with forgiveness while also embracing the words of God and obedience to God; and lament–the cry for God for justice while God is the suffering God.

Each section of the book is followed by some discussion questions that do truly dig deeply into the theological background of each chapter. The book is written at an introductory level, making it good for a study group or for those interested in seeing how Christianity can get beyond the constant drum of “either/or” in our culture.

As a Lutheran, we have a long tradition of both/and that embraces sometimes difficult doctrines, like how can bread and wine also be the body and blood of Christ? It would have been interesting to see sacraments fully incorporated into the discussion of the book.

The book surprisingly has moments where a rather narrow either/or view is taken even in context of trying to show the possibility of faith and, as the back cover says, the “difficult, wondrous dissonance of and.” For example, chapter 5 starts off with a story in which someone is complaining to the pastor about a prayer used in worship that touched on a Canadian Supreme Court decision regarding physician-assisted death. The older person making the complaint supported the notion of physician-assisted death and felt this prayer divided the congregation on a political issue. This prayer, as described, was “for the Christian doctors in our church and our city who were struggling to reconcile their Christian convictions with their legal obligations” (65). The prayer as described seems innocuous enough–those in favor or opposed to the practice could agree that God’s guidance is needed for such difficult questions. But as the story plays out, it quickly turns towards a strict either/or situation. The pastor thanks the parishioner for their concern, but then immediately turns around and makes a statement comparing those who stay silent on the topic of physician assisted death to those who stayed silent in the fight against the Nazis to protect the Jews (66). Moreover, the pastor says seeing the right side of the issue can sometimes only happen later, and that Christians need to take a stand that may put them on “the ‘wrong’ side of our current cultural moment” (ibid). Reading this story, I thought that Jen Pollock Michel was likely going to use it as a story about how we try to divide the Kingdom of God and make assumptions about those with whom we disagree–after all, jumping immediately to comparing this member of the church to a Christian complicit with the Nazis is a rather startling move. But that’s not the case! Instead, the Pollock Michel uses it as an example of a Christian asking just how much of their life they must cede to God. How much does the Kingdom of God demand for room in the political sphere of the Kingdom of humanity? Going on, she states that this means that following Jesus isn’t just on Sunday mornings (66-67). The clear implication is that this conversation was perfectly reasonable and that the parishioner who spoke up as being on the other side of the issue was justly condemned for being like those who stayed silent in the face of the Nazis, and that if they’d only allow Christ to be King of their hearts, their mind would changed. There’s no acknowledgement here that Christians can still value life and see that, perhaps, the artificial means we have of extending life through painful and sometimes debilitating means may not be in line with a sense of fully valuing life at every stage. There’s no acnkowledgement of the complexity of this issue, just a story of what is apparently seen as a rightful condemnation of a fellow Christian, who apparently should have allowed Jesus to tell them what to do regarding this issue (never mind that perhaps they did do so and think they came up on the other side). None of this is to suggest physician-assisted death is great moral good or even that I as a reader am in favor of it. But to allow this conversation to stand out as an example, not of how we drive wedges between fellow believers in an either/or fashion, but as an example seen as just condemnation of an immoral person not following Jesus, is truly startling in a book dedicated to seeing how we live in a “wondrous” and “difficult” and “dissonant” world.

Overall, Surprised by Paradox is a fascinating introduction to how Christians may see the world beyond the either/or. At times, it serves itself as a startling reminder of how we continue to drive wedges between believers even if we try to embrace these difficult issues. It is a good introduction to a highly complex topic, though readers ought to be aware that they should look on some aspects with a critical eye.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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