In a world filled with ambiguity, many of us long for a belief system that provides straightforward answers to complex questions and clarity in the face of confusion. We want faith to act like an orderly set of truth-claims designed to solve the problems and pain that life throws at us.
With signature candor and depth, Jen Pollock Michel helps readers imagine a Christian faith open to mystery. While there are certainties in Christian faith, at the heart of the Christian story is also paradox. Jesus invites us to abandon the polarities of either and or in order to embrace the difficult, wondrous dissonance of and.
The incarnationthe paradox of God made humanteaches us to look for God in the and of body and spirit, heaven and earth. In the kingdom, God often hides in plain sight and announces his triumph on the back of a donkey. In the paradox of grace, we receive life eternal by actively participating in death. And lament, with its clear-eyed appraisal of suffering alongside its commitment to finding audience with God, is a paradoxical practice of faith. Each of these themes give us certainty about God while also leading us into greater curiosity about his nature and activity in the world.
As Michel writes, "As soon as we think we have God figured out, we will have ceased to worship him as he is." With personal stories and reflection on Scripture, literature, and culture, Michel takes us deeper into mystery and into worship of the One who is Mystery and Love.
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About the Author
Table of ContentsForeword by Russ Ramsey
Introduction: A Little Bit of WonderingPart One: Incarnation
1. The Great I AND
3. One Wild and Precious Life
4. A Word About Glory
Questions for Reflection and DiscussionPart Two: Kingdom
5. Hiding in Plain Sight
6. Blessed Are
7. Birds and Barns
8. The High Treason of Hallelujah
Questions for Reflection and DiscussionPart Three: Grace
9. Free Lunch
10. The Gracious Course of Rightness
11. Birds and Broken Wings
12. The Efforts of Grace
Questions for Reflection and DiscussionPart Four: Lament
13. Fluency in the Loud Groan
14. Complaints Department
15. Unfinished Business
16. A Suffering God
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What People are Saying About This
"What do you call a book that rattles our comfortable certainties while somehow leaving us sturdier and more joyful, a book that dances in the mysteries without going mushy or cynical, a book that stubbornly insists we find God in the kitchen as much as the cloister? I call this book a paradox. I call it a wonder."
"Oversimplifications are dangerous. Especially in theology and public life we need and rely on people who are capable of living into the challenging paradoxes we find in the Gospels. Rich with personal stories and reflections, Michel's explorations of what it means to live by 'both-and' rather than 'either-or' offer a vision of Christian hospitality without laxity and theological integrity without rigidity. This is a timely, practical, and thought-provoking book."
"A book that celebrates the glorious and (not or) of Christian spirituality. Surprised by Paradox has many ands of its own: it is accessible and smart, relatable and challenging, a page-turner, and theologically profound. With clarity and richness, Jen Pollock Michel invites us to sit before the beautiful mystery of God without resisting, diminishing, or seeking to solve or untangle it, which is to say, she invites us into the depths of worship."
"What is the shape of the kingdom of God? And how can we find our fit? Jen Pollock Michel submits that it's only by embracing paradoxa God who is both king and baby, strong and vulnerable, and who says dying is the only way to live. With insightful clarity, Jen highlights our call to a faith that invites us to form a sacred, expectant circle around one tiny wordand. No matter how hard we may try to ease the tension of the kingdom life, this book is a subversive invitation to make peace with the paradoxical way of Jesus."
"This book is wise and compelling. Jen Pollock Michel does what any good Bible scholar worth his or her salt doesexamines the whole of Scripture, not just pet passages or doctrines. In doing so, Michel demonstrates that when it comes to God's kingdom, honesty requires we befriend paradox and the tension in the and instead of taking an immovable either/or stance. Does that mean anything goes, that truth is relative? Quite the contrary. If anything, Michel is thoroughly orthodox. She is one of the foremost public evangelical theologians and Bible teachers of our time. I for one look to her for wisdom."
"In a world of us and them, the logical solution to every question must be this or that. Either you can believe, embrace, hold, and affirm this, or you can believe, embrace, hold, and affirm that. In Surprised by Paradox, Jen Pollock Michel calls us above these limited categories, directing us to the mystery of the both . . . and. But do not confuse this as a call for the mushy middle or even finding common ground. No, paradox does not let us escape so easily and is only satisfied when our eyes look beyond this earth in wonder of the Divine."
"So much of the beauty of Christianity is in its paradoxes, the marvelous mysteries that form the center of our faith: the Word made flesh, God become human, law fulfilled by grace, death conquered by death once and for all. With beauty and elegance, Jen Pollock Michel reveals and revels in the mysteries of a faith that cannot be contained by human categories or understanding but beckons us to embrace its certainties and its wonders alike."
"There is no one else I would rather see write a book on paradox than Jen Pollock Michel. Her writing is full of tension, cadence, wisdom, and beauty. She is a rare gift to the world of Christian publishing and Surprised by Paradox is unsurprisingly worthy of her writing and wisdom. She carefully draws out her readers while drawing them into the greater narrative of Scripture and God himself, showing us faith is in its nature, strange, surprising, and unequivocally beautiful. Each one of Jen's books becomes my favorite of hers and this one surpassed them all."
"Theological understanding should not become a substitute for faith. Studied rightly, theology should lead to awe and wonder. To that end, my friend Jen Pollock Michel has given us a gift. It seems to me that the church has a renewed appetite for wonder, mystery, paradox, and awe, so Surprised by Paradox comes at an important time."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I rarely finish a book, but this read was like going to dinner with a friend and talking about God and life deeply—and then it turns into a four hour dinner and your husband wants to make sure you're still alive. Jen writes with a deep understanding of biblical nuance and truth. She doesn't assume or skim theological tension. She reads, asks, considers, and explores. Then she writes in a poetic and smooth way where I can see, feel, and consume the goodness of God in a world of paradox—and in theology of paradox. I will keep this book on my shelf and refer to it in my own writing and Christian reflection for years to come. READ IT!
Generally speaking, we’re a people that doesn’t like mystery. We want clear-cut answers. Michel’s book, “Surprised by Paradox” reminds me of Aslan’s statement at the end of “The Last Battle,” where he charges the other characters to go “father up and farther in.” As we read Scripture and come to know more about God, we also realize that there’s much that remains mysterious. Still, in an effort to love God with our minds, we’re to continue growing in our knowledge and understanding of him. With that, however, we come face to face with a tension of sorts. There are some things of God we’re just unable to wrap our minds around. Michel uses this book to outline four themes: incarnation, kingdom, grace, and lament. She, poetic in her prose, forced me (multiple times!) to read and reread a sentence or paragraph, and simply meditate on the thoughts (e.g., “Grace is the gravity of our God-breathed world”). I also appreciated Michel’s transparency throughout the text, as she allows us readers into her history and the lessons she learned through her mistakes. God, as Creator, owns all and is over all. On this, Michel writes, “If the kingdom is good news, it surely isn’t safe. Because there is no square inch of our lives that Jesus doesn’t intend to rule.” (This truth, to me, nearly reads as an amalgam of CS Lewis and Abraham Kuyper.) “Surprised by Paradox” is challenging, thought-provoking, convicting, and encouraging – all in one. The Christian God is one who is mysterious, but that mystery should drive us to embrace the limits of our understanding, while praising him for his revelation. This revelation, of course, is chiefly shown in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3). I’m thankful for Michel’s work here and am looking forward to reading more of her work in the future. *Note: I received an advance copy of the text in exchange for my honest review and feedback.
Human beings long for a system of thought that can give clear-cut answers to our painful existential problems. Sometimes, we make our worldviews to be like a tight mathematical syntax which given a particular input, provides a particular output such as 1+1=2. But we know in our human experience that life is much more complex and beautiful than simplistic mathematical equations. And If this is the case with human life, how much more is this true of our faith in the Godhead who not only created us mysterious beings but also this beautiful world which is full of beauty. In Surprised by Paradox, Jen Pollock Michel wants to help us see that our faith has some room for mystery. This might make some Christians uneasy. But its worth mentioning that Michel doesn’t say that we don’t have any certainties in Christian faith but rather that while there are certainties in our faith, at the heart of the Christian story is also paradox. She labours to help the readers understand that Christ Jesus bids us to embrace ‘and’ rather than ‘either and or’ paradigm. For her, the Son of God encourages us to abandon the polarities that we often tightly hold on to. For instance, she underscores that the reality of the incarnation (the beautiful paradox of God and human), body and spirit, heaven and earth, grace and law, life and death, suffering and joy compell us to hold onto tensions rather than easily resolving them by embracing simplistic synthesis. The hope is that by clinging to paradoxes, our worship will deepen and we will come to see God not as an object that needs to be dissected but as the one who is complex, beautiful, and inexpressibly indescribable and worthy of our worship In essence, Michel wants to help us enlarge our categories to include some room for mystery. I thank IVP for providing me with a complementary copy of this book.
The idea of paradox is no small thing to undertake in any limited form, and a study of the paradoxes of the Christian faith could conceivably fill volumes. But in her new book, Surprised by Paradox, author Jen Pollock Michel accomplishes great things. Her careful exploration of Christianity's fundamental incongruities results in a comprehensible framework, and this framework helps us see mysteries that we might otherwise ignore or reject. At the same time, Michel maintains her own sense of wonder and invites us to develop the same. In her capable hands, these paradoxes open us to the potential for a more honest relationship with God--one that recognizes he will not be fully understood and yet can also be --and desires to be-- known.
This was a great book! I recommend it strongly! It's about the paradoxes found in the Bible and in Jesus' life. It gave me a lot to think about and helped me grow closer to Jesus. I can't think of a better recommendation then that! :)
Jen once again produced an excellent text for much reflection in "Surprised by Paradox." I was expecting this book to be a pleasurable read (I wish I could write like her!). What surprised me was just how riveting it was. I couldn't put it down! I'm already looking forward to reading it again in order to ruminate on the subject matter more fully. Jen writes with such depth and passion. She seems to have such ease in weaving beautiful word pictures to help bring to life theological concepts that could be onerous to consider if penned by a less gifted author. In our polarized world of black and white, Jen forces us to step back and ponder the possibility that there is perhaps more nuance and uncertainty than we would like. But that in the midst of our questions, we will discover a deeper, more reverent love for our Triune God, who cannot be fully comprehended nor narrowed down to serve our simple minds. While I could share more quotes than the characters permitted here, this one was gold: "Maybe the mystery of suffering isn’t only that this world could be so fragile; maybe it’s also that God could be so close, bending his ear to the earth to let every grieving heart crawl inside and find rest. Not answers, but comfort. Not certainty, but trust. And perhaps this is enough to tide us over till the dawning of a new world when the heavy boots of death are sent straight to hell and everything fragile is made unbreakable again, where falling becomes rising and faith becomes sight."
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. 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.