The Holy Fool has been a common trope in Christian literature for some time. You can reasonably trace it back to St Paul who, writing in 1 Corinthians, spoke of how the wisdom of God looks to the world like foolishness. You could even push the theme back further into the Old Testament when David feigned madness while in the courts of the Philistines.
The Holy Fool reminds us that things often are not what they appear to be, to doubt our first judgments, and also to question that which is held to be common sense wisdom by many. The greatest opponent the Philistines would ever know appeared to them to be insane with an ungroomed beard, foaming at the mouth, spittle hanging from his whiskers. The God who called the world into being and breathed life into man appeared in the world incarnate as a baby, lived a largely anonymous life in modern-day Israel, and died as a common criminal. He rose from the dead and then, rather than marching off to Rome and overthrowing the powers and principalities he appeared to a relatively small number of people before departing from the world, only to return at the end of all things—which, fittingly, only appears as an “end” to us.
As I finished reading Jen Pollock Michel’s Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World I thought of the Holy Fool. One of the things Michel does well in the book is insist on the holding together of things which are both set out in Scripture, even if they might appear to be in tension to us.
Obviously in this sense the book is an echo of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and really of Chesterton’s broader corpus; the great British journalist delighted in using paradox as a rhetorical tool, sometimes to such a degree that he veered into sophistry. Michel, thankfully, avoids such errors in her writing about tension, mystery, and paradox in Christian faith.
Indeed, that is one of the book’s greatest triumphs. A book with such a title, and particularly such a sub-title, could easily lapse into a mysticism that is alarmingly indifferent to the task of theology. If it did this it would, of course, find a welcome audience today. One can invoke “paradox” in many contexts, after all, and one way of doing it is simply an attempt to dress up and justify one’s own lack of thought on a subject.
References to paradox often, regrettably, are ways in which one frees oneself from the call to actually think and is even made to appear as some sort of superior Christian because they have transcended the need to confine the faith within the domains of rationality—the tiresome ‘placing God in a box’ trope is representative of this, of course. This book is a refreshing departure from the more common and tired ways in which evangelicals use the ideas of paradox.
The better, more responsible way in which we can use paradox is as a means of drawing our audience’s attention to something that they not only have not considered, but that is actually outside the scope of ideas they have considered up to that point. It’s a move to expand a person’s theological Overton Window, in other words.
Used correctly, paradox is not a ‘get-out-of-doing-theology-free’ card, but rather a helpful corrective for how theology is often done in the day-to-day lives of many Christians, which is in a fairly narrow way that doesn’t disrupt our day-to-day lives too radically. Rather than fitting theology into preconceived notions we might have about the good life, an insistence on paradox can call into question the very categories in which we often think about theology, thereby pushing us to set aside assumed either-ors that we take into our reflection on the faith and, instead, take God’s revelation as our foundation and build out our assumptions about reality on that basis, allowing Scripture to be, as the Reformed have often said, “the norming norm,” the foundation that defines the terms by which the rest of our knowledge is contextualized.
Michel in particular is concerned with four doctrinal loci in which the theme of paradox is particularly essential—incarnation, kingdom, grace, and lament. The arguments themselves will likely be familiar to students of theology. However, that isn’t really the main source of interest here. It is the organization of the loci around the idea of paradox that is so helpful. By framing matters in these ways, Michel implicitly insists on letting God speak for himself without us attempting to force synthetic reconciliations onto his revelation which have the effect of domesticating the text, making it safe for comfortable American life.
The book’s second part, concerning the kingdom, is a particularly strong section in which Michel takes up the question of the seemingly confused nature of God’s kingdom. To take one example, she cites the well-known evangelical author A. W. Tozer who called his readers to an other-worldly faith. You could, with reason I think, regard Tozer as the patron saint of “on fire for God” evangelicals. And, of course, this single-minded pursuit of God is an obvious calling to Christians. But the shape of that calling cannot simply be reduced to Tozerian asceticism. Tozer himself refused to accept any profits from his books and gave away half his income—two choices which had the effect of leaving virtually nothing for his wife and children who toiled away in a poverty they did not choose and which was the seeming price of their father and husband’s ‘faithfulness.’ Such asceticism can actually be deeply damaging. Michel shares a devastatingly sad anecdote about how, following Tozer’s death, his widow remarried and said, “I have never been happier in my life. Aiden loved Jesus Christ, but (her second husband) loves me.”
If a besetting sin of evangelical popular thought and culture has been a tendency toward reductionism, which is the amplifying of some Christian ideas alongside the suppressing of others, then Michel’s book is perhaps the perfect antidote. By refusing to pick a side in a wholly fictitious conflict that actually betrays the complicated, multi-faceted biblical witness, Michel not only avoids the common pitfalls one might associate with ‘paradox’ but actually runs in the opposite direction, taking theology and revelation far more seriously than many evangelicals.
Indeed, if anything by the time I was done reading the book I couldn’t help wondering if foregrounding ‘paradox’ actually undersold the book. One can obviously understand why it was framed in this way, but to my mind Michel’s book is ultimately a creative and faithful reflection on four central dogmatic topics. Thus while Surprised by Paradox is a perfectly appropriate title, I couldn’t help wondering if something closer to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy might not have worked just as well. For ultimately what makes Michel’s work so helpful is its rigorous thoughtfulness and its insistence that we account for God’s entire witness to us and not merely the parts we find easy to understand or that immediately appeal to us. Yes, this means accepting certain ideas that might appear paradoxical. But more essentially it means simply accepting God as he is.
(Disclosure: I got a review copy from IVP and am an IVP author myself. But this is a book I would warmly recommend even if neither of those things were true.)