Book Review: ‘Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World’ by Jen Pollock Michel

Review by Kristen Deede Johnson. Kristen Deede Johnson is professor of theology and Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary. She is the co-author, with Bethany Hoang, of The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance (Brazos).

One Sunday not long ago, I was leading children’s worship in our church. During the weekly prayer time, we sat in a circle with the kids taking turns holding a cross that designates their moment to pray, either silently or out loud. I couldn’t help but smile at the “prayer face” some kids made when their turn arrived. Upon receiving the cross, they would scrunch up their closed eyes and assume a very serious demeanor. This was the posture they thought God wanted to see.

Watching them reminded me of Jen Pollock Michel’s words in Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World: “There is a great deal of polite praying in church. I am guilty of it myself. We are pious and solicitous with God. . . . Prayer seems to be a lot of saying what we think God wants to hear.”

As Michel observes, God wants to hear not our polite prayers but our rawest expressions of grief, complaint, and hurt. This is one of the surprising paradoxes her book invites us to explore—that prayers of lament can function as confessions of faith. While they may seem impolite and impious, they still involve faith. “Maybe mustard seed faith, maybe angry faith,” she writes, but a form of faith nonetheless.

These kinds of prayers are deeply biblical. Indeed, Michel points out that Scripture contains more psalms of lament than psalms of thanksgiving and praise. Even Christ himself, nailed to the cross, prays the words of Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As Michel puts it, “God did not simply author the songs of lament: he sang them.”

It is clear that Michel’s words on lament carry a deep familiarity with grief, suffering, and the questions they raise, even as they are equally soaked in Scripture. Again and again, the book points us to God’s words and God’s wisdom, keeping the biblical story prominent while offering glimpses into the author’s own life and faith.

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Source: Christianity Today