Review: The Grand Paradox

Grand ParadoxSummary: An exploration of the mysteries and apparent contradictions in life that call followers of Christ into the life of faith. A good book for a thoughtful, general audience for whom the “conventional” answers are not working.

Most of us don’t like things that seem contrary to each other. We often try to resolve the messiness of either-or binaries by choosing one and dismissing the other–until that stops working. Ken Wytsma argues that paradox is at the heart of the life of faith in Christ, and is the only way to live with the messiness of life and the mysteries that lurk behind statements like having to lose one’s life to find them, that it is more blessed to give than receive, and that givers prosper while misers perish.

After introducing this idea he begins with our idea of faith and drawing on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling uses the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac to talk about faith as implicit trust and obedience that walks into the unknown. This means walking into the life of unceasing prayer that learns to listen for the voice of God. This in turn leads to the startling paradox that loving God calls us into living justice in the world. Living joyfully is found not in having but “on our heart’s wanting the right things” (p. 62). The remedy for doubt is not answers. He argues that when we doubt and struggle, the answer is both honesty about our doubts and pain, and paradoxically a faith in the goodness of God we cannot see.

We find our way in life not by discovering God’s plan but by pursuing God and pressing into the life of love which is always God’s intention for us. Living well is not a consequence of more information, more experiences and more technology but growing in the Christ-shaped life. As flawed as the church is, it’s messiness is what we need to sort out our lives.

The last chapters focus on our destiny, the eternity that begins now, living with hope in the darkest hours, and the patience that waits for the blessing of God on God’s terms. It is living in the tension of being between the gardens of Eden and the New Jerusalem, which is often a Gethsemane experience.

As you can tell from this summary of the book’s contents, Wytsma gives us less a linear argument for paradox than a series of reflections on the paradoxes that run through the life of a Christ-follower. He draws on philosophers like Pascal and Kiekegaard and theologians like Niebuhr and stories out of his own life and community to provide to explore different facets of this paradoxical life of faith. It’s one of those books to be mused on a chapter at a time rather than read straight through.

This is a readable book with short chapters but not simple answers. He describes a Christian life with lots of loose ends and mess, with doubt and pain and darkness. Yet he also gives an account of the life of faith that has a ring of truth–one that helps the person in the midst of the mess to go on pursuing God. Such writing is all too rare as are such voices in the pulpit. May Wytsma’s tribe increase.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Connecting the Dots

By User:Caesar (Edges traced in Inkscape using a self-taken photo.) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Caesar (Edges traced in Inkscape using a self-taken photo.) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I just created a Twitter account. I’ve already discovered that to an even greater degree than Facebook, one sees snippets of everything from local weather conditions to a celebrity plane crash to updates on China’s economy. One wonders whether it is possible out of all of this to have any coherent sense of the world.

This came up yesterday in a conversation with one of my grad students as we talked about the “faith formation” of people in a Bible discussion he facilitates. Each week they meet to discuss a different passage of scripture and gain a great deal from their interaction with the text as well as each other. They study “inductively” going from specific observations in the text to more general conclusions and applications of these conclusions to their own context. What we both noticed though was how easy it was for each week’s discussion to stand alone like a single “dot” on a paper without forming a bigger picture of, in this case, the Christian faith.

I was reminded then of a colleague who taught me a great deal about leading Bible discussions of a step he often included that he called “formulation.” We found that in studying a book of the Bible (or another piece of literature for that matter) the writers didn’t simply give us a series of disconnected stories but often traced and developed various themes or motifs through their work. For example, in Mark Jesus speaks of himself as “the son of man”, a term that could mean “a human being” or perhaps something more. Formulation might look at what we observe Jesus saying about “the son of man” throughout Mark. My friend is studying the book of Acts with his group and it contains a number of “sermons” by various figures (probably summaries because most could be read aloud in a minute or so and were probably longer). We talked about how one could develop an idea of these earliest believers grasp of the Christian message by looking for both unique and recurring elements in the sermons.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I write book reviews. What I find I am trying to do is boil down works of 100,000 words or more to an 800 word or less summary that “connects the dots” of the main ideas of a work and my reaction to those ideas. I used to be daunted by this task as a grade school-er assigned a book review. I actually think all those Bible study experiences of formulation, of looking for patterns, has helped with that process.

The more challenging task for me, at least, is to do the same thing with life. It’s easy for life to simply feel like a jumble of “experience dots” on a piece of paper. A steady stream of emails, texts, tweets, and posts on news feeds only accentuates this. Periodically I take retreat days. Sometimes I use the practice of examen to review the day. As a Christian I describe my aspiration in life as “following Jesus.” I have to admit that it is not always clear every day where that is taking me. Sometimes these practices of looking back seem crucial to begin to “connect the dots”. I begin to trace some of the patterns of the unique ways Christ is working in my life while other things still seem murky. It doesn’t all make sense, but this reflection gives me enough to see that there is One who is making sense of my life as I go forward.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Steve Jobs said something similar in his Stanford Commencement address in 2005:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.”

As a Christian, I think that “something” is the Jesus I follow and that it is a life lived pursuing him that “connects the dots”into something that is not a chaotic jumble. Those times of looking back teach me to trust him as a good guide as well as deepening my self-understanding. But each day faces me afresh with the choice to venture forth into the unknown trusting that it is one more dot in the picture.

The Month in Reviews: September 2014

The onset of a new academic year seemed to bring a more serious tone to the collection of books I read this month. I looked at the question of what it means to be a saint, a collection of essays around the topic of language and literary criticism, a memoir by a leader of the Tienanmen demonstrations, a factbook about HIV/AIDS, and a challenging book on the nature of Christian love, among others. Not a light reading month! So here’s the recap:


1. Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity, Gordon T. Smith. Smith explores how sainthood is rooted in union with Christ and works out in holiness in every dimension of life.

2. Language and Silence, George Steiner. This collection of essays written in the 1950’s and ’60’s reflect Steiner’s attempt to articulate a philosophy of language in a post-Holocaust world.

3. A Heart for Freedom, Chai Ling. This is Chai Ling’s riveting account of the Tienanmen demonstrations and its aftermath, including her escape, and life in the West. She includes her concerns and advocacy against forced abortions that result from the “one child” policy.


4. Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James D. Bratt. This biography gives us a narrative not only of Kuyper’s life but also an intellectual biography of the thought and writing of this formidable thinker, politician, and church leader.

5. Responding to HIV/AIDS: Tough Questions, Direct Answers, Dale Hanson Bourke. This book is a very helpful introduction to the facts about HIV/AIDS and also the global landscape of the fight against HIV/AIDS. Crisp and concise.

6. State of Wonder. Ann Patchett. This novel is a Conrad-esque type journey up the Amazon where Marina Singh confronts both her past and surprising present realities.


7. The Battle for Leyte Gulf, C. Vann Woodward. Woodward gives us a nearly moment-by-moment account of the last major naval battle of World War II, the near success of the Japanese strategy to divide American naval forces, the inexplicable retreat of Kurita’s force and the heroic defense of the San Bernadino Straits by an inferior force of destroyers and escort carriers.

8. Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in YoungstownRobert Bruno. Bruno explores how “working class identity” is distinctive from a middle class ethos even though incomes may be similar. He does this through interviews with those working in Youngstown’s steel industry from the 1940’s to the 1970’s.

9. Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard. A searching reflection on the biblical passages that help define love in Christian terms.

10. Why Church History Matters, Robert F. Rea. Christians committed to the authority of the Bible are often suspicious of “tradition”. Rea explores how this actually can help us to be more faithful to scripture and to extend our “communion of the saints” beyond our own circle to those of other traditions, cultures, and times.

The links will take you to my reviews if you missed these the first time around. If you don’t want to miss them, I would encourage you to follow the blog, either via WordPress or by email (options for both are available on my homepage).

Next month will have a review mix of both theological and lighter books. I’ve begun reading Edmund Morris’s Teddy Roosevelt series and will also have reviews of a book on earthquake storms and some Jeff Shaara Civil War historical novels. Thanks to all of you who comment on reviews and other posts!


Review: Works of Love

Works of Love
Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Works of Love is a searching exploration of the distinctive and demanding character of Christian love. It is not a “feel good” book but one that might leave you wondering whether you really have loved at all, or loved well.

Kierkegaard begins with the paradox of love’s character as both hidden and yet bearing fruit in works of love. He then explores the great command to love neighbor as oneself. He plumbs the challenges of loving a neighbor in all the ways we love ourselves, and the fact that it is the neighbor we are to love, literally anyone, and not just the friend or the lover.

He then considers how love is the fulfillment of the law, seen most fully in how Christ fulfilled the law. The law is always indeterminate–we can never know if we’ve met all its demands, but if we love as Christ, we can be sure of this. He also introduces here an idea also found in Bonhoeffer that God is the middle term between us and the person we love. We love others in God and to God. And so also, this is how we love with a clear conscience. We first are transparent with God, and so then with the neighbor we love.

Perhaps even more challenging is to love those we see. We are not to look for those who are lovable but to love those in our sight apart from anything “deserving in them”. But it doesn’t stop there. Kierkegaard’s chapter on the debt of love argues that this is a debt that is never discharged toward another person as long as we live. We can never say we have loved “enough”.

He turns to 1 Corinthians 13 and takes this phrase by phrase. He talks about love building up and, in this, love presupposes the love of the other, that is we upbuild others by presupposing the best in them. Love believes all things, that is it believes, and persists in believing the best of others. It isn’t self protective and thus never truly deceived. Similarly, love hopes all things, is always hopeful of the good in another. Love never seeks its own because there is no “mine” in love. Love hides a multiplicity of sins because this is not what it is looking for, and even when this is unavoidable responds in forgiveness. Love abides and never knows the breaking of a relationship because love keeps loving.

His concluding chapters explore the character of mercy, the nature of reconciliation, and something I’ve never seen before, an exploration of love in the remembering of the dead, a love that cannot be reciprocated and is therefore the freest love. His concluding chapter truly sums everything up in the idea of “like unto like”. We love and we believe we are loved, we forgive (or not) as we believe we are forgiven. We either live in a world of judgment where we judge others and live under the fearsome judgment of God, or we believe the God of love and forgiveness in Christ and live in that love and forgiveness toward others. Hence, the works of love really are an expression of faith.

If this summary of the book seems a bit ‘dense’ or even perplexing, this probably reflects the book’s character. Kierkegard leaves no stone unturned in his exploration of love. This is a book to be read slowly and perhaps repeatedly and only if one is willing to wrestle with the uncomfortable challenge of what it truly means to practice Christian love. Perhaps this is implicit in Kierkegaard but all this is fact an impossibility apart from Christ’s indwelling fullness. This isn’t simply a more demanding ethic, but one that leads us first to repentance of how poorly we have loved and casts us back onto the empowering presence of God’s Spirit. In every sense then, this is a hard book, but because of that, all the more worthwhile.

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