“Living Between the Poles of Paradox”
A Review of
The Promise of Paradox.
By Susan Adams.
The Promise of Paradox:
A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life.
Parker J. Palmer.
Hardcover: Jossey-Bass, 2008.
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As a teacher, a teacher educator and a scholar whose primary identity is in Christ, I was delighted to learn of the re-release of Palmer’s 1980 book, The Promise of Paradox. Much of my thinking about life, wholeness and teaching and learning has been influenced by Palmer’s writing over the last decade of my life. In To Know as We Are Known (1983) and The Courage to Teach (1998), I found images, language, evidence and a moral imperative that supported my emerging theories about effective and emancipatory teaching. In A Hidden Wholeness (2004), I found the strength to re-envision my life after my marriage crumbled. When our pastor found “A Place Called Community,” we found encouragement to continue our congregational pursuit of a life together more closely resembling what we read in Acts 2 and in Jesus’s description of the
Readers familiar with Palmer’s body of work will not find anything new. In fact, Courage deals more extensively with both paradox and teaching and learning in community than does Promise. Promise was originally published in 1980, re-released in 1993, and has been refreshed a bit for the 2008 version. Promise reads like a collection of essays because that is what it is. Palmer originally wrote Chapter 1, “In the Belly of a Paradox” as a lecture which found its way to Notre Dame where it was published by Ave Maria Press, first in a newsletter and then subsequent articles by Palmer were collected into the first version of Promise. Palmer calls Promise an “accidental book” which gave him the courage to write more, and so he did. Palmer, who had previously collaborated with Henri Nouwen in the seventies, timidly asked Nouwen to write the introduction to his accidental book. Nouwen’s introduction is as compelling today as when he wrote it in 1980:
This book is important not because it is written by a good scholar,
but because it is written by a scholar who dared to wonder if his
scholarship really led him to the truth. It is important not because
it is written by a man who knows more than most people about the
dynamics of community life, but because it is written by a man
who gave up a large salary and moved away from successful career
to find community. It is important not because it is written by a
man who has been a consultant to many on educational matters,
but because it is written by a man who kept wondering if his own
education didn’t do him more harm than good and who gave much
of his energy to a form of education not dominated by grades and
degrees. It is important not because it is written by a man who
knows the Bible well, but because it is written by a man who dared
to let the Bible make radical claims on his own life and the
lives of those he loves. (Introduction, x-xi)
It is this foundation upon which the six essays rest, and the reason why this accidental book is a worthy read for Christians who are ready to think deeply about a theology of work, learning and shared life that goes beyond the rampant individualism of many evangelical churches of our day.
The book is comprised of six essays which can be read together or separately. The first, and in my opinion, the most formative for our thinking, “In the Belly of a Paradox” is a study of Thomas Merton’s work on paradox as an alternative to contradiction. This is followed by five other essays, including such topics as living in intentional Christian community, teaching and learning in community, and scarcity and abundance. Because the idea of paradox has been such a difficult idea for us to grasp, I will focus this review on the first chapter.
In our life at
As mentioned earlier, I truly wish we had been able to read this new edition of Promise as we worked through Palmer’s work at
In spite of his many changes, Palmer still sees himself as a Christian, but is reluctant to cling to language that “has been taken hostage by theological terrorists and tortured beyond recognition” (xxi). In a description that is a thinly-veiled attack upon Christians who take up political leadership and cause great damage in the name of Christ (think George W. Bush here!), Palmer takes a profound risk and allows us to witness his anguished struggle to live and write faithfully in a world that has been hurt by our failure to humbly be the people of God. Most strenuously, he states “…I will continue to have a love-hate relationship with any church that spawns and feed idolaters who compound their sin by condemning to hell anyone who sees things differently” (xxvii). Instead he pleads with Christians, saying “Neither your concept of God nor mine is the same as God. It says so in the Bible, and it is just plain common sense. So we should learn to talk to each other in hopes of understanding God-maybe even each other-a little more deeply” (xxvii). While we sensed much of this in our reading, it would have helped us tremendously in our discussion to see this explicitly in writing.
As always when I read Palmer, I am strengthened in my resolve to live my life between the poles of paradox and to learn to live and work faithfully with others who seek to live in the wholeness of Christ. This book is a great place to begin a new discussion around the important, difficult subjects of our life and I commend it to you in hopes that the life of your community will be enriched by the journey.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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