Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

FEATURED: THE PROMISE OF PARADOX by Parker Palmer [Vol. 2, #1]

“Living Between the Poles of Paradox”

A Review of
The Promise of Paradox.
Parker Palmer.


By Susan Adams.


The Promise of Paradox:
A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life

Parker J. Palmer.
Hardcover: Jossey-Bass, 2008.
Buy now from:  [ Doulos Christou Books $15]  [ Amazon ]


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 Kingdom of God.  A small group of the congregation (most of whom are not teachers) spent a year reading and discussing Palmer’s work.  If we had that year to do over again, I would make a strong case for beginning with The Promise of Paradox. 


            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.

            At Englewood, we have found paradox to be helpful, yet difficult concept to hold in our minds as we try to see life in God’s image rather than our own.  For example, life is seldom either “this” or “that,” but is usually “both/and.”  Palmer says that a paradox is “a statement that seems to be self-contradictory but on investigation may prove to be essentially true” (6) and then cites Mt. 10:34, where Jesus seems to offer contradiction: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.”  Western logic attempts to divide a paradox, and “assumes that whatever violates the rules of rationality cannot possibly be true… (Whereas) God’s truth is too large for the simplicity of either-or. It can only be apprehended by the complexity of both-and” (7).  Palmer urges us not to “release the tension but to live in the contradictions, fully and painfully aware of the poles between which our lives are stretched” (8).  Using Jonah as his example, Palmer says we will only be delivered if we allow ourselves to be swallowed up by the darkness first. 

            In our life at Englewood, we have wrestled with this tension, straining to imagine how something will be in order to decide whether we should be or do something, only to later realize that the new thing can only come into being once we begin it, even before we can see or describe it.  In discussing the Way of the Cross as a paradox, Palmer reminds us that the paradoxes of Jesus make us most uncomfortable.  It seems we prefer a sweet, innocent Christ Child to the “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” described by Isaiah 53, but Jesus is both.  The cross is both death and resurrection, both for Christ and for us.  Returning to Merton’s work, Palmer insists on this paradox: until the false self dies, our true self cannot come into being.  And even more, we are freed by the illusions which cloud our understanding of God’ grace and love for us.  We are urged to resist seeing the “world as unredeemed (for) we will want to redeem it ourselves…in the light of the cross, we can see the world and ourselves in a new way.  For God is already at work here, suffering brokenness but always offering the gift of reconciliation” (36-37).  Our witness to the watching world has been tragically diluted by our preference for ignoring these tensions and attempting to explain them away instead of truthfully and faithfully living out the paradox of the Way of Christ and its demands upon those who would walk with integrity upon that Way.

            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 Englewood.  The new 2008 introduction by Palmer gets at something we noticed and struggled over in our reading: in his later works (most notably The Courage to Teach and A Hidden Wholeness) Palmer does not reference Jesus, and rarely mentions God specifically.  In this new introduction, Palmer reminds us that much changes for all of us as we grow older, learn new things and find our perspectives changed by our experiences.  I found myself wondering how I would feel if anyone got their hands on some of my earlier thoughts and found myself grateful most of my writing ended up where it rightfully belonged: stashed away in dusty boxes, or better yet, in the trash! 

            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


Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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