The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life
By Parker J. Palmer, with an introduction by Henri Nouwen
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008
Review by Carl McColman
Parker Palmer’s first book almost didn’t happen. As he explains in the new introduction to The Promise of Paradox (first published in 1980 by Ave Maria Press and now reissued in a gorgeous hardcover edition by Jossey-Bass), he didn’t imagine himself as capable of writing an entire book, but when an editor pointed out to him that paradox was a recurring theme in a number of his essays and that they ought to be gathered together and published as a book, not only did Palmer agree, but he realized that he had underestimated himself: as he humorously puts it, “In a moment of satori worthy of a Zen wannabe, I realized that not only could I write a book, I already had! … The Promise of Paradox was an accidental book. But once I held a copy in my hands, I knew I could write more books if I wanted to.” So we all who love Palmer’s gentle and honest wisdom owe that editor at Ave Maria a huge debt of gratitude.
The primary weakness of The Promise of Paradox is, not surprisingly, that it reads like a collection of essays — which it, in fact, is. But this is a weakness I am happy to live with, since there is so much that is strong and good and true about this book. Although paradox is the golden thread that unites all the chapters/essays, each section brings a distinctive perspective on this central theme: from the opening essay which unpacks the concept of paradox through a look at Thomas Merton and his playful concept of being “in the belly of a paradox,” to Palmer’s creative re-imagining of the Stations of the Cross (not unlike the stages of grief), to two luminous essays on the nature and value of community, to meditations on scarcity and abundance and the spirituality of education. And so the book’s weakness is also, paradoxically, its towering strength: each of these essays stands on its own, each filled with wisdom, insight, and gently dry humor. Palmer has a perceptive and discerning mind, and is able to offer keen criticism of the foibles and blind spots of modern life without ever coming across as mean-spirited or angry. There’s not only much wisdom in what he says, but in how he says it.
In his new introduction, the author confesses to being uneasy with how much Christian language informs this 30-year-old book, not because he is no longer a Christian (to the contrary), but because he has become increasingly uncomfortable with how religious language can be divisive and exclusive and how some Christians have hijacked the language of the faith to their own political ends. Perhaps herein lies another paradox. I found myself agreeing with Palmer’s discomfort, and yet also enjoying the explicitly Christian feel of the essays themselves. I was left, by the end of the book, feeling really glad that he made no attempt to revise or rewrite the essays. Yes, it’s a problem that such language has been hijacked by those whose values seem to be at odds with Christ’s. But how wonderful it is to hear Palmer use that very language in such a Christ-like way.