THE SEDUCTION OF EXTREMES: Swallowing Camels and Straining Gnats, by Peter Kurowski
Having defined paradox as “the wedding of two seemingly contradictory truths that form a deeper truth” (17), Dr. Kurowski states the thesis of his book thus: “The heart of Christianity is its paradoxical gospel” (124), “the gospel itself being the chief paradox” (54). Paradox characterizes the person of Christ: He is simultaneously one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man. Paradox characterizes the saving work of Christ on the cross; there the perfectly sinless One is made sin for us. Paradox characterizes the way the Good News of this Person and what He did for us works on people; its weakness is God’s strength and its foolishness is God’s wisdom.
What is true of the heart of Christianity, its paradoxical Gospel, is true of the whole of Christianity. Paradox is a motif permeating doctrines deriving from the Gospel. Pastor Kurowski demonstrates this motif in detail from both the Old and New Testaments and devotes seven chapters to examining paradoxes of the end times (the present millennium, the binding of Satan, the Antichrist, Israel, life after death, hell, and Judgment Day). So thorough and so insightful is the author’s demonstration of biblical paradox that an alternate title for his book might well have been The Attraction of Paradox. Certainly, the book can be a powerful aid to pastors in their pulpit proclamation of the Christian Gospel and of Christian doctrine. It can add sparkle and depth to their preaching.
But the homiletical help it provides is an incidental virtue of The Seduction of Extremes. The primary thrust of the book is to lead us to an appropriate response to biblical paradox, both as members of the Christian church and as citizens of our country. Quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurowski points out that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” (41) Or in the author’s own words: “A reasonable person can see two sides of a given matter. Paradox is ever weighing up the sides and two faces of truth without being two-faced” (166). Failure to respond thus to paradox may occasion false doctrine (“that which is orthodox is paradox” 1171) and–what is the author’s primary area of concern–may occasion divisiveness within both church and nation. One group seizes only one aspect of a given paradox (resulting in what Pastor Kurowski calls Lady Lawlessness or camel-swallowing); another group pounces upon the other aspect of the same paradox (resulting in what Pastor Kurowski labels Lady Legalism or gnat-straining). The human fondness for such one-sided response is captured by the title, “The Seduction of Extremes.” The cause of this predilection for extremes is our inability to live with the opposing tensions of paradox, an incapacity that Kurowski cleverly diagnoses as “Tension Deficit Disorder” (TDD). This, the author insists, is “a major malady of our age” (22). “We get into trouble when we suffer Tension Deficit Disorder. Tension Deficit Disorder occurs when we let go of one truth and hold on to the opposite truth as it goes spinning out of control from centrifugal force. . . .When that happens we end up in an orbit that moves away from the Son, who is the center of the universe” (22).
That Pastor Kurowski’s diagnosis is relevant hardly needs documentation. Whether the issue is the tension between red states and blue states in our nation or between liberals and conservatives within the Christian church, divisiveness is a painful reality of our everyday lives. What we are experiencing is not merely polite difference of opinion. Rather it is unreasoning, insulting, screaming divisiveness: in politics, in the media,in congregations, and even in our family circles. Given this context, the publication of The Seduction of Extremes couldn’t have been more timely!
Even more relevant than his thorough and perceptive diagnosis of extremism is the cure the author proposes. Paradoxically, that cure lies in the very paradoxes of the Gospel to which we humans too often fail to respond appropriately. “It is the tension points of paradox that help us cope with the tension points of life” (53). “In essence, the Bible teaches human beings all about balance, all about living with tension, and all about avoiding extremes” (16). Pastor Kurowski’s passionate and eloquent application of the paradoxical Gospel to the malady of extremism is, to me, the chief virtue of his book.
There are, of course, many other virtues in the book that I must fight off the temptation to describe within the space restrictions of a published review. Permit me to yield to just one of these temptations. I have devoted much of my homiletical teaching career to the inclusion of an oft-neglected aspect in our preaching of the crucifixion of Christ in our place, namely, the simultaneous damnation in our place that Christ also experienced on the cross as He cried out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Seldom have I encountered a more explicit statement of that aspect of the Gospel than Pastor Kurowski’s: “In all other religions of the world, their gods really do not give a damn about the plight, peril,and problems of mankind. However,in Christianity we see that God does give a damn because he, himself, is willing to be damned for mankind’s sin” (73).
The author’s unique style cannot escape notice. It is soon obvious to any reader of The Seduction of Extremes that the writer is fond of word play. He alliterates with abandon. Winning the prize from examples whose number is legion is a passage containing eight repetitions of the “p” sound: “The kingdom of God is paradoxical in its presence, the person who embodies it, its purpose, its pedagogy, its people, its parousia today and its parousia tomorrow” (67). Sometimes his alliterations occur in balanced pairs: “the bed of legalism as well as. . .the brothel of lawlessness” (77). The author is enamored of rhyming prose: “extreme pleasure the measure to obtain their treasure” (13); “reckless language that goes for tissue rather than issue” (14); “if you pick and choose, you are sure to lose” (37); “best to adore rather than to over-explore” (77); “salvation by race instead of salvation by grace” (105); “to know the score one must know the core” (127). Another stylistic trait, perhaps less self-conscious and contrived, and symptomatic of the author’s charitableness, is his habit of preceding a verb describing a person’s action with a complimentary adverb: “St. Augustine adroitly summarized” (65); “Keenly, [Robertson] observed” (75); “St. Paul beautifully weaves” (76); “Morrison poetically sums up” (155); “Pastor John Hobratschk lovingly encouraged” (160) (my emphasis in all citations).
The Seduction of Extremes is a high spot in Pastor Kurowski’s remarkable career. My contacts with him throughout many years have been consistently edifying for me: as his resident counselor at the former Senior College; in the classroom both there and at Concordia Seminary, on the handball court, and in numerous social contexts. The one trait that has stood out in all these associations has been the man’s integrity. And that same integrity characterizes his recent publication. In it we see a conscientious student of the Scriptures striving by God’s power to read those Scriptures aright, and passionately urging readers of his book to share the salvation and the vision that God alone can provide through His paradoxical Gospel.
Francis C. Rossow