I couldn’t read Tozer because I didn’t find him funny

I couldn’t read Tozer because I didn’t find him funny May 21, 2012

Andi Cumbo lists five reasons that trying to read A.W. Tozer makes her grumpy.

These are five good reasons. And they overlap. The literalism, arrogance and lack of empathy all feed into one another and reinforce one another.

Cumbo writes that she has “tried for years” to read Tozer, and that she remains hopeful that others might explain to her what it is she’s missing — why the appeal of this venerated and widely recommended icon of evangelical spirituality eludes her. “Feel free to explain to me why I might be mistaken about Tozer,” she writes.

I commend her generosity and her humble willingness to admit that she might be mistaken, but I don’t think she is mistaken. I think the five things she identifies as barriers to her appreciation of Tozer are all legitimate reasons not to spend any more years trying to read him.

To Cumbo’s list, I’d add this: Tozer just isn’t very funny. That’s why my own (less patient) attempts to get through his books ended in the early chapters.

Tozer wasn’t trying to be funny, of course, but one can be serious without being humorless. More than that, one cannot be serious without having a sense of humor. If you can’t appreciate whimsy, irony and absurdity, then you cannot see the world clearly and you’re liable to suffer from a blinding self-importance and a lack of perspective, proportion and empathy.

Larry Shallenberger has some wise words on this today at Burnside, in a post titled: “Why Evangelicals Struggle to Bring the Funny“:

One of the reasons evangelicals fail to create humor is that we’ve embraced a hostile and contentious relationship with the surrounding culture. A culture war requires that a group of people define themselves through a conflict with a rival group, one whose very existence is a threat to the first group’s survival. …

Humor requires that you have the ability to admit a weakness and to laugh at it. The joke is funny because it exposes the silliness [that] is bound up in the act of being human.

Self-deprecation might make for good comedy, but it’s suicidal when you are trying to fight a culture war. For starters, its akin to loading your opponent’s gun. If evangelicals were to laugh about our own excesses, our opponents might say, “Aha! We knew this about you all the while.” Comedy is treason in a culture war.

Secondly, comedy prevents a group of people from achieving a sense of contrived innocence. Miroslav Volf wrote, in Exclusion and Embrace, that a group of people need to convince themselves that they have the moral high ground before they feel justified in being the aggressors against another party. If evangelicals found the ability to laugh ourselves, we’d lose the capacity to see ourselves as better than our opponents. We lose the heart to make the vicious attacks we do.

Tozer wasn’t really a culture warrior, but like many evangelical theologians, he seemed just as intent on dividing the world into tribes and factions — separating those with a correct understanding of God and the Bible from those with an incorrect understanding. And, for the reasons Shallenberger describes, that view induces a deadly seriousness.

But again, this humorlessness doesn’t just mean that one cannot tell the joke. It means that one cannot get the joke.

And at some point, those who fail to get the joke eventually become the joke. In the case of culture warriors and of theologians who think like culture warriors, that joke has to do with “achieving a sense of contrived innocence.”

That’s a delicious phrase. It’s funny because it’s true. And we can tell it’s true because it’s funny.

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