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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  • I happened to notice this picture on Facebook. I was reminded of it because of the discussion of Tozer, and his combativeness against science generally.

    It is supremely ironic that the doctrine of “let the Devil take the hindmost” is adopted by those who oppose the one aspect of Darwinism that actually makes sense.

  • Jessica_R

    It’s also why Fox News’ attempts to create their own Daily Show have failed miserably, they can’t and won’t laugh at themselves, and they’re commited to being on the side of the bully. An underdog throwing a pie at a bully is hilarious, but Fox News entire idenity is built upon screaming that it’s an outrage, while at the same time bullying others.  

  • Tricksterson

    Ironic that someone so humorless should bear so strong a resemblance to Stan Lee.

  • MaryKaye

    In Isaac Bonewitz’s document on how to assess whether a cult is dangerous, one of the eleven points is whether humor at the expense of the leadership is tolerated.  I think it is actually one of the most powerful points on the list:  an organization which cannot laugh at itself is on the fast track to becoming a force for evil, no matter its original intentions.

     I have also found that a quick and dirty guide to whether a martial arts school is a good, safe, fun place to train is the direction of teasing.  If there is no teasing at all it may be okay, though I worry that it takes itself too seriously.  If the students are allowed to tease the instructors, and juniors are allowed to tease seniors, it is very likely okay.  If all the teasing goes down the power structure–if instructors can mock students but the students must never reciprocate–I do not feel safe there.  This pattern correlates all too well with instructors being able to abuse or exploit students.

    (My academic department organized inflatable-suit sumo wrestling for the faculty one year.  That does bring you down to earth–it’s about as silly as any activity on earth.  I won my match, too!)

  • There is one kind of “humour” fundagelicals seem to like:  insulting the Other.  They don’t comprehend the difference between mocking the absurdity or hypocrisy of someone’s position and just making a personal attack.  For example, they equate “These people support same-sex marriage, so they must be okay with man-goat marriage too!” with “Wow, in these people’s world, goats can enter into legal contracts!”

    I once ran across a “Christian humour” book caricaturing different types of people as animals.  The feminist-caricature was a sexy black widow spider.  Which is only funny if you equate striving for equal treatment with killing and eating your mate.

    It’s not humour as exposing absurdity or deflating self-importance; it’s just laughter as a baring of the teeth.

  • The only one I know of who was  funny was Mike Warnke.  And it turned out he was a fraud.  The kind of thing that makes you go, “Hmmmmm.”

  • It’s humor in exactly the same way it’s humor when a bully punches out someone’s teeth. The bully sure does think it’s funny.

  • I think it was either here or on the other site, where Fred Clark had a comparison between a jester and the court prophet. The jester’s humor is based on “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”; he pokes fun at the king and his nobility. The court prophet, on the other hand, is a sycophant; he “afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable”. He tells you exactly what you want to hear, when you want to hear it.  It’s not exactly scintillating stuff, and you have to be pretty pompous to want to listen to that all the time.

  • Not having read Tozer but having read lots of Lee, I would opine that Stan is the superior theologian as well.

  • ” It’s humor in exactly the same way it’s humor when a bully punches out someone’s teeth. The bully sure does think it’s funny.”

    YES.  This.  Listening to “RadioLab” taught me that humans laugh most often to establish safety and social status.  When you laugh at the clown’s pratfall, you’re laughing because the clown isn’t hurt.  When the bully laughs at the little kid, he’s laughing because the BULLY didn’t get hurt. 

  • arcseconds

    Sudden glory is the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves. And it is incident most to them that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favour by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much laughter at the defects of others is a sign of pusillanimity. For of great minds one of the proper works is to help and free others from scorn, and compare themselves only with the most able.

    — Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

  • Larry_Shallenberger

    Great quote! 

  • Larry_Shallenberger

    Fred, thanks for interacting with my essay. Love your thoughts.