Review Ė A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer
No other Christian author has made me think and weep like Tozer has, and I believe I would not be writing this blog if not for him. In fact, I may not have been very much of a Christian presence anywhere if it were not for Tozer.
Most peers would cite C. S. Lewis as their favorite author, but while Lewis is most definitely a profound idea man, he has always paled against Tozer when it comes to describing and helping others discover the mystery of union with Christ. Tozer is as close as Evangelicals get to a genuine mystic, and that is a shame because, in its essence, knowing Christ is the very heart of the divinely mystical. Too few Christians today share that sort of grasping of the person of Christ that Tozer shows his readers, and I must believe that we would be far poorer in this understanding if not for Tozer.
As much as I love Tozer the author, I knew little of the man himself. What a blessing that one of my favorite professors when I was student at Wheaton College, Dr. Lyle Dorsett of Beeson Divinity School (who also happens to be a renowned expert on C. S. Lewis), has written a biography of the patron saint of Cerulean Sanctum. Until this biography, I was not even aware that two previous works on Tozerís life existed or else I would have devoured them eagerly. Despite knowing nothing of these previous bios, it was my great fortune to write Lyle a few years ago and hear from him that he was in the process of writing A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer. When the book made it to pre-order on Amazon, I put in my order right away.
A Passion for God is a difficult book, not something I expected on opening it. The primary difficulty comes from the fact that it contains a mere 150 pages of genuine biographical material, leaving a tad unquenched readersí thirst to know more about the man who has been routinely labeled a genuine 20th century prophet. This is not to say that the scholarship here is inadequate, far from it, only that the private Tozer remains almost inhumanly private.
Dorsett chooses to open his examination of Tozer with the quote, ďIíve had a lonely life.Ē Indeed, as enormous a spiritual giant Tozer most definitely was, he proved a tough man to know. Even his family felt the distance, especially his wife Ada. Dorsett portrays a man who at once was close to Jesus and yet remote from the others who loved him. Once Tozer left the home of his youth, he eschewed visits, even going so far as to resist visiting his wifeís family, even though his mother-in-law was instrumental in introducing Tozer to the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Tozer himself had been converted in 1915 shortly before his 18th birthday, praying to receive the Lord in the attic of his familyís Akron home. Having been born into a poor dirt farming household that later moved to the Rubber City, Tozer never forgot his humble roots. He took his disdain for wealth into his marriage to Ada in 1918; after his death it was revealed that heíd been giving half his paycheck back to the churches he had pastored, had refused a pension in the Christian & Missionary Alliance denomination in which he served for decades, and had taken no royalties on the paperback editions of his bestselling books.
Tozer pastored briefly in several poor churches in West Virginia and Ohio before ultimately receiving a call to Southside Alliance Church in Chicago where he stayed for most of his life. He didnít like to drive, so his family stayed close to the church for years, even after the humble wooden church was replaced with a far grander building.
Dorsett ably recalls Tozerís rise within the C&MA as the leaders of that group rapidly understood they had a winner on their hands. Or more like a blaze. For it seemed that wherever Tozer went, people caught fire. He went on to be a radio preacher on WMBI, the voice of Moody Bible Institute, and eventually garnered a nationwide audience.
In 1960, Tozer accepted a call to do nothing but preach at Avenue Road Church in Toronto, serving for three years before succumbing to a heart attack 45 years ago on May 12, 1963.
A Passion for God reveals much more of Tozerís life than I just summarized. A few worthy notes:
While A Passion for God is a deeply needed book on Tozer, I finished it only
to have this wave of discontent wash over me. When the forwards, appendices, and
index are removed, this book is a scant 150 pages. Because Dorsett revisits some
issues repeatedly (Ada Tozerís longing for a more intimate relationship with a
man much more devoted to God than to his wife, for instance), each revisit adds
little to what was already said, diluting the fullness of the material even
Sadly, the one truth I hoped would be revealed in this biography never seemed to gel for me: What made Tozerís spiritual journey so profoundly different from all the other evangelical preachers of his time? Nor did I get a good feel for the one defining aspect of Tozerís life that set him well apart from his contemporaries: his love for the mystic writers of Christianity. How and why did he latch onto them when they were largely ignored by others?
Dorsett also mentions that in later years Tozer received some critiques for being overly ecumenical, though he devotes only a page or so to this unusual fact about Tozer. This is definitely an underdeveloped thought considering Tozer railed against the increasing worldliness and liberalism he saw steeling away the heart and soul of Evangelicalism. In what may have been an overdevelopment, Dorsett devotes several pages to racial issues in Chicago toward the latter part of Tozerís ministry there. In truth, Tozer did not have much to say on the issue other than he didnít want to ignore reaching out to the black community of the time, nor did he like some of the contention, both from whites in his church and blacks in the surrounding neighborhood, that was forcing his congregation to relocate.
Leonard Ravenhill discussed his friendship with Tozer in a few teaching tapes Iíve heard of his, so I was surprised that nothing came of this in the book, especially since I know that Dorsett likes Ravenhill, too. Dorsett also noted that Tozer spoke at several Keswick conferences, though this is not developed at all. I would have liked to have known more about Tozerís affiliations with some of the trends and schools of thought of the time.
Dorsettís writing style is light and easy to read, though a tendency to move forward and backward in time makes the sections on Tozerís childhood and early ministry more difficult to follow than they should be. And while I love Lyleís passion for certain topics within Christianity, he makes his presence as author a bit too obvious on issues near and dear to his heart, something I loved about him when I had him as a professor but others may find intrusive.