Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Dallas Willard (1935-2013)

News was released today that Dallas Willard's body died today. He was an author, teacher, philosopher, speaker, and source of much wisdom for contemporary Christians.

If asked to name the ten books besides the Bible that had the greatest impact on my life, I would not get to my second hand before mentioning Dallas Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines. (Others, in no particular order include George MacDonald's Sir Gibbie and Hope of the Gospel, Martyn Lloyd-Jones's Spiritual Depression, C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, Jacques Ellul's Reason for Being, Tzvetan Todorov's Literature and Its Theorists; Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mystery series, Jim Aparo's Batman run, and Deborah Tannen's Please Understand Me).

As is true of any book that makes it on such a list, Spirit's effect was a combination of content and timing. One of the Zorro films had a line about how when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. That's the glory of books. I read a smattering of Willard while I was in college (mid to late 80s) but it wasn't until I found myself as a postgraduate teaching in a fundamentalist environment that I really begun to gravitate towards Renovare, which at the time was heavily influenced by both Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. The notion that there were alternate approaches to Christianity besides fundamentalism (and/or American political conservatism) was something I intuitively knew but had never had outlined. Willard's assertions--particularly that Americans shied away from the disciplines not out of some righteous, protective zeal for "grace alone" but because they did not believe that transformation was genuinely possible and hence preferred "gospels of sin management" [I know, that's from a different book] to genuine discipleship--struck me as true. More importantly, he was one of the few Christian thinkers or writers who didn't merely critiqued the modern landscape but offered practical, helpful, suggestions for action.

From his books I learned that disciplines were not just for zealots and saints, were not marks of an extreme lifestyle, but were tools for working out your own salvation in fear and trembling. From Willard's instructions I've begun to learn not to despise the little steps as they are the foundation for broader changes. I've learned to be more honest about what I see in my own life and the world around me, less fearful that each failure punctures the illusion of progress and perfection upon which so much fundamentalism rests its claims for superior righteousness (and, hence, truth). I've learned that doing something poorly  is better than doing nothing that can't be done perfectly. I've learned that discipleship means not just being more righteous--though it does mean that--but also more aware of your own brokenness. Most of all, I've learned that nothing fuels hope more than change, however small, and that the source of so much of our despair is not that God has abandoned us but that we find it harder to see him when we won't or can't be present in our relationship with him. I've learned other things from Dallas Willard, though I might not yet be able to articulate them or even know what they are.

In Emergenetics terms he helped my "yellow" conceptualize God and the New Testament in ways that made sense and my "green" understand that there were and are concrete steps that I could take to improve my understanding. I thank God for Dallas Willard and pray that his work would earn him a "well done good and faithful servant" when God fulfills his promise sealed in Jesus for the resurrection of the body.