When news of Dallas Willard’s death lit up my Twitter feed this week, I rolled my chair across the room and looked to the “Ws” on my bookshelf. I discovered three of his books and found out that four others were missing because I had loaned them out. That’s how it should be.
Dallas Willard’s engaging, calm and surprisingly funny voice burst into public notice with publication of The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life with God in 1998 — when he was nearly 63 years old. Of course, Willard had been writing and speaking about the with-God kind of life for decades before. Most of North American Christianity was simply decades late to the party. It pleased the Father to elevate Dallas Willard to national prominence with that book, and since 1998 he humbly accepted the role of mentor and encourager to the church at large.
He was a man fully awake to God’s constant presence. He once said he hoped to be so close to God that he would hardly know he had died until hours after the event.
I count Dallas Willard among my mentors. Like so many other of his students, I never met the man. In the chambers of my thought-life, Willard sits with C.S. Lewis, quietly welcoming honest questions from anyone willing to look the real questions of life directly in the eye. Like Lewis, Willard chose an academic setting in which to serve Jesus. And like Lewis, Dallas Willard did not present himself as the trendy flavor of the month — just try to imagine him in scarves or plaid flannel shirts or skinny jeans, his hair filled with product. And yet Willard’s old-school manner resonated with Millennials and Baby Boomers alike. His was the authority of authenticity.
When I encounter a heart hungry to know God, I immediately recommend Willard’s book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversation Relationship with God, where Willard explains the issue isn’t really about hearing God; it’s about becoming God’s friend. After all, we listen to our friends. There’s no shortage of hunger for God in our age, but there is a shortage of people who have been shown how to seek him. As a sometime adjunct at a small Christian university, I’ve taught Willard’s book, Renovation of the Heart, to college kids — Christians — who never imagined the mind-bending possibilities of life with God. At the end of the course one semester, a college junior commented, “This is the first time I’ve ever read a whole book.” That sums up Christianity in North America: a mile wide, an inch deep. Dallas Willard was part of God’s deepening project.
It’s one of the ways I determine whether a “Christian bookstore” is serious about its mission: I go to the “Ws” and look for books by Dallas Willard. I’m headed to one today to replace my missing copies of his other works, because whoever borrowed those books should just pass them along to someone else and introduce another person to one of the great teachers of our age, Dallas Willard.