#271 – Dallas Willard

I consider myself a pretty smart guy. I’m not like Spock smart but I feel like I could go toe-to-toe with Sulu or Chekov. My GPA from college and seminary might not accurately reflect my intelligence but I feel like I can grasp ideas and communicate them clearly.

I think I’m pretty smart until I sit down and read a book by Dallas Willard.

Dallas Willard is a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California as well as a Christian author. Most of his Christian writings focus on spiritual formation and what it really means to be like Jesus. He is intelligent, thoughtful and, through his writings, has pushed me to more passionately pursue Jesus.

He also makes me feel pretty dumb sometimes.

The Divine Conspiracy was the first of Willard’s books that I ever read. It took me four months of regular reading to make it through The Divine Conspiracy. Willard is so intelligent and thoughtful that his writing is extremely heady and somewhat dense. When reading his books, I find that I have to often go over a section numerous times in order to fully grasp his meaning.

That’s not a bad thing, though. We should strive to be challenged because that will spur growth in our lives.

I love reading fiction. It’s so easy, fun and entertaining to blow through a fantasy novel or one of the myriad Star Wars books. Those books, though, aren’t that challenging. Reading A Game of Thrones didn’t push me to be a better person or love Jesus more. I was entertained for a few hundred pages but that was it.

We should strive to read books that challenge us intellectually and spiritually. The beauty of reading a book like The Divine Conspiracy is that it takes effort, it takes intention. Instead of simply consuming words on a page, challenging books force us to interact, meditate and apply their contents.

And even if it makes us feel a little dumb it’s totally worth it.

I once heard a speaker say that with every book we choose to read, we’re also choosing not to read another book. We have a limited number of books we can read in our lifetimes; we should strive to make the most of them.

I’m all for reading books about Jedi, wizards, werewolves and 18th century Europe. However, if we want to see growth in our lives, we should expand our reading lists to include books that will challenge and inspire us.

And even though I don’t feel as smart while reading Dallas Willard, I do feel more encouraged to live the life to which God calls me.

What books have challenged and encouraged you intellectually and spiritually?

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4 Responses to “#271 – Dallas Willard”

  1. I would only add that there exists a solid amount of (mostly non-genre) fiction that is quite challenging, inspiring, which can lead to personal or intellectual growth etc. I know you weren’t saying that there wasn’t any such thing, it just wasn’t explicitly stated, so I’m stating it.

    The most challenging fiction I’ve read is ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace, and the most challenging non-fiction probably ‘Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth’ by David Bentley Hart. Both ended up being among my most fruitful, enjoyable reads ever.

    • It wasn’t explicitly stated but I heartily agree. There are a number of works of fiction which can be both inspiring and challenging. I immediately think of the works of Shakespeare and his aptitude at addressing the human condition. Unfortunately, when I read fiction, it’s usually fun fantasy novels instead of Macbeth or Hamlet.

  2. Hm, that “opportunity costs” of reading is certainly sobering. True, but sobering!

    Let me say a word for some genre fiction I have found worthwhile. “Fahrenheit 451” gets a bad rap, I found when preparing a study guide for it, for being “too black and white,” “too simplistic,” etc, but this is assuredly not the case. Bradbury is a master of imagery that has layers and layers of meaning, and it is definitely more than “a book against burning books.” I first read it in fifth grade and immediately loved it. I couldn’t have said this at the time, but it really prompted me to take stories seriously, and was thus a very indirect but no less real link in the chain that led me to seriously listen to the Christian story. The stories we tell ourselves matter!

    I also think “The Lord of the Rings” is a book that is challenging in all the right ways. It not only also addresses the issues of what stories matter and why, but things like compassion (would you have killed Gollum if you had the chance?), true heroism (do you give up when the odds are stacked against you?). There is much rich stuff for reflection and application here.

    As far as non-fiction, one of the most formative books I read as a young Christian was James Stewart’s “Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ.” Especially his chapter on why the Roman Empire in the first century was indeed “the fullness of time” for the Gospel’s spread, as well as his treatment of the Passion. Again, this is one of those books where I learned to listen seriously to the Christian story.

    • I’ve not read Farenheit 451 but, as I commented above, works of fiction can definitely be inspiring and challenging. LOTR is great for a lot of the reasons you listed. I also find Brave New World and The Stranger to be great works of fiction but also very challenging.

      A lot of the value in fiction comes from story and the conflict of good versus evil. At some point we’ve become experts in those areas and could probably all benefit from a dose of nonfiction.

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