With the passing of Dallas Willard any who read his books or heard him speak will share recollections of his profound impact on their thinking. For those of us who knew him personally, we will reflect on those memories of personal encounters with him. For me one such time was life changing.
For fifteen years as a talk show host I enjoyed the benefit of reading a book I liked and then asking my producer to arrange an interview. I met Dallas in 1998 to discuss his book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God.
Aristotle said to persuade you need pathos (passion), logos (clear rational thinking expressed well) and ethos (a life to back it up). By any measurement, Dallas Willard was persuasive.
He was a keen intellect, a first rate mind, a philosopher of the highest order who taught at University of Southern California for fifty years.
His head meant he became on expert on the esoteric German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, but his heart drew him to the central questions philosophers have wrestled with from the beginning. As John Ortberg observes, “He said the four great questions humans must answer are: What is reality? What is the good life? Who is a good person? And How do you become a good person? His concern was to answer those questions, and live the answers, and he was simply convinced that no one has ever answered them as well as Jesus.” As an undergraduate philosophy major myself, he was singing the song I needed to hear sung well.
But in my life Dallas also played a pivotal pastoral role.
In 1999 I was considering leaving my nationally syndicated talk show. I had an idea for a new show that had a number of working titles. The first demo was called Next, a simple reference to a new venture for me. Then came Reflectory, what at the time seemed a clever twist on the refectory. Then came a version called Belief, understanding your life through today’s movies, books and music. Finally a version of the show emerged as The Kindlings Muse @ Hales Ales Brewery and Pub, a live event taped for podcast that is still being produced today.
All these show concepts entered on creating substantive dialogue at the intersection of faith and popular culture, and they were aimed at the younger generation. This kind of integration of faith and culture had been going on in my head since the 1960’s when I began to sense my calling was to understand faith and culture and interpret each to the other.
In 1999 I had produced the NEXT demo with my good friend Marty O’Donnell, who went on the become composer and sound designer at Bungee, creators of HALO. I took it to a national gathering of Christian talk show hosts, figuring I would take a few of them aside and see what they thought about it. Dallas happened to be speaking at that event and he got wind that I was up to something new, different and even daring. He asked if he could listen to it.
He came to my hotel room and Craig Roberts, a talk show host in San Francisco joined us. Dallas plopped down on the bed with his hands behind his head and closed his eyes as we played the 17-minute demo.
When the demo was finished Dallas stayed still. I looked over at Craig and I could see he was restraining laughter. Had my scintillating demo put the great Dallas Willard to sleep?
Finally Dallas rose up and looked me in the eye. He said, “Dick, what I am about to say, I do not say lightly.” He then paused and continued, “If you are capable of producing this quality of material on a regular basis and don’t, God will judge you.”
The next Monday I got fired when my network learned I was creating a demo that did not include a future with them! In a sense I was forced to launch The Kindlings whose aim is to rekindle the spiritual, intellectual; and creative legacy of Christians in culture.” I was emboldened to take this leap of faith in part because of Dallas Willard, a man after God’s own heart with a giant brain, a warm heart, active mind and hungry soul who found what he was seeking in Jesus Christ and was eager to help others do the same.