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A Feature Review of
The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus
Hardback: HarperOne, 2015
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Reviewed by Elane O’Rourke
As Dallas Willard’s daughter, Rebecca Willard Heatley, write in the Preface to The Allure of Gentleness, “Gentle was a word frequently used to describe my father.” That gentleness permeates Dallas Willard’s latest posthumously published book. Allure is based on the transcription of a set of 1990 talks on apologetics in which Willard displayed his characteristic ease and thoughtfulness. Those who miss Willard’s presence and teaching will likely take pleasure in Allure’s prose: reading it is a nearly aural experience.
Though Willard lived in a period when Western Christianity focused on the numbers of converts and cash in churches on Sundays, Willard’s passion was for developing Christlike Christians. He believed that the greatest testimony to the life of Christ is Christ displayed in the lives of his followers. As he notes in the present book, “the great problem facing the gospel of Jesus Christ is not the doubt that is outside the church; it is the doubt that is inside the church” (25). Each of Willard’s prior books speaks to an aspect of that doubt: Divine Conspiracy to the nature of reality; Hearing God to experiential knowledge; Renovation of the Heart to the anthropology and spiritual development of disciples; Knowing Christ Today to the epistemology of faith; The Great Omission to the shallowness of the modern gospel; and Spirit of the Disciplines to the practical means of discipleship. Willard’s faithful readers will hear echoes of each of earlier writings in The Allure of Gentleness as Willard addresses these concerns in turn.
According to Willard, as the arguments justifying belief in Christian doctrine (apologetics) have grown thoughtless, they have lost their effectiveness. Christians’ arguments for their faith are no longer based on knowledge or experience of God, nor do they reflect the character of the Lord Christians profess to obey. It is the latter which is the substance and style of the book. As British evangelist Rodney “Gipsy” Smith reputedly said, “There are five Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Christian, and some people will never read the first four.” For Willard, it is the gentle character of Christ, as it permeates the arguments and lives of those who follow him, that provide a doubter a real reason to believe. The way Christians live is either the ultimate apologetic or the decisive repudiation.
Allure addresses the weaknesses of modern apologetics with three primary arguments. Willard’s Christian writings tended to be integrative, describing ways of thinking rather than prescribing statements of doctrine, so the three primary arguments are woven through Allure’s chapters, not discretely presented as they might be in a systematic theology. The first argument is the one articulated above–that “the foundation for apologetics is living the new life from above” (22). The second is that apologetics is essentially collaborative, two or more people seeking truth together, whatever truth turns out to be. The third primary argument is that Christians in fact have a body of knowledge on which to found their faith and profession. Knowledge–not merely faith or superstition–is fundamental to Christian discipleship.
The first section of Allure, roughly chapters one through three, addresses Willard’s understanding of apologetics. Here Willard distinguishes between the work of evangelism and its attendant requirement of proving God’s existence, and the work of apologetics. For Willard, apologetics intends to address the doubts and concerns of weaker believers. It is a ministry of encouragement, rather than of conversion. “Apologetics is not a contest of any kind, with winners and losers. It is a loving service. It is the finding of answers to strengthen faith” (17).
This “loving service” is not an emotional support, but an intellectual appeal to reason designed to correct wrong ideas about God. “People are fully at the mercy of their ideas” (18), and these ideas form the lens through which we view fact, experience, indeed the whole of reality. False ideas cause us to view reality falsely, to our detriment, for reality is what you run into when you’re wrong (3). There is a truth that corresponds to reality, regardless of whether one’s ideas correctly reflect that reality. None of us has a grasp on all of truth, but Christians must be humbly aiming toward finding it. Thus both our ability to reason and our desire to work collaboratively are necessary for both knowledge and living. Willard’s insistence on collaboration is what prevents apologetics from being a contest: intellectually beating another into submission is useless if the ideas one holds turn out to be false. Doing so is also contrary to the gentle persuasion of a Christlike character.
It is also in these first chapters that Willard distinguishes between knowledge of Christian doctrine and knowledge of Christ himself. According to Willard, what makes Christianity unique is that it is about a personal relationship with a personal God, rather than a shared ethnic history or acceptance of doctrine. The challenge of discipleship to Jesus, and the apologetics that must accompany it, is that one can know all about Christian doctrine, even memorize the Christian scriptures, without having lived experience of the relationship on which Christianity is founded. That lived experience is a source of knowledge, as well as the vital witness needed to encourage others. This is the heart of Willard’s apologetic:
We cannot engage in a ministry of apologetics without becoming the kind of people about whom others wonder, “Why are you hopeful? What’s going on in you? Because something is obviously different!”(29)
In other words, it is no good talking about why Jesus matters unless one has become like Jesus. Unless Christians’ lives and characters have been changed through their relationship with their Lord, they may be nothing more than indoctrinated secularists.
In the next section Willard presents ways to address some standard concerns of doubting Christians. These include the historicity and veracity of the Bible, the problem of evil, the nature and purpose of free will, and the validity of theories of creation and evolution. His commentary on the problem of evil and the purpose of free will is especially helpful. While it depends on classical teleological arguments, Willard’s depiction of the kind of God who would want relationship with humankind lends it an appealing winsomeness: the reader can imagine Willard’s God welcoming human companionship. The ability to describe God and God’s purposes in a loving, magnetic manner has always been one of Willard’s greatest strengths; it is used to great effect here as well.
What God is going to bring out of human history in his people is going to be the greatest reflection of God’s own glory, wisdom, and love. That is what human history is about. It is to make a society of the redeemed that will be the crown jewel of creation…which consists of Christlike people living together with the kind of love that the members of the Trinity have for one another and enjoying that full, shared, self-subsistent being that characterizes God himself as God dwells in those people. (95-96)
The discussion on pain and evil, comprising one full chapter out of a total of seven, is designed to answer specific concerns that a person slogging through doubt would likely have, such as “What kind of God allows suffering?” “What is the role of human responsibility?” and “Must it be so hard to live in the world?” Willard will not allow specious answers to these tender questions, so addresses them as part of an examination of God’s character and purpose, as well as appealing to the need for dependable laws of physics. Aiming to provide help to those who face such questions, he explicitly outlines reasoned answers that a disciple might give, and how they relate to the joyful splendor of eternal living in God’s presence. Consider this response to the starvation of a child, “The child who dies during a famine is ushered immediately into the full world of God in which he or she finds existence good and prospects incomprehensibly grand…There is no tragedy for those who rely on this God” (133). How much more hopeful and true such a response would be than the too-common pabulum, “God must have needed that little one.”
Willard’s arguments on the veracity of the Bible and the validity of theories of the origin of the universe are his least satisfying. This is partly a flaw of the medium: the material of a lecture need not be as thoroughly or immediately supported as that in a book. When oral presentations are transcribed, they become subject to careful reading and consideration. The written word affords a higher level of scrutiny than the original talk would have received. While the reasoning Willard provides is salve for a doubting heart, as a written text it would have benefited from precise Biblical and theological citations, rather than the more general assertions common to Willard’s talks and lectures. Statements like “Scripture is a reliable, historical record of events” (108) are easier to take in a talk given in a church than from a page penned by a professional academic. In this particular case, Willard states that the reliability of Scripture has been well documented by F. F. Bruce, among others (107), but does not elaborate on the nature of the documentation. Willard’s assertion that the goal of apologetics is encouragement alleviates, but does not eliminate, the usefulness of external sources, particularly in a world in which skepticism and doubt are seen as the height of intellectual adroitness.
The final chapter of the book addresses the crux of the matter. “The ultimate apologetic–that is to say, the ultimate lifter of doubt–is the believer acting in faith in an interactive life with God. That’s it. People need to see individuals living in daily interaction with the kingdom of the heavens [emphasis in original]”(168). Here Willard discusses the experience of discipleship: how one actually learns to hear God, what a life in the present kingdom feels like, and the evidence of the power of God acting through a follower of Jesus. These themes are woven throughout Allure but here they gain direct address from a man who knew what kingdom living meant, and was himself a doubt-lifting testimony to the rightness of a life of faith.. “To enter [into God’s family] is to enter into life, for those who enter find at last what it is to be loved and to be filled with love–not with sentiment, but love–for all people, regardless of whether they too are members of God’s family or not” (169). That love is Willard’s true legacy; may it be the legacy of all followers of Christ as well.