I was in Washington, D.C., for the National Prayer Breakfast where I heard the president give a sermon on the challenge of religious violence. He made clear that what ISIS was doing is a scourge we must combat, but at the same time he cautioned us to show humility in not judging other religions too quickly, since all religions have turned to brutal violence at times—including Christianity. His examples were the most obvious ones—the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery in the U.S., as well as the Jim Crow South. Anyone who has ever taken a history course could have come up with many more examples.
I was impressed. After many years in religious publishing, I find it hard not to become cynical. I did not expect to feel so encouraged and edified by the president’s talk. The speech sounded like a throwback to the Eisenhower era. So I was surprised when I was later asked by my Fox News–watching friends and family members what I thought of how Obama attacked Christianity at the Prayer Breakfast. Come again? I will not take the time to defend the president. All one has to do is Google the transcript of the president’s speech to see how ludicrous these charges are. The only ones finding a problem were the ones whose goal was finding a problem.
What struck me as ironic, though, was that the reaction to Obama’s speech was an example of the very problem he cautioned against: using religion as a club for sowing division and feeding our thirst for outrage and attacking enemies. ISIS may be the most primitive and egregious carrier of this spiritual sickness, but they are not the only ones carrying this virus. Part of us wants a holy war. We are scared that whole communities see killing us as God’s will. We soothe our anxiety when we declare our enemies “evil” and think God wants us to wipe out them out.
So into this context, how do we remind people of a Messiah who lifts up meekness and who calls us to love our enemies? That is the work of prophets, speaking God’s word in a hostile environment.
The person I most imagine in that role is the late Dallas Willard, who for years quietly taught God’s counsel no matter how much it clashed with some of what the church accepted as standard teaching. And while the church lost an important prophet when he passed away in 2013, perhaps the recent posthumous publication of his The Allure of Gentleness can serve that function. While Dallas was many things—a mentor to many, an academic who taught philosophy, a popular speaker, teacher, and author who revolutionized how we think about the Christian life—what stood out for many of us was the impression that he was one of the most thoroughly and consistently Christian leaders we had encountered. The power of his teaching was not simply his insightfulness (which was amazing in itself), but how he embodied what he taught about the Christian life. He did not read Scripture and theology in order to merely think right; he read them as instructions for how he should order his life.
His new book summarizes his teachings on apologetics. Why I find this book so needed in our current context is because it addresses so astutely the very issue we are so concerned about: religious tribalism. Apologetics, the discipline of providing an intellectual defense of the faith, is usually constructed within a context of conflict. Someone is attacking what Christians believe or we are giving reasons for why the Christian faith is better than other options. It is win-lose. But that is not how Dallas approaches the subject. He writes, “When most people hear the word apologetics, they likely associate it with words like argument, evidence, reason, or defense. But few would think to add gentle or gentleness to the list.”
He next explains why he emphasizes gentleness: “When we do the work of apologetics, we do it as disciples of Jesus—and therefore we are to do it in the manner in which he would do it. This means, above all, that we do it to help people, and especially those who want to be helped. That is how all of Jesus’s work is characterized in scripture. Apologetics is a helping ministry.”
What does this entail? He goes on, “To begin with, it means being humble. Love will purge us of any desire merely to win as well as of intellectual self-righteousness and contempt for the opinions and abilities of others. Like Jesus, we are reaching out in love in a humble spirit with no coercion. The only way to accomplish that is to present our defense gently, as help offered in love in the manner of Jesus.”
Dallas goes on to add that apologetics is also anchored in truth, not winning, and so everyone benefits when we lean into the idea that we are approaching the truth. But just because we know the truth does not lessen our commitment to gentleness: “Our communication needs to be gentle, because gentleness also characterizes the subject of our communication. What we are seeking to defend or explain is Jesus himself, who is a gentle, loving shepherd. If we are not gentle in how we present the good news, how will people encounter the gentle and loving Messiah we want to point to?”
That is a haunting question. How does anyone remember a loving and gentle Savior when we hear stories of beheadings and people burned alive? Nevertheless, that is our burden. Again, from The Allure of Gentleness: “Our apologetic happens in a context, and that context is strewn with enmity, hostility, abuse, and other opposition, which ultimately contradict the very things our message lifts up. That is why our apologetic has to embody the message and person we want to communicate. Only with ‘gentleness and reverence’ will people be able to see, verify, and be persuaded to respond to what we have to say.”
We are not in a holy war. We are called to serve, to be humble agents of truth and love. That is not win-lose but win-win. And that is why we still need the prophet Dallas Willard.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor
PS: If you order The Allure of Gentleness HERE before 3/9, you can get any of Dallas Willard’s other HarperOne books for 60% off plus free shipping.