Review: Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Published by Harper, San Francisco.

Bob Birse is an elder at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Perth, Ontario.

Once in a while a book comes along which sets my mind in a whirl and sends my spirit soaring. As I read it, images and thoughts flood my mind to the extent that I go into overload and have to set the book aside to take time to deal with them. Sometimes it is time to digest what I have read and sometimes it is simply time to revel in the excitement and to praise God. The Divine Conspiracy, for me, is such a book.

At my first reading I was so caught up in the ideas and the ways in which Willard was expressing them that I became impatient with his deliberate and careful development of his themes. A subsequent reading, at a more leisurely pace, revealed how much I had missed in my haste. He is very patient in leading the reader through his arguments and ideas.

This is not a book of highly technical, theological language but it is more easily accessed and has a more devotional sense and approach to it. Gently, Willard leads us into a fresh examination of familiar ground, sometimes too familiar, opening our minds to his perspective. In his introduction he says, "My hope is to gain a fresh hearing for Jesus, especially among those who believe they already understand him."

His first chapter, which starts with a discussion of the fact that in today's academia it is accepted that "one cannot know the truth of moral theory or principle," gave me an insight into postmodern thought. He leaves this to talk about God's invitation to us to "live in him." This sets the scene for the remainder of the book which is an opening up of the kingdom of God, its relevance to "real life" and how we should live in it with Jesus, as his disciples or "apprentices."

Starting with the Beatitudes in chapter 5 of Matthew's gospel and continuing to the end of chapter 7, Willard develops a picture of the kingdom which makes it, for me, very real and present. His interpretation of the "blesseds" and the other of Jesus' statements, which I have always been taught as rules or laws, is deeper and more useful and consistent with Jesus' method of teaching principles through everyday examples. He does not hurry through these discussions but carefully leads his readers step by step. I did not find it pedantic but rather rich in phrase and image. In the course of dealing with these chapters of Matthew's gospel, Willard makes wide reference to the Scriptures as a whole.

Willard's concern throughout is that the church should be making disciples and not only calling them into the kingdom but training them how to live in the kingdom as apprentices of Jesus. That clearly led him to write his chapter "A Curriculum for Christ likeness." It is intended for pastors and leaders and sets out broad areas of study. I wish that he could have taken the space to be more detailed or at least referred to study guides. Perhaps it is in one of his earlier books.

The Divine Conspiracy has pulled together for me many of my thoughts and Bible studies of the past three of four years and is giving me insights into a way ahead. I am continuing to read it and am finding that I am being forced back to my Bible again and again to read the familiar phrases from a new perspective.