Paper Mentor: Biographies and Dallas Willard’s Influence Upon Me

This is a story about meeting someone through a book, and that person having a significant, positive influence on my life. I have 100% confidence he would have the same impact on you. Let me introduce you to Dallas Willard. This article is a snippet of my story as well as summarizing and linking to reviews of three books that create a biographical sketch of the with-God life of Dallas Willard.

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Something the audiobook narrator read was the final straw. Riding along in my truck, I moved my hand toward my phone to switch to a different audiobook, but I was stopped when I strongly sensed a thought from the mind of the Holy Spirit: “he has things you need to hear.” No, I didn’t hear it with my physical ears, but I heard it loudly in my spirit. No, I didn’t sense specific words. Rather, it was a whole thought in a micro-second.

Desiring to dive deeper into the topic after reading Robert Morris’s Frequency: Tune In. Hear God, and John Eldredge’s Walking with God: Talk to Him, Hear from Him, Really, I had purchased Dallas Willard’s Hearing God along with Priscilla Shirer’s Discerning the Voice of God and Bill Hybels The Power of a Whisper: Hearing God, Having the Guts to Respond. At this point in my story, one might understand that Petra’s song, I Need to Hear from You, was incessantly stuck in my head and in my prayer life.

I listened to Shirer first then, soon after starting in Hearing God, I discovered that Willard was ordained as a minister in a Christian denomination generally opposed to the idea that God wants to interactively, intimately communicate, and actively does communicate, with Christians. I had also discovered that Willard was a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California and had chaired the philosophy department in that bastion university of anti-Christianity. His credentials seemed to reek of being the opposite of an advisor I would seek out about Hearing God. Something the narrator read from Willard’s book seemed to confirm that listening would be a waste and I was ready to move on. But then the Holy Spirit nicely nudged me that I would be missing something important. So, as an act of obedience but with intrigued curiosity, I listened. It was the Summer of 2017.

Listening to Willard’s Hearing God was immediately followed by his Renovation of the Heart, then The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of the Disciplines, The Great Omission, and more. I read everything written by Willard that I could get my hands on. I was profoundly moved by Willard’s insight and ability to pull together disparate ideas I had not before been able to connect in my mind. I can count on one hand the few persons who have so shaped my understanding of life with Jesus as has Dallas Willard.

At some point in the midst of my voracious consumption of Willard’s books, I realized that Dallas had died four years before I first read Hearing God. The only “new books” coming would be the few manuscripts Willard had started and were completed by others. Within a year, my Willardian deep-dive seemed complete but left me wanting. In the last several years I have searched out ways to connect with millions of other similarly affected followers of Christ who are also carrying out a needed Reformation of Evangelicalism – Semper Reformanda.

In recent weeks I semi-simultaneously read three books that create a biographical sketch of Dallas’s life. The resounding themes of all three, packed with testimony of influenced lives, is Dallas’s radiant life and radiant death. These are books that I suppose generally would not interest someone who has not been so significantly influenced by Dallas. Anyone who wants to start with a very concise but intimate biography of Willard, The Introduction: Living in the Glow of God in Gary Moon’s introduction in Eternal Living can be read in the free Kindle sample on Amazon (as of July 2023) as well as the short biography on the site

Biographies provide a means to know and better understand someone. Although this level of knowing someone is a non-interactive, one-sided relationship, it is especially helpful for our understanding and receiving guidance from a paper mentor, such as Dallas Willard who lived – in an exemplary manner – the apprenticeship with Jesus and with-God life that he taught.

Dallas Willard was born September 4, 1935, in depression-era Missouri. He attended William Jewell College, Tennessee Temple College, Baylor University, and University of Wisconsin–Madison. Dallas was an American philosopher who was probably best known for his teaching and books on Christian spiritual formation. Willard’s doctoral dissertation focuses (as would his career in Philosophy) on phenomenology, particularly the work of Edmund Husserl. Willard translated much of Husserl’s works into English. Dallas was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles from 1965 until his death on May 8, 2013.

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Eternal living: Reflections on Dallas Willard’s teaching on Faith & Formation, by Gary W. Moon, IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015. $11.24. Moon’s Eternal living is arranged in three sections that correspond to three memorial services held after Dallas’s death. The sections combine share twenty personal testimonies from people whose lives were deeply and positively influenced by the life and work of Dallas Willard. The first memorial was with his family and close friends, the second was within the academic community where he was an imminent professor of philosophy, the third was to the world as a Christian author, mentor, and reformer of the global Church. I cried through many of the testimonies. Just typing that last sentence brought tears to my eyes.
Link: Ecclesiolae’s Full Book Review for Gary Moon’s Eternal Living.

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower, by Gary W. Moon, InterVarsity Press. 2018. $28.94. Moon’s Becoming Dallas Willard (BDW) is certainly the most robust available biography of Dallas Willard. As Dallas’s friend and colleague, Moon went to great lengths to interview people who knew Dallas, were taught by him, or were influenced by him. Moon’s biography of Willard is slightly unpolished compared to works such as Pulitzer Prize winner Edmund Morris, but Moon portrays an intimacy with Willard’s life that helps the reader engage Willard as a friend whom the reader had never known. I laughed, I cried, and, as Dallas died, I grieved. Dallas’s last words were “thank you”, spoken to the Almighty as he passed from this life into the never-ending life. I will not meet Dallas in this life except as a paper mentor but, when I see him in the next life, I will also say “thank you” to him.
Link: Ecclesiolae’s Full Book Review for Gary Moon’s Becoming Dallas Willard.

The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith, by Gary Black. Pickwick Publications. 2013. $40.99. This book is an invaluable asset to a fuller understanding of Dallas Willard’s insights into living a with-God life. However, the book, for the most part, is Gary Black’s self-published (Pickwick) doctoral dissertation, with some (perceivably minor) adaptation “for the general public” adaptation. I rated this 4 Scholar Caps (out of 5) as it is dripping with the Technical Language of theology, sociology, and philosophy, this book will have most readers often flipping back to the glossary (which is a wonderful feature of the book) as well as consulting dictionaries and theological encyclopedias. It isn’t meant for the faint of heart. Beneath a somewhat unpolished narrative and doctoral vernacular, the book reflects the spiritual passion of the author who spent untold hours interviewing Willard to create a semi-systematic presentation of the tapestry of the with-God life philosophy that Willard weaves from the threads of Biblical Theology. Those interviews turned into a friendship such that the author, Gary Black, was the friend sitting with Dallas, hearing his last words, in his last minutes of this life.
Link: Ecclesiolae’s Full Book Review for Gary Black’s The Theology of Dallas Willard.

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While personal mentors help shape our lives through teaching, guidance, and counsel, a paper mentor is someone whose writings have the effect of mentoring us without a personal one-to-one contact and guidance. Dallas Willard is, for me, a paper mentor who has had and is having extraordinary influence on my understanding of the kingdom of God and upon how I live my life as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

John Ortberg, a well-known pastor and author, similarly encountered Dallas through the book The Disciplines of the Spirit and contacted Dallas to express his gratitude for his insights. In the conversation, Ortberg said that Willard “invited me to come to his home, and I experienced what countless others have: the unhurried, humble, selfless attention of a human being who lived deeply in kingdom reality” (Christianity Today, May 8, 2013).

Reading these three biographical sketches reinforced how much more I need of Jesus and how much better I can “learn from Jesus to live in the manner Jesus would if he were I.” Like Ortberg, I also recognized that I could look steadily upon Jesus and benefit from watching and imitating Jesus’s life portrayed by Dallas Willard. There are countless videos of Dallas teaching which contain important content but equally if not more important they portray the life Jesus lived out through Dallas’s transformed character. Through the videos we can see that “unhurried, humble, selfless attention of a human being who lived deeply in kingdom reality.” Echoing Paul’s counsel to the Christ at Corinth – Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1) – I encourage everyone (whether followers of Christ or not) that the words, work, and with-God life of Dallas Willard is an imitation-worthy example for Christian life.

Finally, so that we wouldn’t think that I (or those contributing to the books discussed above) are suggesting a form of Willard worship, it is important to keep our minds in context of the current struggles in Evangelical Christianity. We have arrived into an era in which it seems acceptable to be called a Christian without ever becoming a disciple  – or, as Dallas would say, Apprentices with Jesus. We all should know that we must be imitaing Christ not Willard. However, the cultural Christian is unconvinced that it is possilble to “learn from Jesus to live in the manner Jesus would if he were I.” In this era of endemic cultural Christianity it is a blessing to find such believers in Christ, among those who profess Christ, whose example proves we can genuinely live a with-God life and say “If he can find the entrance to the kingdom, then so can I” (Moon, BDW, p. 245).


Tim Morris is the Director of Ecclesiolae Ministries Foundation, cofounded with Julie Morris. Ecclesiolae seeks to support Christians in their Spiritual Formation, Strengthening Ministry Marriages, and expanding the growth of MicroChurches within MegaChurches. Tim earned a BS in Business Management and completes an MA in Theology, from Wesley Biblical Seminary in the Spring of 2024.

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