Farewell, Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard, 1936-2013

Dallas Willard has succumbed to cancer at age 77.

I first met Dallas Willard in 2001. I was organizing the first ever Emergent Village Theological Conversation. I had scheduled Nancey Murphy and her husband, Jim McClendon, to be in conversation with us — both of them had been professors of mine at Fuller Seminary. But Jim died in late 2000, putting the whole event up in the air. Nancey decided to keep her commitment, and we were her first public event after Jim’s death.

Dallas agreed to join us as well, in Jim’s stead, even though he and Nancey agreed on virtually nothing. And it was magical. Dallas was kind and generous. He and Nancey talked and laughed and cajoled one another. At one point — and everyone who was there will remember this — he was telling us about his childhood Christianity. He stood up and broke into the cadence of a Southern preacher, spun around, and mimed skipping sinners across the lake of fire. To see such an accomplished philosopher do such a thing was, frankly, breathtaking.

I also remember this: Dallas needed someone to move his car, so I got his keys and went to move it. He drove a humble car — a sedan of some kind. And when I started it up, a tape started playing in the tapedeck. It was the Bible on tape. Then I noticed that strewn across the passenger seat were all the books of the Bible on tape. Again, I was astonished: one of the most accomplished Christian authors of our time was listening to the Bible on tape. (To this day, I keep a small iPod with the audio Bible on it because of his example.)

I saw Dallas at several other conferences and events over the years after that. But my last encounter with him was just as memorable as my first:

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Jesus Hugging Dinosaurs: Talking to Kids about Science…at Church

You may have already seen the above test, given to 4th graders at Blue Ridge Christian Academy in Greenville, SC (as confirmed by Snopes, where you can also see the second page of the test and read the backstory). Yeah, that’s pretty bad.

On the other hand, you’ve got these three amazing teenage girls who won the 2011 Google Science Fair and gave a talk at TEDxWomen.

It is those two juxtaposed images of youth engaging science with which I’m going to start my talk tomorrow at Fuller Seminary’s conference, Talk of God, Talk of Science, which is described thusly:

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Obituary for the Residential Seminary

There’s lots of talk around the Twin Cities about what’s going on at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. The largest seminary of the ELCA, Luther’s president and CFO resigned late last year after disclosing a $6 million shortfall in 2012 (our of a $27 million annual budget). More recently, the interim president announced big cutbacks:

  • 18 of 125 staff were laid off immediately
  • 8 of 44 faculty members will retire this year and not be replaced
  • 5 more faculty will retire next year
  • The Masters of Sacred Music degree was terminated
  • No new PhD students will be admitted for at least 3 years

What exactly went wrong at Luther has not been disclosed, but the trends can no longer be ignored. Inside Higher Ed reports,

The changes at Luther have been unusually swift and dramatic. But the trends driving them are the same ones that seminaries are facing across the board. Enrollments are falling. Costs have increased, while student debt has become a bigger concern. Many Christian denominations, seeing their own ranks shrink, are providing less financial support than in the past. And as Americans as a whole become less religious — almost one-fifth of adults now have no religious affiliation — seminaries face an uncertain future.

The ELCA is indeed shrinking. As The Lutheran magazine reported in January,

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Mark Labberton Is the New President of Fuller Seminary

Mark Labberton, president-elect of Fuller Theological Seminary

Fuller Seminary — from which I received my MDiv and at which I currently teach — today announced Mark Labberton as its new president, succeeding Richard Mouw. I have a ton of respect for Mark, and I think it’s a great choice for Fuller:

The Fuller Theological Seminary Board of Trustees has announced that Mark Labbertonhas accepted the call to serve as the seminary’s fifth president, beginning July 1, 2013.

Announcing Labberton’s unanimous election by the trustees, Board Chair Clifford L. Penner said, “Along with my fellow trustees, I am delighted to welcome Mark Labberton to the presidency of Fuller Seminary. We are excited and inspired by the outstanding qualities and accomplishments he brings to this position. He is a scholar and academic leader, pastor for more than 25 years, accomplished author, and leading voice in many international ministries. Mark brings strong spiritual leadership, a wide range of experiences, and the vision to guide Fuller into a new era of global leadership in seminary education.  As a Fuller alumnus (MDiv) and professor, he fully comprehends Fuller’s rich and diverse legacy.”

“I feel an incredible sense of joy and hope to be given this opportunity,” said Dr. Labberton. “Thanks to Rich Mouw’s generous, gracious, and irenic leadership, Fuller is well positioned to influence how the gospel is communicated, understood, and embodied in the world.”