Book Review: The Divine Conspiracy

By | July 16, 2012

Reading “The Divine Conspiracy” by Dallas Willard was quite an undertaking. It is a fairly long book—400 pages—and the content is not light. That’s not to say it is difficult to read—it is written accessibly enough—but it does take some effort to understand what Willard is trying to communicate. While I thought it started off slowly, as I read through the book I discovered some real good meat contained within. Willard gives the impression of wisdom coming from age. Rather than restating some traditional theological beliefs or trying to focus on one specific point, Willard attempts a thorough analysis of what a life following Jesus as his disciple or apprentice entails. I felt that he may have been long-winded in this pursuit, but he has much wisdom to share nevertheless.

Because of it’s length and lack of focus on one point, after I finished reading the book I felt the need to go back over it and review it. I wanted to make sure that I was getting as much as I could from it. The book itself is divided into ten chapters, each of which contain several less obvious subdivisions. I mention this because I believe that if I had had a better grasp of the organization of the book, it would have helped me to understand the book better. The chapters tend to be long, sometimes over fifty pages, so paying attention to the secondary headings (the ones which are centered and set apart from the following paragraph) is helpful.

I divided the book into four sections: “background assumption”, “the discourse on the hill”, discipleship, and eschatology. The first section, “background assumption: life in the kingdom through reliance upon Jesus” encompasses the first three chapters. In this section Willard introduces the idea of “the kingdom of the heavens” as the true reality and the one in which Jesus invites us to live. He emphasizes Christ as the ultimate person, the one who knows all and whom is fit to be our teacher and guide.

The second and biggest section of the book—nearly half of it—can be considered an extended commentary on the “Sermon on the Mount”, or as Willard calls it, “the Discourse on the Hill”. This ground is covered in chapters 3-7. The first point made is that the kingdom of the heavens is available to all, not merely those who appear to have it together in our world. The main overall thrust of this section is that Jesus is describing the typical manner of a person who is living according to the kingdom of the heavens, rather than giving a list of rules or a new law. After this Willard reviews Jesus’ warnings against false securities and trying to control people. Lastly he looks at prayer generally and the Lord’s Prayer specifically.

In the third section (chapters 8 and 9), Willard argues the need for discipleship (as opposed to converts), and then goes into considerable detail as to what this looks like. He outlines two objectives of discipleship: developing a loving relationship with God (where we love him and know his love for us), and removing our natural, automatic patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting which are out of alignment with the kingdom, in order that they may be replaced by correct thinking, feeling, and acting. Willard also shares three things which we need to come to see: the goodness of God, God’s love to humanity through Jesus, and God’s involvement in our personal life. Willard also discusses four of the most crucial spiritual disciplines: silence, solitude, study, and worship. (Most of this section is contained in chapter 9, which must be one of the longest chapters in the book.)

The forth and final section (chapter 10) is really just a brief end-cap to the rest of the book. Willard takes a brief look at our future life and overviews why it is important to understand.

Overall I believe “The Divine Conspiracy” is worth reading. It presents a mature understanding of faith in Christ which stands in contrast to the shallowness of much of contemporary Christianity. While no doubt Willard is off on some details (because no one has it all figured out), I believe he is mostly on the right track. I believe one would be hard pressed to find an understanding of Christian discipleship substantially better than that contained in “The Divine Conspiracy”.

Below I include my outline (like an extended table of contents) in case you may find it useful.

The Divine Conspiracy
Dallas Willard

I. Background Assumption: Life in the Kingdom Through Reliance Upon Jesus (Matt. 4:17-25)
      1. Entering the Eternal Kind of Life Now (p. 1)
                  A. Life in the Dark (p. 1)
                  B. Word from a Different Reality (p. 11)
                  C. Made to Rule (p. 21)
                  D. In the Midst of Many Kingdoms (p. 28)
      2. Gospels of Sin Management (p. 35)
                  A. The Invitation Diminished (p. 35)
                  B. The Gospel on the Right (p. 42)
                  C. The Gospel on the Left (p. 50)
                  D. Toward Integration of Life and Faith (p. 55)
      3. What Jesus Knew: Our God-Bathed World (p. 61)
                  A. Re-Visioning God and His World (p. 61)
                  B. The Heavens as Human Environment (p. 66)
                  C. Space Inhabited by God (p. 74)
                  D. All Things Visible and Invisible (p. 79)
                  E. Death Dismissed (p. 84)
                  F. Which Side Really Is Up? (p. 88)
                  G. Jesus, Master of Intellect (p. 91)

II. The Discourse on the Hill (Sermon on the Mount)
      4. Who is Really Well Off?—The Beatitudes (p. 97)
            It is ordinary people who are the light and salt of the world as they live the blessed life in the kingdom (Matt. 5:1-20)
            Matthew 5:1-12 (pp. 97 - 125)
                  A. The Puzzle of the Beatitudes (p. 97)
                  B. Dealing with the Soul in Depth (p. 107)
                  C. What Jesus Really Had in Mind with His Beatitudes (p. 114)
                  D. Making This Message Personal to Us Today (p. 122)
            Matthew 5:13-16 (pp. 125 - 127)
      5. The Righteousness of the Kingdom Heart: Beyond the Goodness of the Scribes and Pharisees (p. 129)
            The kingdom heart of goodness concretely portrayed as the kind of love that is in God (Matt. 5:21-48)
                  A. Master of Moral Understanding (p. 129)
                  B. The Law and the Soul (p. 139)
                  C. In the Cauldron of Anger and Contempt (p. 147) (Matt. 5:21-26)
                        Matt. 5:21 (pp. 147-151)
                        Matt. 5:22 (pp. 151-155)
                        Matt. 5:23-24 (pp. 155-157)
                        Matt. 5:25-26 (pp. 157-158)
                  D. The Destructiveness of Fantasized Desire (p. 158) 
                        Matt. 5:27-28 (pp. 158-167)
                        Matt. 5:29-30 (pp. 167-168)
                        Matt. 5:31-32 (pp. 168-173)
                  E. Transparent Words and Unquenchable Love (p. 173)
                        Matt. 5:33-37 (pp. 173-175)
                        Matt. 5:38-42 (pp. 175-178)
                        Matt. 5:43-48 (pp. 181-182)
                  F. Goodness is Love (p. 182)
      6. Investing in the Heavens: Escaping the Deceptions of Reputation and Wealth (p. 187)
            Warning: against false securities—reputation and wealth (Matt. 6)
                  A. The Respectability Trap (p. 188)
                        Matt. 6:1 (pp. 189-190) good works
                        Matt. 6:2-4 (pp. 191-193) giving
                        Matt. 6:5-8 (pp. 193-195) prayer
                        Matt. 6:16-18 (pp. 195-200) fasting
                  B. The Bondage of Wealth (p. 203)
                        Matt. 6:19-21 (pp. 203-206)
                        Matt. 6:22-23 (pp. 206-207)
                        Matt. 6:24 (p. 207)
                        Matt. 6:25-34 (pp. 207-213)
                  C. "In the World You are Distressed" (p. 213)
      7. The Community of Prayerful Love (pp. 215 - 269)
            Warning: against "condemnation engineering" as a plan for helping people. (Matt. 7:1-12) (pp. 215 - 253)
                  A. No Condemnation 
                        Matt. 7:12 (p. 217)
                        Matt. 7:1-5 (pp. 217-227)
                  B. When Good Things Become Deadly
                        Matt. 7:6 (pp. 228-231) not forcing our "wonderful things" upon them
                  C. The Request as the Heart of Community
                        Matt. 7:7-11 (pp. 231-239) just asking for what we want from them—and from God
            A call to community of prayerful love
                  D. Prayer in the Cosmic Setting
                  E. The Lord's Prayer
                        Matt. 6:9-13 (pp. 253-269)

III. Discipleship
      8. On Being a Disciple, or Student, of Jesus (p. 271)
                  A. Who Is Our Teacher? (p. 271)
                        Warnings: about how we may fail actually to do what the Discourse requires, and the effects thereof (Matt. 7:13-27) (pp. 274-276)
                  B. How to Be a Disciple (p. 281)
                  C. How to Become a Disciple (p. 291)
                  D. Helping Other Find Their Way into Discipleship (p. 299)
      9. A Curriculum for Christlikeness (p. 311)
                  A. The Course of Studies in the Master Class (p. 311)
                  B. Getting Clear on Objectives (p. 320)
                  C. Enthralling the Mind with God (p. 323)
                  D. The Three Areas of Necessary Intellectual Clarity (p. 326)
                        1. seeing God as creator and sustainer - everything points to him
                        2. seeing God's love extended to us (humanity) through history and specifically Jesus
                        3. seeing our own (individual) life as good
                  E. Acquiring the Habits of Goodness (p. 341)
                  F. The Threefold Dynamic (p. 347)
                        1. the action of the Holy Spirit
                        2. planned discipline to put on a new heart (spiritual disciplines)
                        3. ordinary events of life: "temptations"
                  G. Planned Disciplines to Put on a New Heart (p. 353)
                        1. solitude and silence (p. 357)
                        2. study and worship (p. 360)
                  H. Practical Steps for Attaining the Two Curricular Objectives (p. 364)
                  I. Overview of Progress from Here to Forever (p. 366)
                        1. Confidence in and reliance upon Jesus
                        2. A desire to be his apprentice
                        3. Obedience
                        4. Pervasive inner transformation of the heart and soul
                        5. Power to work the works of the kingdom
                  J. The Curriculum and the Life of the Church (p. 369)

IV. Eschatology
      10. The Restoration of All Things (p. 375)
                  A. Why We Must See a Future (p. 375)
                  B. The Changes to Come (p. 394)
                        1. the time of growing steadily (this present life)
                        2. the time of passage (death)
                        3. the time of reigning with Jesus ("afterlife")
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