By Mary Poplin

The Unlikely Conversion of a Radical Scholar

I grew up in what I would call a nominal Methodist church. But unlike any other place I went, the church with its towering stone structure, dark wooden beams, and intricate pictures in the large stained glass windows felt holy. I remember weeping at Good Friday services when the large gold cross was covered in black. I felt like I was at a funeral of a dear friend and though I didn’t know Him and didn’t know why I had this response, I had an overwhelming sadness about it all and an overwhelming joy when the Hallelujah Chorus was sung at the end of each Easter morning service. But beyond this, I found most of the formal church and Sunday school services boring and irrelevant, something we did because our father made us.

Once I got to college, the world opened up to me and I enjoyed walking through those doors where the enticements were strange and sometimes even dangerous. I craved engaging them. The world, of course, rewarded me for every step into increasingly dangerous places. When I tried new things I was considered more sophisticated, more intelligent, more fashionable, and even more spiritual. When I eventually left my hometown to study at graduate school, I shed the last vestiges of being under any kind of authority. I had already been taught in undergraduate education that authority was oppressive — the church, the state, and the family. Here the possibilities in my newfound community of graduate students were endless — late night intellectual discussions, feminist consciousness-raising groups, alcohol, drugs, sex, and the occult.

By the time I was 41, I was a fully-tenured professor at an elite private college where I had been since 1981. By then, I had been involved in transcendental meditation, Zen meditation, and feminist theology. I helped to lead our local Democratic club, frequented gay and lesbian nightclubs with a friend, and participated in spoon-bending (which in California counts as a spiritual activity). I was teaching radical feminism, critical theory, postmodernism, and running a very successful teacher education program. My students were required to read postmodernists, Marxists, and self-proclaimed witches. I thought of myself as smart, open-minded, happy, humble, and “light”; in actuality, I was foolish, closed-minded, confused, depressed, anxious, arrogant, and filled with darkness.

I would have told you then that I was “spiritual and not religious” and what that would have meant is that I thought I was better than you because I did not need a religion or any set of rules to be “good.” To people like me, “spiritual” always meant “good”; there was no recognition that “evil” is also spiritual. This code phrase “spiritual but not religious” also meant that I believed there were many spiritual paths, all valid and equally effective, and they all lead to becoming a better person, fulfilling our potential which is, of course, to be a part of the divine (for me, the divine feminine). No path is better than any other path, but maybe one is better for you than another. They all result in the same goodness. It also meant I did not think I needed a Savior and I certainly wasn’t going back to having any authority over me. Though I enjoy apologetics now, no rational system of apologetics could have reached me then. As Saint John of the Cross noted, a mind unfired by faith becomes distorted. I was in need of a spiritual sign, an awakening, not an apologist.

Into this mess, entered a graduate student who is Native American and Mexican American. In 1984, John took my radical feminism class. During the class, he was mostly silent and when he did speak he did not join us in sharing his stories of being a victim of oppression as I thought he might; in fact, to be honest I would have been more comfortable if he had. From the time he graduated, I began to call on him whenever I really needed help in the work I was doing and every time he agreed to help, the program or project that he worked on would flourish. All I knew at that time was that this man was very different and had a wisdom that I did not.

From the fall of 1991 through the spring of 1992, John had a sabbatical from his college and worked on our campus as an ACE (American College of Education) Fellow in our president’s office and on a large research project I was directing. For years after his graduation, professorship, and positions as a policy expert, John continued to ask me two questions. One, he said, “If you would ever like help with your spiritual life, I would be willing to help you.” Second, he asked, “Do you believe in evil?” The first irritated me because I thought it was obvious I was actively pursuing a diverse spiritual life. And the second question irritated me because I didn’t know the answer.

And then in November of 1992 I had a dream. Though there is little about dreams in our epistemology and apologetics, dreams and visions play a significant role in the Bible and because I was so dark, I believe the dream may have been the only way God could reach me. Among other things, this dream revealed the condition of my soul.

I am in a long line of people dressed in gray robes and looking very depressed. We are suspended in a dark night sky and we are moving very slowly forward and no one is stepping out of line, turning to another, or speaking. We are single file, silent, and except for stepping slowly forward, the people are hardly moving, zombie-like. I am curious to see the extent of the line so I break out of line a bit by leaning to my left to see where the line begins and I see that it only snakes around and disappears and then I lean to my right and look behind me to see the end. The line is endless in both directions. As we move forward I began to notice that we are about to pass by something on our right. There is light coming from it and the scene is in color though those of us in the line are not. As I approach I see that it is the scene of the Last Supper from Leonardo Di Vinci but it is live and the disciples are eating together, but Jesus is not at the table with them, He is standing ahead of me greeting each of us in the line. When I get up to him and he looks at me, I suddenly have an awareness of every cell in my body and that every cell in my body is filled with filth. I can no longer look at him and I fall at his feet and begin to weep. In the dream, Jesus reaches over and grabs my shoulders with his hands and I feel what can only be the “peace that surpasses understanding.”

At that point, I woke and realized that I was actually crying. As I went over the dream in my mind, I realized it was significant and that my Native American colleague would be able to help me interpret it and that maybe it was time to take him up on his offer to help me with my spiritual life. I assumed it would involve some sort of austere form of Native American spirituality. I called him and he met me at a restaurant half way between our cities, which are 100 miles apart.

At dinner, after I told him the dream, he asked me why I thought I needed to do something about my spiritual life now and out of my mouth came something I did not know I knew. I said, “Because I have something black in my chest and I don’t know how to get rid of it.” He nodded. Toward the end of dinner I asked what I should do and he asked if I had a Bible; I didn’t. We went to a bookstore before going home and I purchased one. He recommended that I read one chapter of Proverbs and five Psalms a day. As we got ready to get into our respective cars, he said very casually, since it had been Jesus in my dream, I might want to start reading the New Testament.

I began my reading and just after Christmas I traveled to Texas to pick up my mother and take her to her childhood home to see if she might want to live with a cousin now that my father had passed away. We arrived on Saturday night and mom wanted to go to church the next morning to see her friends. We sat near the back of the church and at the conclusion of the sermon, the pastor said that we were going to have communion. He spelled out the invitation, “You don’t have to be a member of this church to receive communion, in fact you don’t have to be a member of any church to receive communion but you must believe that Jesus Christ lived, that he died for your sins, and you have to want him in your life.” When the pastor said this, I was strongly drawn to receive communion but being at the back of the church we had to wait for our chance to go forward. I thought to myself that even if a tornado rips through this building, I am going to get that communion. I went forward and knelt at the rail, took the bread and grape juice, bowed my head and said, “If you are real, please come and get me, please come and get me.” At that very moment I once again felt what must be “the peace that surpasses understanding.”

My conversion is unusual not only in the fact that it was prompted by a dream and happened quite late in life, but in one other way. Like anyone without Christ I was in a desperate situation, but I did not perceive it. What I perceived most often was that I was bored. Every new philosophy or theory I pursued ended when I felt I understood it well enough to know it wasn’t powerful or complete enough to make any difference. But other than that, I was relatively happy at that time. The research I had just completed was gaining notoriety, and I was breaking free from a five-year relationship and felt free and increasingly hopeful. All this could be in my conscious mind while out of my mouth I could exclaim, “I have something black in my chest and I don’t know how to get rid of it.”

I continued to meet John regularly and to read the Psalms and Proverbs and the New Testament. When he would ask how the reading was coming, I would say the same thing: “I like the Proverbs and the New Testament is okay, but I hate the Psalms.” He would ask if I knew why I hated the Psalms and I would reply that I disliked the fact that David was always telling God to kill his enemies, even dashing their children on rocks. He would nod knowingly, but never reveal to me that he might be Christian. By April, however, I had an experience with the kind of sheer evil David was talking about. It was a morning when we had scheduled to meet for breakfast. So upon arrival I related the story and he nodded. I went to work after breakfast and later that very evening when I opened the Bible and began to read the Psalms with David’s pleas for God to kill his enemies, I suddenly understood: evil did exist, it did operate through people and institutions, and it was also in me.

Now I realize that there are many theological doctrines (especially in Protestant evangelicalism) that suggest that the experience I had with the manifestation of evil and several similar experiences in the next three years should not have happened to someone who had really given her life to Christ. But it did and it does and many of us know this. Until our theology can deal with the demonic, like Jesus did, we don’t have a whole theology. I am increasingly aware that the epistemologies of the university and many of our churches are far too reductionistic to be able to engage the fullness of spiritual reality. God is not always rational in the way we have come to describe rational; He is suprarational.

Eventually, John gave me two brochures — one to Bill Gothard’s Basic Life Principles Seminar in Dallas that upcoming summer and one to a charismatic Benedictine monastery. No two things could have been further from my experience or more different from one another; I signed up for both. At the monastery, I was shocked at the way they talked about Jesus as their friend and their Lord. I had no idea what the anointing service was about or what language Sr. Theresa was speaking when she prayed over me. At Bill Gothard’s seminar I could not believe the crowd in the convention center in Dallas, the wisdom with which he taught Scripture, or his conservative views on life. My experiences at both of these places began to restore me. And I began to eagerly seek more. A year long sabbatical offered the opportunity to continue to explore this new worldview. My insatiable desire to read the Bible turned into a project to copy the Psalms, Proverbs and New Testament by hand. I could see that even though by summer 1993 I had now read the Bible and had listened to it read as I walked by the river most every day, copying it caused the Word to penetrate my very being. Sometimes I would feel as though my mind were being rearranged. I experienced the reality in Psalm 107: “He sent out his word and healed them.” Learning his Word and meeting the various parts of his Body on earth continued to be a primary focus for me for years.

In 1994 I saw a film of Mother Teresa where she said their work was not social, but religious work. I needed to understand what she meant. I went in 1996 for two months and worked alongside them. Mother Teresa told me before I left that God does not call everyone to work with the poor or to be poor like them, but he does call everyone to a Calcutta. I found my Calcutta when I began to try to write about Mother Teresa and my experience working with her. Slowly I was to discover that from any of the worldviews dominant in the university, Mother Teresa is completely incomprehensible. And that led me to realize and ask why the Judeo-Christian worldview is the only one left out of the diversity collage of those offered by the academy. My Calcutta is experienced in the uneasy transition from Sunday to Monday, an alienation of my real beliefs from the things I teach, the search for a language that can bridge the gulf, and the call to find a place at the academic roundtable for a worldview lost in the narrow limitations of secularism posing as academic freedom.

About the Author

Mary Poplin is a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University. She received her PhD from the University of Texas in 1978. After many years of what she calls “searching the spiritual net,” she became a Christian in 1993 and now works to integrate her faith and her work in the university. Her most recent educational research has focused on studying high performing teachers in low performing urban schools. She writes also on the need to merge the imperatives of social justice and accountability in order to decrease the achievement gap between students in different racial and economic groups.

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