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Professor Mary Poplin, an Unlikely Convert

Photo of David YoungDavid Young | Bio

David Young

David Young serves as the senior minister for the North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He has worked for churches in Missouri, Kansas, and Tennessee, taught New Testament at several universities, and travelled widely teaching and preaching. He is the former host of the New Day Television Program, a board member for the Renew Network, and the author of several books, including A New Day (NB Press), The Rhetoric of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, (Fortress Press, co-authored with Michael Strickland), A Grand Illusion (Renew Publications), and King Jesus and the Beauty of Obedience-Based Discipleship (Zondervan). He holds the B.A. from Freed-Hardeman University, the M.A. from Harding School of Theology, and the M.A. and Ph.D. in New Testament from Vanderbilt University. David and his wife Julie have two married children.
“If you are real, please come and get me, please come and get me.”

She was an unlikely convert. A well-respected, tenured professor in an elite university, Mary Poplin had grown up in a left-leaning church. But all that remained from her early church faith were strong desires for social reform, spiritual experimentation, and personal fulfillment. So by the time she was middle-aged, Poplin was following the well-worn path of progressivism. She experimented with Buddhism and Zen meditation, developed radical feminist and Marxist convictions, and joined various causes of social justice. Along with many of her colleagues, she advocated for free love, post-modernism, secularism, and revolution. She also explored the darker side of some forms of progressivism: the abuses of alcohol, sex, and drugs, as well as exploring the occult. . . .

Poplin had absorbed progressivism’s anti-authoritarian calls for self-fulfillment and inclusiveness, and smugly considered herself smarter, more open-minded, and more enlightened than her conservative counterparts. “In actuality,” she later confessed, “I was foolish, closed-minded, confused, depressed, anxious, arrogant, and filled with darkness.”

Three things conspired to change her life. First, she developed a friendship with a biblical graduate student. He was different than Christians she’d encountered before. Even when sitting in her radical leftist classes, he conducted himself with Christian conviction and love, and every project she shared with him seemed wildly successful. He never tired of asking her two important questions: “When you need spiritual help, will you call me?” and “Do you believe in evil?” Both questions haunted her, but they eventually led her to biblical Christianity.

Second, Poplin had a dream in which she and all of humanity stood in line to meet Jesus at the day of judgment. As her turn came, Jesus looked deep into her eyes. She explains what happened next: “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.” But rather than condemning her, in the dream Jesus reached out and took her by the shoulders in love. She felt a peace she had never felt before. Poplin awoke crying and called a friend to share what she had just experienced.

Third, Poplin spent several months working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Like her progressive friends, Poplin had already considered herself “spiritual,” by which she meant “a good person.” Regardless of how much her personal life was a mess, she had supported liberal social causes and received the congratulations of her colleagues for it. But like other progressives, she had an aversion to the authority of Scripture, of the church, and of religion. Watching Mother Teresa work under those authorities changed her heart. One day, she heard the missionary say that the work in Calcutta is not social work. Rather, the nun explained, it is religious work for God. Poplin’s eyes were opened.

God pursued Mary Poplin and brought her to authentic Christianity—the kind where Jesus is not a mere social worker but is Lord and Savior; where the Bible is not a pick-and-choose collection of metaphors, but the breathing Word of God; where holiness is not another form of enslavement, but a beautiful lifestyle; and where the church is no longer the problem but a community of people working toward the solution.

She began reading the Bible, praying, and attending church services. At one service, the pastor invited anyone who was willing to believe in Jesus to take the communion with the congregation. “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,” Poplin remembers. “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.’”

Mary Poplin became a biblical disciple in 1993. She remained a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, where she was director of the Teacher Education Program and Dean of the School of Educational Studies. She has made important contributions to the subject of integrating faith and academics, understanding the failures of secularism, and reducing the achievement gaps between students of different races.[i]

Plus, she lives in the beauty, power and truth of biblical Christianity.

(This was an excerpt from A Grand Illusion: How Progressive Christianity Undermines Biblical Faith by David Young.)

[i] Mary Poplin, Is Reality Secular? (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014) and “The Unlikely Conversion of a Radical Scholar,” The Well (online), accessed July 18, 2018.