Dick Staub Interviews Mary Poplin

I just ran across a transcript of an interview with Mary Poplin.

Dr. Poplin is the Dean of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University and she’s currently writing a book (title unknown) about integrating faith and academia. (see her faculty bio page)

You should really read the interview on Dick Staub’s website, but I’ve excerpted the most fascinating bits…

Q. Yeah. Now, what was it at that point that was off‐putting about Christianity? In other words, you had been raised in a Christian home, and now youre out doing Zen and going to see if you can bend spoons through mental telepathy. And youre into, you know, kind of anything except what was familiar and what you knew. What was it about Christianity that was a non‐starter for you, in your mind, at least?
A. In my mind. In my mind I had accepted what I had been told by the university, that Christianity was oppressive. You know, I was working in the area of liberation, you know, education of the poor, education of people of color, and so I just accepted that what Id been told. Christianity was terrible for women. You know, it never occurred to me to actually like look around the world and see where women were the freest and note that, gee, those were countries that were dominated by Christianity. But I didnt think that way.

Q. How pervasive was that anti‐Christian bias in your education as you were going through the system?
A. Id say, I would say in probably 50 percent of my education people would say negative things about Christianity.

Q. Were people ever saying positive things? Or were
A. No. I never heard I never had a professor who said anything positive.

and later …

Q. So you kind of bought the line. What is it that makes you Well, what happens that moves you towards a different and more compelling view of Christianity?
A. Okay. I think one of the main things is I had a graduate student who I knew lived his life differently. And he is Native American. And, first of all, he prayed for me for eight years. And he would kind of keep in touch. And he would say irritating things like, If you ever want to do anything with your spiritual life, Id like to help you. That was irritating because I thought I was doing plenty with my spiritual life. You know, I was bending spoons.

Q. Im bending spoons and stuff. I mean, what do you want?
A. Exactly. What more?

Q. Does it get any more meaningful than this?
A. And the other thing, and the more distressing thing, is he would ask me questions like, Do you believe in evil? And I would realize that I couldnt answer the question consistently.

Q. Uh‐huh.
A. Now, since I was moving rapidly toward post‐modernism, you know, I could sort of get rid of that problem because, you know, just choose your language community. One day you believe in evil and the next minute you dont. But then he would ask really irritating questions. If I said I didnt believe in evil he would say things like, Well, was Hitler evil?

Q. Uh‐huh.
A. And you know, things that bothered me intellectually. Then he had worked at our university on a sabbatical he had. He was now a professor, and for a year. And when he left I had a dream actually. I was still, you know, felt kind of empty and confused. And in the dream Im in a long line of people suspended in a night air. Were all in the same gray robes. I cant see the beginning of the line because its snaking around so long. I cant even see the end of the line, it just kind of disappears. But thats how long The line just seemed eternal on both ends. And all of a sudden I realized and were not talking to each other, were just in single file I realized that off to my right theres something going on. And I look and its just like Leonardo da Vincis painting of the Last Supper.

Q. Uh‐huh.
A. Its in color, which Ive never before had a dream in color. And it is But the difference is its live. Theyre still sitting out, like Im sure they didnt sit in the Last Supper, but theyre sitting out facing us. But Jesus is not at the table with them. Hes standing greeting us in line. And when I looked at Jesus I knew who he I mean, I knew immediately what I was seeing. And I couldnt even look at him, but for a second. I knelt I fell down to his feet and started weeping. And the only way I can describe the feeling I had in the dream is that I could sense every cell in my body and I felt shame. Just total shame in every cell in my body. So in the dream then he grabs my shoulders and I feel total peace, like I had never felt before in my life. And then I woke up and I was actually physically crying. So I go to the phone and I call this gentleman, and I say and I did not know, he had never told me he was a Christian

Q. Really.
A. Never. And that was good.

Q. Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
A. Because I probably wouldnt have called him. But anyway, I called him and said, I think I need to talk to you about my spiritual life. And he said he lives in San Diego and Im in Los Angeles he said, Well, lets meet for dinner. He named a restaurant in Dana Point, in between the cities, and we met there. And he said to me, Why do you think you have to do something with your spiritual life now? And out of my mouth came something Id never thought about. I said to him, I have some black thing in my chest.

Q. Wow.
A. And I dont know what it is. And he just nodded. I had told him the dream. I said, What do I do? And he said, Well, do you have a Bible? And I said, Well, no. I dont think so. I had one when I was a kid, but I dont know where it is. And he said Well anyway, he made sure I had one before we split up that night. And I He said to me, Well, you could read five Psalms a day and one book of Proverbs. And I thought, well okay, Im going to do it. I mean, Im really going to do this this time. And then he said casually, after we had bought the Bible and were getting into our individual cars, he said, And since Jesus was the one in your dream, you might even read the New Testament. And thats how casual he was about that.

Q. Hm.
A. So then I began to read them and we began to meet in a town in between our cities for breakfast or something about once a week. And he would say, Hows the reading going? And I would always say the same thing, I would say, I hate the Psalms but I love the Proverbs.

Q. Uh‐huh.
A. And I was reading the New Testament a little bit. And hed say, Well, why do you hate the Psalms? And I said, Because Davids always telling God to kill his enemies.

Q. Uh‐huh.
A. And dash their children to stones, and thats not a nice thing. So he would just nod and he would just say, Well, can you keep reading them? And I said, Yes. And then along about Okay, that was November, November to January. And then in January my mother wanted to go to North Carolina to where she had grown up. And we went to this little church, Methodist church, not because she was religious, she just wanted to see her friends. And we got there and I was really moved to just go up to the altar and give my life to the Lord.

continuing the story…

Q. And now you show up in church with your mom
A. Yes.

Q. which she wanted to do just for social reasons. And now her daughter, who ought to know better, has‐has gone forward to receive Christ. What was that day like? And how did it make a difference?
A. It wasnt even an altar call. You know, the Methodists dont really do altar calls.

Q. Yeah.
A. So it was a communion call.

Q. Yeah.
A. And the guy said, you know, you dont have to be a member of the church to take communion, you dont have to be a member of any church. You just have to believe that Jesus Christ lived, that he died for your sins, and you have to want him in your life. And when he said that, I was just so powerfully moved that I actually mentally thought, even if a tornado rips through this building, Im going to get that communion.

Q. Really.
A. Uh‐huh.

Q. I want him in my life
A. Yeah.

Q. is what you were saying.
A. Yeah, that was it. And when I got to the altar

Q. Had you taken communion since high school?
A. No. And when I got to the altar, you know, I had never seen really an altar call so I didnt, this was just kind of wonder‐aged, so I took the communion and I didnt even listen to the guy. All I did was I knelt down and I said, Please come and get me. Please come and get me. Please come and get me. And when I took the communion and I said that, I felt free. I felt like tons of things had been lifted off of me. And I began to have an insatiable desire to read the Bible.

Q. Wow.
A. And then not long after that I was involved in an incident that you could only say displayed evil. And that night when I opened up the Psalms, I understood. It was just like I had immediate revelation. It was almost like scales falling from your eyes?

Q. Wow.
A. I understood that evil existed, I had no question about it, and I understood that it was in me.

and the interview wraps up with

Q. Yeah. And what did you say?
A. And I said, You know, I have now seen radical, or the real Christianity lived. I know what it is. I totally believe it. And now, when I go to prepare my class I know that Im teaching something else. And I feel like a liar.

Q. Wow.
A. Yeah. So when I realized what it was there was a sense of relief.

Q. Feel like a liar how?
A. Because I was teaching only secular theories and I wasnt‐I wasnt telling the students what I would call the whole truth about poverty, about how you work with the, you know, about Christ. About, you know Christianity is the most challenging I mean, if I just talk about it intellectually, its the most challenging thing there is. And yet it has no place at the intellectual table. And so I began to struggle, okay, I had prayed to the Lord to take me out of Claremont. He hadnt done it. And I needed to learn how to stay there. I needed to learn how to integrate

Q. Wow. How would you describe some of what youre learning about staying there, about‐about how you do this integrative work?
A. Uh‐huh. Theres multiple levels of it, but I would say the first thing that I started to do as Well, initially my first response was to think that all secular theories were false. And theyre not.

Q. Right.
A. Theyre only partially false. Because evil cannot create anything, so evil cant create a philosophy.

Q. Right.
A. And it wouldnt stand if it were all false.

Q. Right.
A. So what I began to do is to try, is to actually develop a class, this was just an optional class that students can take on Judeo‐Christian thought and education, and wed take a philosophy or theory thats impacted education and wed line out its principles, and then wed line out the scripture that either matches or doesnt match with it

Q. Hm, interesting.
A. so we can see where it works and where it doesnt work. So that was one place. The other place is I began to try to take the intellectual problems that I care about, like the education of poverty, and think of how Jesus, what would the mind of Christ, how would Jesus have approached this issue in terms of whats going on here? Why is it Why are we making no progress here?

Q. Yeah.
A. So I took, for example Do you want me to go on with the example?

Q. Sure, please.
A. The example of the poor in education. And I began to realize that in the university we were doing all these social justice things, often Marxist critical theory kinds of things, and I was teaching that. I had been for probably ten years. And but we werent making really any progress with the poor. They were still not learning to read, not learning to do mathematics, they werent getting into better jobs. And then you have the public policy makers who are all doing accountability things. You know, testing and things like that. The accountability people dont talk about social justice, the social justice people totally reject the accountability movement. And then I began to realize that thats exactly what the Lord has always told us would happen. That this was a manifestation of how evil works to keep human beings from making progress in areas like this. And then I began to notice that year as I read the scriptures, that eight times in the scriptures were told to turn neither to the left nor the right.

Q. Uh‐huh.
A. And you could actually classify those two issues, accountability and social justice, as left and right kinds of things.

Q. Uh‐huh.
A. And so what happens is you get Powers and principalities cause people to battle between social justice and accountability, when in reality we will never make any progress towards social justice until we combine those two things. And so thats sort of my new, you know, intellectual task is to try to get that done.

Q. And how is that being received within the academic community? First of all, by peers?
A. Uh‐huh. Well, our program has decided to make a stand there. I mean, we have decided to do that. But in general, in the university its not well‐received because they dont really want to deal with issues of accountability in any serious way. You know, university faculty tend to be rebellious, myself included. And so we Its not well‐received in the university right now. In fact, if I just went to a conference in Washington DC, and its for the accountability movement. I mean, you could probably have put all the university professors around a small table. And they were all, most of the people there, Id say 70 percent of them were educators of color from the schools who know that all the things weve done havent worked.

Q. Wow. How is this change in your life being received by students?
A. Actually, the students are pretty interesting. Students are curious intellectually. They tend to be fairly open. None of the courses at Claremont are required, so no one has to be in my class.

Q. Uh‐huh.
A. Certainly they know, its pretty well‐known Im a Christian. There was a little There was a huge revolt when I first took over the directorship of the teacher‐ed program again after having not done it for five years. And we even had to have plain‐clothes security guards. And about half‐way through the revolt the ringleader said, We hate this Christian stuff. And I said, What Christian stuff? Because I had not made anybody I mean, I wasnt even teaching the group, I was directing the program. And Id not had anybody read anything Christian. And I said, What Christian stuff? And she couldnt answer. And at that point some of the other students in the room kind of got the idea. And a young African American woman just took up for me and said, Im not putting up with this anymore. I see where youre coming from. And the whole place broke up after that.

Q. Wow. So‐so what are you learning about the nature of your calling as you understand it right now?
A. Okay. Several levels. I mean, personally, I really need to understand the mind of Christ and how it works. And that Ive got to get through scripture, I think. I mean, I believe that it is revealed in scripture. The struggle is to bring the Christian worldview back to the intellectual table. Thats really what it is all about. Like the conference we were at at Berkeley. Christians dont have a place at the intellectual table. If you say something about a Christian response or a Christian construct about an issue in the university, you can just feel the walls go up and just, you know, ice in the room.

Q. Yeah.
A. That does not happen with any other worldview.

Q. Idea. Yeah, yeah.
A. No, not any other ideology. So that is And its dangerous. I mean, even intellectually I think its dangerous for a country or a group of intellectual institutions like universities to actually say, There is one worldview were not going to deal with.

Q. Uh‐huh.
A. It just diminishes the whole thing. And I think its why were not making a lot of progress. And then on the other hand, you know, I think a lot of Christian colleges arent doing it either. You know, they have chapel and then they have maybe a required Bible class.

Q. Non‐integrated.
A. Yeah. But it doesnt go into the science class or the history class or anything else.

Q. Right. Right, right, right.
A. I think weve got to integrate it.