Everything about Mary Poplin screams college professor — the silk scarf draping over her sweater, the hair pulled back into a neat bun, and even the poise that resonates through photos. Her name even sounds like a beloved nanny who opens the eyes of youngsters to a new way of living. You can almost hear her speaking to classes of malleable young minds at a California university about critical theory, radical feminism, multiculturalism and postmodernism — a suspect curriculum that leads students to believe in the idea that good and bad have nothing to do with Jesus.
Mary describes herself during her earlier college professor years as wildly progressive, and she even made her students read works from Karl Marx and witches.
For years she appeared to be someone who knew everything and had life all figured out, but that wasn’t the case. Her mix-and-match spirituality — she dabbled in everything from witchcraft to crystals — worked fine for a while. After all, she was a product of the 1960s, a generation that grew up believing in free love and the healing properties of LSD.
“As a graduate student in the ’70s, I had attended transcendental meditation classes and experimented with marijuana and psychedelic drugs,” Mary Poplin told Christianity Today. “Then, as a professor in Los Angeles in the ’80s, a colleague and I would regularly explore the city’s weirdest religions. I would collect crystals and study strange spiritual books … Eventually, I would dabble in workshops where we bent spoons and practiced hypnosis on each other while the braver ones tried walking on coals.”
In her spare time, she went to gay and lesbian nightclubs in Los Angeles. She had two abortions and regularly watched pornography.
But the hippie life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Although Mary embraced multiple religions, none of them gave her peace. She believed all paths led to Heaven, so she didn’t need a savior.
“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,” Mary said.
A Dangerous Role Model
The counterculture in Los Angeles wasn’t the only thing influencing Mary. She was a huge fan of Shirley MacLaine, a notoriously eccentric actress who is known for her impassioned speeches on everything from reincarnation to alien abduction to crop circles. During Mary’s formative years, however, MacLaine was a Hollywood A-lister people followed the same way they follow the Kardashians now.
“In my mind, I was like Shirley, dancing freely on the beach. But in certain moments — in the middle of the night or in the darkness of depression — I could see glimpses of who I really was,” Mary said. “I was not growing freer. My heart was growing harder, my emotions darker, and my mind more confused. But I was unable to admit this candidly.”
She describes herself during that time as someone who was spiritual but not religious. That’s like believing in Heaven without believing in Hell. It’s an easy stance to take without having to have any real faith in anything.
Still, Mary was set in her non-faith. She fully embraced the I’m-okay-you’re-okay mindset of the 1960s and carried it with her long after the other hippies grew up and got jobs and haircuts. It was going to take a big sign from God to change her mind.
And that’s exactly what she got.
God has been known to come to people in dreams — He came to the other Mary to tell her about Jesus and to Nebuchadnezzar to tell him about the coming kingdom of God. But there’s no mention in the Bible about God coming to left-wing college professors in dreams. Still, that’s what He did.
Dreams are one way God talks to people, although it often leaves them confused and in need of some extra help to interpret. Maybe people are getting more dense over the years, and He’s getting clearer on His meaning because, when God spoke to Mary Poplin, there was no ambiguity.
“When I awoke, I remembered every detail — sights, sounds, colors, thoughts and feelings,” Mary said. “It was there that I met Jesus and saw who I really was, all at the same moment.”
She had dreamed she was in a long line of people. All of whom were waiting to get to the Last Supper. But Jesus wasn’t sitting with the other apostles. Instead, He was greeting people as they got to the front of the line.
“When I got to Jesus and looked into His eyes, I grasped immediately that every cell in my body was filled with filth,” Mary said. “Weeping, I fell at His feet. But when He reached over and touched my shoulders, I suddenly felt perfect peace!”
The next morning, Professor Mary switched roles and called one of her former graduate students for instruction, someone she says is the most spiritual and peaceful person she has ever met. They got together for dinner, and she told him all about the dream. She thought he would recommend a new-age remedy, something like one of those Native American sweat lodges. Instead, he asked if she had a Bible. She didn’t, so they went to find one. The student encouraged her to read from it every day. And she did.
The dream, dinner and Bible reading all happened at the end of the semester, so when Mary went to visit her mother over Christmas, it was perfect timing to go back to church with her family. At the end of the sermon, the pastor talked about communion and invited everyone to join in. Once again, Mary found herself in a long line waiting for Jesus at the front of the room, only this time she wasn’t dreaming.
“I thought to myself that even if a tornado rips through this building, I am going to get that communion,” Mary said. “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.’ At that very moment, I once again felt what must be the peace that surpasses understanding.
The final straw for Mary was when she read 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” She calls it the bar-of-soap passage, and it prompted her to start praying for forgiveness.
After accepting Jesus into her life, Mary went on a mission to India where she worked with Mother Teresa. It was a mountaintop experience, but things came crashing down when she came back to teach stateside. Her curriculum was still the same — radical ideas on humanity and morality — but she didn’t believe any of that anymore.
It’s been almost three decades since the dream, and Mary still doesn’t have all the answers on how to work in academia while maintaining Christian beliefs.
That doesn’t mean she isn’t trying, though. Her mission field is a college campus, a place where Mary knows the language. Today, she spends her days working on ways to break down the barrier between fact and faith, college and church, and grades and God.