“Spiritual, Not Religious” Meets Jesus – Mary Poplin’s story

Apr 30, 2021

Side B Stories
Side B Stories
"Spiritual, Not Religious" Meets Jesus - Mary Poplin's story
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University professor Dr. Mary Poplin was “spiritual, not religious” and sampled many ideologies until a vivid dream made the Jesus of Christianity undeniable to her. Listen as Mary tells her story.
Mary is author of the book  Is Reality Secular?:  Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews (2014)
Mary‘s reflection on her time spent with Mother Teresa is written in  Finding Calcutta:  What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Meaningful Work and Service (2008)
And, her academic writing on teaching in challenging environments is  Highly Effective Teachers of Vulnerable Students:  Practice Transcending Theory

Episode Transcript

Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to the Side B Podcast, where we listen to the other side. Each episode, we listen to the story of someone who has lived as a nonbeliever and then became a Christian, someone who understands from the inside what each of those worlds are like.

One of the most fascinating discoveries in my research with over 50 former atheists was the role that some kind of religious or mystical experience played in their conversion to Christianity. Dreams, visions, encounters with Jesus Christ, encounters with Satan and dark spirituality, extraordinary providential circumstances—these all reshaped their understanding of the possible reality that there was something more, something real, beyond this universe. Some of these experiences were invited in a way, after someone had opened themselves up, had prayed or challenged God or even Satan to show up. Some of these otherworldly experiences were not invited but palpably encountered nonetheless. So sobering were they that it caused them to change their minds and even their lives, dramatically reorienting themselves to a new understanding of reality as something more than they once thought possible. That is the story that we will hear today from our guest.

As a rational intellectual university professor, she didn’t know what she was looking for. As someone who was spiritual but not religious, she definitely wasn’t looking for the Judeo-Christian God. But she experienced an unexpected, powerful, and vivid dream and suddenly found herself profoundly believing in Jesus Christ. She came to see that reality was much more than she realized, much more than merely grounded in this world. Forgiveness and peace were found in the real person of Jesus Christ. It changed everything for her. Dr. Mary Poplin is now a university professor and strong advocate of the Christian worldview. I hope you’ll listen in to hear her compelling journey from nonbelief to belief.

Welcome to the Side B Podcast, Mary. It’s so great to have you.

It’s great to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

As we’re getting started, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? Maybe your academic background and perhaps where you live?

Okay. Well, I started as a schoolteacher, and I taught for a few years, and then I went to the University of Texas to graduate school and then I became a professor. I spent three years at the University of Kansas a long time ago, but I’ve been at Claremont Graduate University as a professor since 1981, I think. A long time. I’m old.

Oh, no!

And that’s in Claremont, California. It’s in the Los Angeles area, where I live. And then I occasionally come back to my hometown, where my sisters live, and that’s where I am right now because of the virus, so we’re all teaching online anyway, and so I’m teaching from here in Texas.

What is your focus of study or your specialty?

I started out in special education, and then I went to teacher education largely, and now I would say my research is on teacher. Actually, I love to study highly effective teachers in the most troubled schools, so that’s what I study, and I’ve worked with my students. We’ve done a piece of research and a book on that. And my second thing is that I love to study Judeo-Christian thought and how it impacts different fields, and so I did a book on the four major worldviews, trying to explain what secular humanism and materialism and pantheism were as related to Christianity.

And what is the name of that book?

Oh. That’s a good question.

I believe it is Is Reality Secular?

Is Reality Secular? Yes.

I took that line from a Dallas Willard book, actually.

Okay.

He let me steal it. He said I could have anything.

Oh! Wonderful, wonderful. Yeah, Dallas Willard was a pretty extraordinary man.

A very amazing man. Yeah.

So you’re someone who obviously is a thinker, someone who’s thought deeply about issues of worldview, of life, of perspective, but the Christian worldview and thinking about your life in those terms certainly wasn’t where you started. So let’s back up now and let’s go early in your life. Tell me about where you grew up. Was there any concept of God in your home, your family, your friends, among your friends or community?

I grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas, and my dad was—I mean, my mother was too, but my dad very specifically was a Christian. And so he took us to Sunday school every Sunday, and we usually went to church. We went to Methodist church. I would say that I came away from that church not exactly knowing. I think I had one Sunday school teacher who was pretty on target about who Jesus was, but a Methodist church was already kind of leaning towards secular humanism, really, and so when I left that experience, and when I got into graduate school, I really did leave Christianity for a long time.

So, when you grew up, you had I guess you could say a tacit knowledge of God? You went to church. It was in your culture, so to speak, but I take it from what you’re saying that you didn’t really take on a belief personally that God exists or that Jesus is real or—well, he may have been historically real, but there really wasn’t much to it for you in your life. Does that-

I don’t even know if I thought that deeply. I wasn’t thinking about rejecting it or thinking about accepting it. It just seemed like it was part of the culture in a way, and I had done that by going to Sunday school and church. I did know my dad was different. My dad—we all remember, all four girls. We remember seeing him read the Bible at night before he went to bed. You know, just on the side of his bed. He always had his Bible open before he’d go to sleep, before he’d go in to bed. So I knew that, all of that. And I guess I thought Christians were people who tried to live better maybe.

This is something that provided a good moral construct for the family, for their way of life, their living, that sort of thing?

Kind of. Yes.

Yeah. It sounds like it just wasn’t particularly relevant to you.

No. I didn’t dislike it, nor did I adopt it. I remember a couple of times feeling close to God in church as a child but not very many.

Okay. So obviously it sounds like there was somewhat of a change when you went to university. Your way of thinking about God or Christianity or religion generally? Why don’t you talk about that?

Well, when I got to graduate school, I pretty much rejected it. I knew enough to know that the kinds of things I wanted to do would not be validated by a Christian worldview or Christian beliefs, and so I rejected it really out of desire, other desires. So other desires kind of replaced any interest I had in Christianity. And I didn’t actually become what . . . . I mean some people become atheists, right? But they’re more thoughtful about it, I think. I think I became what I’d call “spiritual but not religious,” and there’s a large group of people in America and around the world, especially in the Western world, who believe that they’re spiritual, which is the way that I wanted to say—and I think they also—wanted to say, “I’m a good person, but I’m not religious. I can be good without God.” And so that’s what I became. So I was vaguely spiritual, which meant that I would sometimes . . . . I’d go to things that were more like pantheist things. Sessions on being spiritual. I tried a couple of different sort of pantheistic things. For a while, I went with a friend to some Buddhist—no, actually it was Hindu—meditation practice. So New Age kinds of things. That’s really what I was doing.

So why were you pursuing those kind of spiritual pursuits? Was there something in your life that you just wanted more? Why that?

I think because I wanted to, in some ways, suggest that I was a good person, right? Even though I was doing things that, for a good Christian, it would not have been okay. Does that make sense?

So it gave you religion without the moral requirements associated with a Judeo-Christian God?

Right. No moral requirements. Right.

So that was a comfortable place to be I guess, for a while.

So this was in graduate school and beyond, maybe, into young adulthood?

Yes. When I went to California, I would get involved in sort of spiritual activities that were not Christian. Feminist spirituality, those kind of things.

Did you find that intellectually satisfying? Or existentially satisfying? Or?

I don’t know if it was satisfying. There was something, I guess, in me that I wanted to say I was spiritual.

Right, right. So walk us farther along your journey. What started happening in your life next? Or what started causing you to question that or change that?

Well, to tell the truth, I didn’t really question it until I had a particular dream. When I say I didn’t question it, I don’t mean that I knew it was working, right? In retrospect, I thought I was as good as anybody else, right? Even though I was doing things that everybody else was doing and so I kept trying to call myself good, right? But somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that wasn’t working because I had also experienced a lot of depression. So I was on antidepressants a lot. After I got to my job, I was using antidepressants a great deal, and so something was wrong. I don’t know that I worded it that way. I might’ve thought, “Well, I just have this little chemical imbalance, and so these drugs help me.”

So then I got tenure. I think it was 1991 or ’92, and that happened in probably May? May, that’s usually when you find out those things. And then, in November—okay, so I was married at the time. My husband was into even weirder things, really, and he and a friend had gone for Thanksgiving to Hawaii, I think, or somewhere, I don’t know. And things were not going that well in our marriage, either. I think I knew he was with other people. And so I spent Thanksgiving alone, and then I had a dream at Thanksgiving, and that dream was really the turning point. So it was the only time I . . . . You know, I have dreams all the time, but they don’t usually make sense, right? You know how they are. There’s bubble gum and something else in there or something.

But this dream, I remembered every single detail, and in the dream, there was a part of the dream in color, but I was not in the part that was in color, and I had never dreamed in color, so I was in a long line of people, and we were all dressed in kind of gray robes, to our feet, to our fingertips, so we’re kind of Buddhist looking. And we’re in a line, and we’re not breaking line, we’re not talking to each other, we’re just marching straight ahead. But the odd thing is that we were not on a plane that you could see. It was like we were suspended in a night sky. So here we are, walking towards something. No one knew what it was. And I didn’t know where I was going, and so I kind of leaned out to my left and looked, and it looked like the line sort of snaked around and disappeared. And then I thought, “Well, I must be at the back of the line,” so I looked around to my right, and it looked as though that line didn’t end, either. And then all of a sudden I noticed that we were going to pass by something on the right, and there was a kind of yellowish tinted light coming out from where we were going, on the right of us. And when I got to it, it was a live version . . . . The best way to describe it is it was a live version of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper. So there’s these disciples sitting in disciple-like robes, and they’re in color. And they’re eating. They’re at this table, and they’re eating, and they’re talking to each other, and they’re not paying really us any attention whatsoever, and then all of a sudden I realized that, even those this looked a lot like the Last Supper, Jesus was not there.

So there was a seat kind of in the middle that was empty. And then I looked up ahead, and this was a reception line, and we were all going to pass by Jesus, and when I got to Jesus, and I looked at Him, I knew who He was, and all of a sudden, I also knew who I was. And I was deeply embarrassed. I mean, I felt like I was just filled with sin and rottenness and all that, and so I couldn’t look at Jesus any more, and I fell down at His feet, and I started to cry, and in the dream, then, Jesus leans over and puts His hands on my shoulders, and when He touched me, I felt perfect peace. I mean I don’t know how to describe this except that you feel so peaceful you feel almost like you’re not . . . like you don’t have a heavy body attached to you. I don’t know how to describe it other than that. And then I woke up.

And when I woke up, the dream was so well connected—that is there weren’t any holes in it. It wasn’t a mishmash of different things like most dreams are. It was very clear, and when I woke up, I knew something had changed and I needed to do something. And so . . . . What did I do after that? Oh. Then, I had a sabbatical coming up, and I’d moved from California to Austin. At that time, I had a little house there, where I had gone to graduate school, and I began to stay there, and I began to pursue people who were in churches. And I told someone who was probably . . . I think they were involved in Campus Crusade. They knew about my conversion. And they started telling people, and then other people would come to me, and that’s how I kind of began to know what Christianity was.

So, just to be clear, you just characterized that dream as a moment of conversion. Is that what I’m hearing from you?

Yes, I think that’s what I would say. Because it was not something that could be shaken off, right? It was there in me now. And I had always wanted to be spiritual, right? But it became overarching. Now I didn’t know anything really about Jesus, right? I mean I really didn’t know, even though I’d gone to church and stuff. I really didn’t know much. So I started pursuing people, and they started pursuing me in Austin. And they were Christians. They would take me to places. One woman I had met, and within a couple of hours, she invited me to room with her at a woman’s retreat. I mean, that’s pretty radical. She didn’t know me at all. But I went to the retreat, and the first thing I started to notice that was so obvious. These were not professors or particularly in my field. In fact, none of them, I think, were in my field. But the first thing I began to notice is that they lived their life differently. They lived their life differently. They looked healthier. They looked happier. They were clear minded. I think they weren’t confused. They weren’t searching for something that they didn’t have. They were still pursuing growing in Christ, but they weren’t like I had been.

There was a contentment associated with what they had found, I guess.

Right.

And we’re just growing in that, yeah. Did you start reading the Bible to become informed about the person of Jesus?

The Bible was really key for me. As an academic, right? You look for the book. Not only did I read the Bible, I ended up reading it over and over, and I would go to these retreats. There were some retreats at monasteries. So one of the kind of unique features of my conversion is that Catholics helped me, Protestants helped me. Even a couple of Orthodox people helped me. And they were Protestants of every kind, from charismatic Protestants to very serious Baptist Protestants. So I did begin to read the Bible, and I began to love the New Testament. In fact, someone had advised me to do this.

But when I started reading it, I read the Psalms, the Proverbs, and the New Testament first. And this person asked me once—this guy asked me, “Well, what do you think of your reading? How’s the reading going?” And I said, “Well, I love the Proverbs, I like the New Testament, and the Psalms, they’re okay.” And he said, “So you don’t particularly like the Psalms.” And I said, “Yeah, I don’t particularly like the Psalms,” and then he said to me a very important question, especially the way he phrased it. He said to me, “Do you know why you dislike the Psalms?” And I said, immediately I think, “Yeah, because in the Psalms there’s that one where it says, ‘dash their children on rocks,’ right? There’s a lot of violence in the Psalms,” and he just nodded. He didn’t say a single word other than that.

But it really opened up to me, “Okay, so why do I hate the Psalms writer? Why do I not like the Psalms.” And all of a sudden, I think it was that very night after I had had dinner with this person, who was significant in San Diego in helping me, and I was reading the Psalms that night, and I got to 137, the psalm that dashes children on rocks. And when I read it this time, I saw that the Psalms were about good and evil, and those instances were instances of evil, and evil was clearly still in charge of my life, and so that’s how I broke through that barrier. And then I began reading everything, the Old Testament all the way through. I just kept re-reading. And then I decided that . . . . I went to a monastery for a retreat that I think was about a week long. And the abbot who was in charge of it would tell us every night what scriptures he was going to use the next morning, and so he told us, and I went to my room, and I was looking up the scripture, and I was so tired. I couldn’t concentrate. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll write them in my little notebook. I’ll write them, copy them in my notebook, and then in the morning I’ll look at them, at breakfast.” And so, as I copied them, though, I saw how much more I saw in the scriptures when I was writing it, when I was just copying it, so that led me to copy the Psalms, the Proverbs, and the New Testament ultimately during that time.

Wow, so you were really getting into the Bible, the scripture, what it meant for you. I’m curious—as you were reading the Bible, particularly the gospels and the stories of Christ and learning who He was, did reading the Bible and Jesus and the gospels help give you an understanding of what had happened to you in your dream? Like Jesus the One who forgives those who are seemingly or feel unforgivable, the One who is the Author of peace? Those things that you experienced, did they come to reality in scripture for you?

Well, yes. I don’t think I was thinking about it consciously like you just stated it. I think it was happening. And it’s one thing to know what the scripture says. It’s another thing to then begin to try to live it. Okay, so November was the dream, and then I had a couple of other experiences later in January. So in January, my mother, who grew up in North Carolina—I grew up in Texas—wanted to go back and visit her family, what was left of her family and to visit friends there. And so I took her back, and my mother had grown up in a very tiny Methodist church that was probably about as nominally teaching as the one I was in, and she wanted to go to church, I think largely because she knew that’s where she’d see her friends, and so I took her there, and I remember sitting through the sermon, and there was an older country preacher, and I was thinking, “Well, you know, it’s okay because now I study the Bible, and I had this dream, so this is all right,” and I didn’t pay much attention to his sermon, but it happened it was the first Sunday in January, which means they were going to have Communion.

So I’m at the back of this church. It couldn’t have held more than 100 people, I’m sure, but they were going to go up one row at a time, so they’d go up and fill up the area around the altar, and they’d receive Communion and they’d come back to their chairs, and then the next group would go, right? Well, we were in the back, and I thought it would never happen, because when he talked about taking the bread, taking Christ into your body and giving your life to Him, it just came over me that I had to have that Communion, and it was like, it felt like it was forever before I got there. But I finally got there, and I knelt down, and I took the Communion elements, and I didn’t listen to a thing he said. I just looked at them, and I said, “If you are real, please come and get me.” I didn’t say this out loud. And I said it, like, three times, “If you’re real, please come and get me. Please come and get me,” and when I took the elements, I felt the same peace I had felt in that dream, when Jesus had touched me, exactly the same peace, so much so that I thought maybe if I stood up I wouldn’t stay on the ground. That’s how light I felt. But I did stay on the ground, thank goodness!

So I got back to my pew, and that, I think is the moment that I really had what you might call a conversion moment. Because now I’m making that commitment.

Yes. It was a conscious decision and somehow it wasn’t just made for you, in a sense. It was just something where you actually gave your life in return. Yes. Sounds very, very powerful, like a very powerful moment.

Yeah, it was. It was.

Now how long ago was that?

A long time ago. Because that would’ve been the January of I think ’93 maybe. Or ’92.

Okay. So it sounds like you’re . . . . I think the dream is extraordinary, that it would be so powerful that you would come out changed. And then you read the scripture, you were surrounded by Christians, you had that moment of conversion. I can imagine someone listening who may be rather skeptical, thinking, “But she’s an intellectual. How does she know it’s true? I know we can know things are experientally true, but how does she know it’s intellectually true? How does she know she’s not just convincing herself of something?” And I know, as an academic, that’s not the way you roll, in the sense that things have to be, in a sense, intellectually credible or viable before you’ll fully embrace it, I would imagine, on some level. Can you explain how that became a holistic part of your journey, the intellectual aspect of everything else that you were experiencing and learning?

Well, to be honest, I think that’s still my calling, right? To continue to understand that and to be able to relate it to intellectuals. So the intellectual piece is, if you really begin to study scripture, you will see that there’s not a single issue we argue about today that’s not in scripture, for example. And this is way jumping ahead to where I am now, okay? I just want to make that clear. I didn’t know this back then. But I did have this draw to scripture.

So, for example, when we talk about race. Well, race is talked about all the time in the Bible, right? All of these things. Justice is always talked about in the Bible. The word social justice never appears, and the word justice is the same word in the Bible, in the Hebrew, as righteousness, so there is a clear message in the Bible that justice and righteousness have to be together. You don’t have justice without righteousness, and you don’t have righteousness without justice. And there’s lots of . . . . People talk about women. In the Bible, I mean, you look at any other religion. There’s no religion that has as many women in it. I mean, there’s tons of women, right? And Jesus’ genealogy, which is very unusual, because it lists five women—most genealogies do not list any women. And out of those five women, four of them are actually not Jewish, so we have the issue of culture and race. They’re not Jewish at all. Bathsheba’s not Jewish. Tamar’s not Jewish.

So there are these intellectual principles that are embedded in the Bible. And we just haven’t paid much attention to them. You know, Martin Luther King was one of the best at that, especially in terms of race and justice and things like that, so when he says . . . he basically does 1 Corinthians 12 by saying . . . . He says the strange thing is that, for me to be I have to be, you have to be who you have to be, and for you to be fully who you’re supposed to be, I have to be who I’m supposed to be. Then he says that’s the strange way that God’s world is made. And that’s just a summary of 1 Corinthians 12, about the body. The part of the body that you actually think is least useful is actually the most important one.

So now, when I look at it intellectually, I have to find ways to insert Christian wisdom into what we’re teaching, which is not Christian wisdom at all. So we usually end up teaching left and right. So we either go too far to the left or too far to the right. When you lose something as large and as monumental and important and true as Christianity in the intellectual world, you lose the moral plumbline. So though a moral plumbline in Christianity. Left and right is talked about all the time in the Bible. I forget how many times. It seems like it’s, I don’t know, 24 or 45 times. And what it says is, “Do not turn to your left or to your right.” Over and over, it says that in the Bible. That’s all we do in the university almost, you know? Right now, it’s left. It used to be right. But all universities came out of Christendom. They started out in monasteries to begin with. There wasn’t even a university in the United States until Johns Hopkins in 1899 that did not claim itself to be Christian. And many, many universities still have that claim even though they don’t particularly use Christian doctrine in their teaching. Because I think now people have just lost track of it.

But the scripture still has all this wisdom in it, for all these different issues. But we’re not using them. So that’s where my conversion took me. That’s why I believe I spent so much time in the Bible.

Yes. And I suppose that there was something in you, again, in your intellectual curiosity and drive in your work that compares different worldviews, that you wanted to perhaps . . . . I mean, why did you do that kind of comparative study, even after you became a Christian?

I think because, when I see Christians in the university, I see that they are like I was. How do you relate this? I still remember, when I came back from Calcutta, speaking at a women’s retreat about Mother Teresa. It was not a retreat. It was a woman’s education leadership conference. It was a breakfast at a leadership conference, which was not just all women, but they wanted me to tell something about Mother Teresa, so I told them small stories, and at the end, a woman in the back stood up, and she said, “Have you had any trouble coming back from Mother Teresa’s?” And when she said that—I obviously had had trouble—I just broke out in tears in front of this audience of 250 school administrator women. And I had been asking the Lord, “What is this? What is this going on with me that I start crying before I go to class?” And I just blurted out—all of a sudden, I guess that’s when the Holy Spirit decided to give me the answer. So I remember I even did this with my hands, I said, you know, “Obviously, I’ve had some trouble.” And then they kind of calmed down, too.

And I said, “Okay, so I went to Mother Teresa’s, and I saw Christianity really lived. I know. We’re not all called to that, but I saw it lived. And I came back to teach, and I’m still teaching exactly what I’ve always taught. And I don’t know how to get from here to here, and I feel like a liar.” When I said that, a lot of the women in the audience started to cry. Because we all feel that way, I think. If you’re a strong Christian, you feel like, “Why can’t I take this into my world?” “Why can’t we talk about this in whatever place I’m living in or working in?” So that’s one of my callings.

So I do now teach a class called Judeo-Christian Thought Across the Disciplines, and it is a class that anybody from any field can take. We have these classes called trans-disciplinary classes. And so sometimes Christians take it. I mean, there’s always Christians in the class, but sometimes an atheist might take it or somebody who’s just not religious, never really thought of it. Maybe it just fits their schedule that semester, right? But it’s a lovely class because the students have a lot of flexibility on what they can read, and I guide them in Christian reading in their discipline, and then they present it to each other, so it’s kind of like a little intellectual feast in a way. And Christianity is the core of it.

It sounds wonderful. It sounds like you have, in a sense, integrated your Christianity into every walk or part of your life, and I’m sure you’ve hopefully found, as when you first had your dream and you encountered these Christians who had this sensibility of peace and joy and purpose, perhaps contentment, that you obviously have found that sort of thing in your life.

Yeah. I mean I’m still a sinner.

We all are. We all are.

Right.

So for those who might be listening, if there’s someone who is perhaps spiritual, not religious. Maybe they don’t know what they think about Christianity or where they should look. If they’re curious or wanting to think about things further, what would you say to the skeptic who might be listening to you today?

Well, I think we try to push them too fast. I think we try to get them to the time where you say the right thing. And in fact, for a while, someone kept telling me . . . she kept asking me, like, “What did you say when you think you became a Christian?” And I would say, “I said, ‘Please come and get me.'” That just wasn’t good enough for her.

Okay. You didn’t say the magic words on the magic formula?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I would avoid that. I would just talk to them about their life. I’d maybe show them people who are Christian who they don’t know are Christian, for example. You know, there are Christians in every field that people don’t know are Christian, right? I think they should just watch, and then somebody that they trust, they could talk to, and then I would say . . . mostly get to know them, and then when they start asking you, us, questions, then we answer honestly, but we don’t begin to push them. I think that that’s—especially for a person who’s an intellectual, like in the university. It’s never going to work that way. And the other thing is to tell them times when you’ve been changed—I mean, I always like to say not just . . . Christianity is mostly presented socially or personally, not necessarily intellectually, right? In fact, usually not intellectually. But there are things everybody is concerned about. Everybody has sinned. There’s not a single person probably even who gets to five years old who doesn’t have something that they know they shouldn’t have done, for example.

And so I might share a time when I’ve used 1 John 1:9, which I think is the most underrated scripture in the universe, where it says, “If I confess my sin,” and that word always people stumble on, but the word sin just means—it’s an archery term. It means you missed the mark. You didn’t hit the center, right? You may have missed it a little. You may have missed it a lot. So in 1 John 1:9, he says, “If I confess my sin, He’s faithful and just to forgive me and to cleanse from all unrighteousness,” and that’s the part no one pays any attention to. Okay?

So I just sinned, and I can give you an example. So I had, with my partners before all this, watched pornographic movies, for example. We had watched those. Even at the University of Texas, there was something called, I think, Friday night movies or something. And so, when I came to Christ, I never had a desire to see that again, but I could be driving down the Los Angeles freeway, where you have a lot of time, and suddenly something would start flashing in my mind from one of those films unconsciously called up by me. I wasn’t calling it up. And that disturbed me. So I would say out loud in my car—usually I was alone. “Okay, Lord, You saw that and I saw it, and I confess that that’s a sin, and I ask you to forgive me, but not just to forgive me, I ask you to cleanse me from this.” And I did that for about a year, and it just totally went away. I don’t ever have those flashbacks, nothing. But we forget to ask to be cleansed. Getting rid of a sin that has become a habit is not an easy thing to do, but it’s certainly not going to be done by secular psychology, because first they’re going to rationalize that it’s not really a sin. Everybody does it, right?

So Christian psychology. Real Christian psychology, biblical psychology, is as far from secular psychology as anything. I mean, I can’t even imagine a field that’s more disparate than the way we teach psychology. You know, there was a book that was famous when I was young and you probably were, too, and it was the book that everybody read about psychology, and it said, I’m okay, you’re okay. Two lies. I’m not okay, and neither are you!

That is very true.

If you want to believe it, go right ahead, but it was exactly the opposite, and we grew up on that. And we taught our children that and their grandchildren that. And now we have what we have.

Yes.

We have exactly what has been planted.

Yes.

It’s just like there’s no clear line between evil and good.

Or evil is called good and good evil.

Exactly. That’s exactly the scripture, right? Calling good evil and evil good, and that is where we are.

Yes. Wow, Mary, you have had quite a life, really, it sounds like. Just full of experience and moving from Texas to California—living spirituality in California, I can’t even imagine what that might be. And then really coming to Christ in the midst of, I would say, a very, very unlikely culture and time. And I think that that’s very encouraging for us. Even, like you say, if you look at the culture now, it seems like a very unlikely place where people can find Christ, but Christ is right in the middle, waiting. So I really am so grateful for you coming and telling your story, especially I love the dream aspect. Because dreams are incredibly real and powerful when they’re more than just the ordinary. They are the extraordinary dream that you know is from God, and there’s no question.

I think that the reason that God used dreams with me is that there was no other way to reach me. There really wasn’t. I mean, I had students who were praying for me, who would try to talk to me, and I wasn’t listening. And, you know, I’d be nice just because they were students, but there was no other way to reach me, I think. And that’s why the dream. I think a lot of people who are very strong atheists have had very strong experiences and rejected them.

That’s probably true, based upon the research that I’ve done, even the stories that I’ve heard. Sometimes I think we think, “Oh, people in the third world countries, or maybe the Middle East, that they will experience dreams,” but the Lord provides dreams to un-reached peoples everywhere around the globe, and I was amazed. I think that was probably one of the most surprising things or parts of the research was the presence of dreams, unexpected dreams and encounters and providential circumstances, and things that were so personal and so powerful. That couldn’t be explained any other way. That are life changing in that way, too. It certainly was for you. You had a sudden pivot.

For years, you know, when you first become a Christian, you are really constantly off center. Do you know what I mean? You’re searching. You kind of know that this is wrong but you don’t really know . . . . It’s hard. The Bible’s very good. I would recommend people read it and copy it or whatever, and I think especially the New Testament or the Psalms or Proverbs. Because I think we read it casually, or we read it like Bible studies. Honestly, maybe I shouldn’t say this, I’ve never really taken to most Bible studies. Because it’s like you’re working on one book for a long time, and that’s interesting. It’s intellectually interesting but not life changing. I think when you’re alone with the scripture and you’re copying it or whatever, your only partner in that is God. It’s not other people saying, “Oh, well when I read this, I thought . . . .”

Yes. I’ve heard it somewhat summarized like, “You can read for information or you can read towards transformation.”

Yeah. So I think that’s where you live. Like you say, you’re alone with God, and transformation happens in your heart and your mind when you open yourself up to the truths of scripture, and it’s just you and Him and there’s nowhere to hide. But that’s an attitude, too, in which you approach the word of God. What wisdom coming from you!

I just want to say one other thing about . . . . Let’s say I have a friend who’s a skeptic or have a friend who’s like I was or whatever. We can’t discount just prayer that people don’t even know you’re praying for them, right? So before I had this dream, I found out later that there was a woman in the neighborhood who would go around all the time in the houses in this little block area, block and a half or something, and she would pray in front of the house. And when I got to know her later, she said, “When I got to your house one day, my feet were stuck to the ground. I could not move. I prayed the prayer, and I tried to leave, and I couldn’t leave.” And then she went into, I guess tongues or something? Anyway, she had stood there. She didn’t know how long. It was probably a half an hour or more, and she was not allowed to move. She couldn’t actually physically move.

So then you find out all these people—like I found out students of mine had been praying for me for years, former students. So that can’t be ignored. Can’t be ignored.

It’s extremely powerful.

It is. And we don’t know how much. Sometimes you see somebody in a store, and you just think, “Lord, really help them. I don’t know what’s going on in their life, but help them.” You don’t know! But what we do know is that God answers prayers.

Yes, yes. Well, that’s probably a fantastic way to end our conversation. Thank you so, so very much for sharing, not only your story but incredible insight and wisdom with us today, Mary. We really appreciate it.

Thank you. It was great talking to you, Jana.

Great talking to you.

God bless you in your work.

Thank you!

Thanks for tuning into the Side B Podcast to hear Mary’s story. You can find out more about her and her book on worldviews, Is Reality Secular?, in the episode notes on this podcast. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can reach me by email at thesidebpodcast@cslewisinstitute.org. If you enjoyed it, subscribe and share this podcast with your friends and social network. I would really appreciate it. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll be listening to the other side.

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