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July 14, 2008
Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service
By Mary Poplin
Mary Poplin’s Finding Calcutta, to be released in October 2008, is the latest release from Veritas Forum Books, a partnership between InterVarsity Press and the Veritas Forum.
Poplin makes clear upfront that while the book’s central focus is Mother Teresa, it is neither an academic biography nor hagiography. Finding Calcutta is, in her words, a “simple story of my brief encounter with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity and of my struggles then and now to understand.”
As a professor steeped in the values of liberal education, Mary Poplin’s will to understand her uniquely religious experience in Calcutta (now Kolkata) represents the central tension of the book. It is the dissonance between a “leftist intellectual” who has “dabbled in feminist theology…forms of meditation, drugs, and the New Age movement” and a “small, curious-looking nun” who says things like “fall more in love with Jesus every day” and “our work is not social work; it is religious work.”
In the introduction to the book, Poplin struggles to make any affirmative statements about Mother Teresa whatsoever. We read, for instance, that Teresa was “not an intellectual” and “not interested in universities, philosophies, worldviews or public conversations.” Even positive associations of Mother Teresa with medieval Christianity or ancient monastic life, Poplin admits, would only relegate the nun to a bygone era—yet another way of circumventing definitions.
But while Poplin’s frustrated attempts to categorize Mother Teresa and her subsequent decision to tell a “simple story” can be mistaken for a Quietistic forfeiture of the mind for the heart, the book does maintain a framework of philosophical inquiry, most notably in the appendixes: “A Brief History of the University and Dominant Worldviews” and “Toward a Twenty-First-Century University.”
This overriding sense of faith reinforced by intellectuality is, of course, the hallmark of Veritas Forum Books, which aspires to “academically rigorous scholarship” that will address “broad issues of culture and faith.”
At any rate, it is clear that Mary Poplin is a suitable spokesperson for such a wide-ranging initiative as the Veritas Forum, being herself personally invested in the issues that drive it:
“My struggle to write this book, to tell the truth about Mother Teresa, and my struggles in the university are a testimony both to a lost public conversation and to a worldview that is very difficult for many in Western culture to comprehend fully, even some of us who profess Christ.”