"No doubt that's right," she said politely, but Paul got her meaning—she accepted nothing he said. She still believed that somehow through education, through enlightenment, through cooperation, the human race could set itself straight. He had heard the whole business at teachers' convention. The slick lecturers, with their polished anecdotes and utopian dreams, made him sick. They promised results bearing no relationship to what actually went on in the nation's classrooms. It was as though the teachers present—90% of whom were probably church members of some sort—had laid aside their belief that God presides over history. They applauded the slick talkers. Education would do it—even though education is only as good as the teachers, perpetually flawed, with partial truths masquerading as ultimate meanings. Miss Evans had dedicated her life to the system; her faith was in it. And while she would make a lot of difference to many as she had made to him, she would never be able to point anyone to the way out of the trap unless she changed her faith.—from Real Things, Partial Observer Books, 2008; Amazon Kindle Edition, 2010.
The fictional conversation between Miss Evans and Paul Thompson, her teaching colleague and former student, took place in 1952 when real people my age were in high school.
Today's sages were children and young adults back then when the message of mainstream Protestantism was more an ethical system derived from the "Judeo-Christian tradition" than it was the gospel of eternal salvation proclaimed by Jesus and his apostles. In that version of Christianity, God sent Jesus to fix the world up a bit, not save it from eternal loss. In the rural Midwest where I grew up, the leading churches and the public schools concurred, so the value system drilled into us by precept and example were informally summed up by the boy scout oath and law, not by John 3:16 or the Apostles' Creed. The quintessential expression of it was this working definition of a Christian College's purpose when I was a student in the 1950's: "to prepare students for Christian citizenship in a democracy."
Even as an undergraduate I was underimpressed when I heard that. I knew enough of the gospel by then to discern the distance between the college's purpose and Jesus' command to take up the cross and follow him.
By the late fifties I was at North Park Theological Seminary being taught by a Czechoslovakian Jew named Frank Neuberg. I don't know the precise order of events, but in his fifty years Dr. Neuberg had escaped the Nazi Holocaust, become a Christian, emigrated to America, and got his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. It wasn't too surprising that he also was underimpressed by the dominant version of Christianity then current. He called it "boy-scout theology."
Before those of you in the scouting movement take mortal offense, he was not attacking the scouts, nor am I. He was attacking those in the church who were making the church—the body of Christ, the household of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit—into no more than a vast scout troop, where human achievement of the highest order is exercised, honored, and definitive.
It is wonderful while it lasts, but it never lasts long, certainly not forever. Even in the scouting movement boys become men, girls become women. Growing up requires moving from symbolic achievements to those that are life-enhancing and consequential.
The contained, disciplined, tiny, temporary world of a scout troop or other voluntary society is not representative of the world at large, where another factor is insidious and cannot be overcome by human effort or will. It's the clod in the churn that Miss Evans refuses to acknowledge but that Paul Thompson knows is real.
I remembered churning butter by hand, so when Tennessee Ernie Ford referred to "a clod in the churn" on his TV show fifty years ago I understood him instantly. If a clod gets in the churn, the butter becomes mud—the precious cream is wasted, the anticipated pleasure of enjoying the butter is gone forever, the cleanup is messy and tiresome, and there is nothing to show for it.
The universal clod in the churn is sin. That's what the Bible calls it, and that is why Good Friday, just twenty days away, is Good. It remembers the day Jesus died for our sins—"and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2).
If you don't see the clod in the churn, you are going to die from a diet of mud!