The Book Review that Might Get Me Excommunicated

muscle-shovelIf you’re a member of churches of Christ, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about Michael Shank’s Muscle and a Shovel. It has gathered more attention than anything like it in recent memory. He has sold more than 67,000 copies—a real feat since most self-published books don’t move more than a hundred units.

Michael Shank’s book has been riding an incredible wave of popularity in recent months. The Christian Chronicle published a story about the “thousands of baptisms” connected to the book. I personally know of several churches that have purchased cases to hand out for evangelism. Reviewers say things like, “If I could only have one other book besides the Bible, this would be my choice.”

My title gives my position away, but I am not convinced this is the book we ought to hold up as the number two to scripture. I have several serious concerns that I feel obligated to share. When I hear nothing but positive reviews of something, it can be a warning sign that we’ve joined a bandwagon rather than really thinking critically about something.

Let’s start with the good:

Shank tells a good story.

Honestly, the literary quality is average at best, but the story is an interesting one. We like to peek behind the curtain of other people’s brains and witness what goes on in their heads and hearts, particularly in regard to religion. (Don’t believe me? Notice how popular Heaven is For Real, The Shack, and many others are?) We like it even more when it is a story that lines up with our expectations. This is a story of “our people” and in every turn, “we” are right. Of course we’re going to like it!

Shank also has many biblical conclusions. I wouldn’t argue with many (most?) of the points he makes. There is something beautiful about baptism that is lost on many in our religious world. He does a great job of demonstrating the necessity of making faith your own—understanding what and why we believe.

He helps us see the foolishness of biblical illiteracy and dependence on religious leaders. It’s a great thing to search the scriptures, and he shows us that. He encourages us to think critically about why we make the religious decisions that we do. He even helps us think about our hermeneutics: how do we interpret and apply the Bible?

But unfortunately, that’s not what the book is known for.

The bad:

My biggest concern has to do with the general attitude and tone of the book.

Yes, I know that Shank can point to “thousands” of baptisms as proof of the efficacy of his methods. Benny Hinn can point to tens of millions of viewers worldwide and donations for a $36 million dollar jet. Neither Shank nor I would validate Benny’s ministry on that basis. If I had to guess, Shank would point to 2 Timothy 4:3 and warn about itching ears. Isn’t it possible that the same could apply to Shank? Or me?

Conservatives are not immune to that possibility. We are quick to recognize “liberals” as people who want to be placated, but I have known conservatives who have the same desires! If you are a member of churches of Christ, what in this book confronted you? Did anything? If there wasn’t anything, that’s a good indicator that it might be tickling your ears.

Shank’s book presents itself as a precisely factual retelling of his conversion story. He makes that very clear throughout the book. He goes into detail to explain the notecards and journals he kept so that he would get it right, but there are some inconsistencies that worry me.

In one moment, he doesn’t know what baptism means. In the next, he’s researching Calvinism at the public library? Nothing in the story would have motivated that research up until this point. In one moment, he is totally biblically ignorant, but in the next, he’s debating like a School of Preaching graduate. It makes the claims of accuracy a little bit tough to swallow. The book to me feels like it is an account that is “enhanced” – whether unintentionally by the foibles of memory or intentionally to make the story more powerful.

I’ve known a lot of ministers in a lot of different faiths. I’m friends with several Baptist pastors. Not a single one would answer the question of the origin of the Baptist church like he claims that every single one did in this story. Their answers sound exactly like the straw-men we set up to knock down, not like any human being that I know. (I’ll grant that it’s possible that Shank had the misfortune of meeting the worst of the worst, but I’m not convinced…)

I can’t help but think that this is an account that is remembered a little bit differently than it happened.

Shank is quick to lampoon others for ignoring context, but he blatantly ignores context right and left.

Early in the book he argues against “faith only” righteousness in Ephesians 2. He explains away Ephesians 2 by saying that Ephesians is a book dealing with people who were trying to bind the old law and circumcision on believers. The problem? That’s the summary of Galatians, not Ephesians.

He repeatedly quotes 1 Peter 3:15, a passage that he makes to mean, “You have to be able to give scripture for every practice of your church.” Is it a good and right thing to explain the authority by which we act in our churches? Absolutely. But this passage does not teach that. If you read anything in 1 Peter, you see that Peter is writing to the dispersed people who are being persecuted for their faith. When Christians are slandered, they don’t lash out like most people would expect. Peter tells them to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them. That’s a pretty big difference—especially for a book that assumes that anyone else who takes a scripture out of context is intentionally misusing the text. I don’t honor truth by using bad reasoning to get to it.

The attitude in the book troubles me. He over-simplifies issues that have been the subject of two millennia of debates. He accuses people who don’t fall on his side of the issue of being intellectually dishonest or incapable. Let me rephrase that: if you don’t agree with Shank, he’d say it’s because you’re lazy, a liar, or dumb. You haven’t used any muscle and shovel. That’s not a charitable position by any means.

Is that what you want to win people with? Is that what you want to win people to?

It is true that there are lazy and dishonest people. But “they” don’t have a monopoly on that market. “We” have plenty of them, too. We really ought to be careful before we call everyone else in the religious world a stupid liar!

Another point of concern: Shank’s entire study and conversion experience focuses on the doctrines of the church. There is almost no emphasis on attitude and behavior. He virtually ignores the topic of grace except to warn against misusing it. (Kindle says that the word grace appears 44 times. Fewer than 8 of them occur without the words “falling,” “obedience”, or some sort of refutation of grace only.) He warns about many false churches, but Christianity without grace is not biblical Christianity!

Jesus said that the identifying mark of his disciples would be their love (John 13:35), yet the book seems to delight in retelling the fact that he enjoyed swearing at Baptist pastors in his head. Do you really expect to teach a Baptist friend anything in the paragraph after the author calls him a pompous a—? Yeah right! Paul said that we must speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Without love, we’re just a loud racket that accomplishes nothing! (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

Shank’s idea of the distinctiveness of the church is based around congregational government and doctrine. Those things matter, but the main thing has to be the main thing. Where was the first and greatest commandment? Where was the golden rule? Where was the Sermon on the Mount? Why was there no emphasis on what Jesus emphasized?

Shank’s character in the book says he doesn’t buy the “we’re the only ones going to heaven” line. That makes people feel good. But then the book teaches: “From my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, or any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed towards eternal destruction.”

Shank totally misses the difference between a flawed local congregation and the universal, ultimate body of Christ. Every group with a name is a denomination—like it or not. The word “denomination” means a group separated by a name. The Bible is clearly against division (see John 17, 1 Corinthians 3, etc.), but there is a difference between division and denomination. Even the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3 are recognized and identified by name.

I think the Bible teaches the significance of baptism, so you could call me a Baptist. The Bible describes elders or presbyters or bishops who guide the church, so you could call me a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian. I want to be a person who follows the methods of Jesus, so you could call me a Methodist. Acts 2 describes the birth of the church on Pentecost, so you could call me a Pentecostal. I believe that the church transcends borders of nations, languages, and time, so it is fair to call me a Catholic Christian. Orthodoxy (and orthopraxy) are important to me, so you can call me an Orthodox. I have been “grafted in” to true Israel of God (Romans 11:24, Galatians 6:16) so you could call me a Jew.

You can call me all of those things, but really, I’d prefer you call me Matthew. And I hope you know that I’m a Christian.

Is it good that there are so many religious divisions in a city today? No. Do the names on the buildings communicate something? Of course. But Shank misses the point: we need to make sure we are members of Christ’s church and in community with Christ’s people. Sitting at a building with the sign “Church of Christ” saves you no more than sitting at a building with the sign “Christian Church” damns you.

My salvation is not negated by the fact that people with whom I worship misunderstand something about God. I am not automatically damned because my preacher is wrong about something. If this were true, we would all be lost. I know everybody in the congregation where I preach would be.

Shank claims that he has given us “plain Bible teaching with no human opinions.” He says that his book contains “no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.”

That’s great rhetoric, but it isn’t true. If this book were nothing but the Bible, it would be the Bible. It’s not. It’s Muscle and a Shovel. It’s Michael Shank.

I don’t have a problem with books. I have a problem with books pretending that they’re something they aren’t. We are all interpreters! Sometimes we are good interpreters. Sometimes we are bad interpreters. To claim that we aren’t is disingenuous at best.

The same restoration leaders who encouraged us to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent in its silence also reminded us, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” While we don’t all agree on what constitutes essential and non-essential, we can agree on a definition of “all things.” Before I’m comfortable with a book like this, I need to see more charity.

Muscle and a Shovel came across to me as one proud man’s conversion story. It was the roller coaster ride of his highs and lows through religious searching. There’s plenty to learn from him. But let’s not make his story or his method become the method.

Final thoughts

I want to be very clear about this: I’m grateful to be a member and minister in the church of Christ. I’m grateful for my church home. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, but we are absolutely not perfect, so I want to be careful about making it sound like we are.

If you’re a member, you might enjoy reading the book. I think you can learn from it. I wouldn’t even mind using it for a class—as long as it was open as a case study of what is healthy and what isn’t.

I cannot recommend giving it to non-religious strangers. I can’t recommend giving it to religious friends in other groups, unless there is a very strong, open, and candid relationship that can work through positive and negative ideas. Without that, this book is very likely to be offensive. I don’t believe that it is likely to be a “productive” offensive, either.

Overall, I can’t recommend Muscle and a Shovel. There are more balanced, healthier approaches to evangelism than this book. There are better studies of theology than this book. And there are better stories than this book.

Shank says that thousands have been baptized because of this book. I’m not sure I think that’s the case. After reading it, my assumption is that if thousands were baptized as a result, millions of others may have been permanently turned away. I’m afraid we’re going to deal with the negative publicity of this book for decades to come.

8 thoughts on “The Book Review that Might Get Me Excommunicated

  1. You should be ashamed for writing this garbage. If you don’t believe his story that’s your opinion. How dare you accuse him of dishonesty without any evidence other than your feelings.

  2. Thank you for your review. I always wonder about books that claim a spiritual leaning. You are concise and clear about you misgivings. In my humble opinion, you pinpoint exactly what you see as a problem and give biblical reasons to back it up.
    What more can one ask for?

  3. Happy – Well thought out critique. Unlike Joe, the previous poster, I believe it is possible to make the inferences you did based on the text of the book. You make an excellent point about “the main thing has to be the main thing.” I was raised in an environment where this was often lost while their were a number of other doctrinal litmus tests required to “remain in fellowship.” Keep up the good work!

  4. I was saddened to read what I felt was your very biased opinion of Michael Shanks book. You are certainly entitled to you opinion as we all are. However, you seem to come close to calling Michael a liar. He may be but neither your nor I know that. We had a visitor last Sunday that received the book from a friend in another state. He wants to learn more about the church described in the Bible. I personally know a man, a preacher’s son, that turned his back on God over 30 years ago. He read the book and was restored. I know, these are just two examples. My point is, we need to be careful of outright accusing or implying the dishonesty of others without the facts.
    Thanks,
    Robert Goff, Kinston, NC

  5. Matthew, thank you for the time taken in giving your honest review. At the end of the day, our Bible is the true source of truth & our loving tone/demeanor is required to promote unity among our fellow Christians.

  6. I appreciate your analysis of Muscle and Shovel. Like you I thought his story was good but the attitudes and the pictures of denominational preachers was awful. I’ve been preaching now for about 50 years but grew up in the Freewill Baptist church where my dad preached for much of his life. I disagree with some of the teachings he believed but his integrity was without question. The picture that all such men are just preaching for the money was so offensive to me that I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone. His pictures of what the different groups believed was completely out of date or totally mistaken.

  7. Matthew, this was recommended to us and we haven’t read it yet, but many of your reservations have been raised by others who have read it too. I think it could be a good tool, in the right hands with the right person, and I agree, that you have to have some kind of relationship with someone you study with. Recently I read, Reborn, Conformed, Transformed (Lance Mosher) (I think that’s right!) and have passed it to Caleb for a possible study in AL because it’s not a guide, but I think it would give some great lead ins for discussion with college age and up. Just another tool, not one better than the Original!!

  8. I grew up in the church of Christ. I have since left and go to a reformed church. Your paragraph on “you could call me _________ (denomination) because I believe” brought tears to my eyes. Because that’s how I want my family to see me … “You could just call me Kelly and know that I am a Christian.” Whether we agree on every theological point or not, this review and your heart of grace and tenderness toward those inside and outside the coC is beautiful and life-giving to the Church (big C.) Thank you friend.

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