When Shovels Break: A Review

August 18, 2015

Several weeks ago, Michael Shank asked—by email—if I would review his new book, When Shovels Break, on my blog. Since I reviewed his first book Muscle and a Shovel, I thought it brotherly to say “Yes” to his request, just as I have responded to all his communication with me in the wake of my review of his first book.

In his new book, Michael continues the narrative of his life story after his baptism. We follow him through several moves, jobs, and diverse circumstances. Michael tells how he lost his way—spiritually, emotionally, physically, and ethically. I will leave those details to his confessions within the book. Readers will discover them, and I do not need to rehearse them here.

What is important about such a confession is how Shank uses his own story to tell a story of restoration and renewal, to offer an example of how one deeply entrenched in their own despair might yet return with joy and experience God’s grace.

The book is intended for those who, like him, had left the faith and find it difficult—if not impossible—to return. In essence, just as he offered a plan of salvation for “alien sinners” in his first book, so here he offers a “plan for spiritual success in this life which will lead to our ultimate spiritual success—eternal life” (pp. 367-8). It is a “prevention” plan, which is the “power of God’s instructions” (p. 364). This “plan” (or “program, a blueprint, a syllabus, a game-plan, a living strategy” or “call it whatever you like”) provides a means for securing one’s calling and election based on 2 Peter 1:5-9.

This is a “success” book–a how-to-return-and-prevent-losing eternal life, and it is offered in several steps.  This book, in the way Shank frames it, is for those who want success.

Shanks suggests if we remember how God has purged us from sin and pursue the virtues Peter lists, we will walk a path of “success” spiritually, even if there are hard knocks along the way. His last seven chapters are the seven virtues: virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, goodness, brotherly kindness, and love. Indeed, the call to pursue these virtues is a welcome one, and it does provide a kind of “prevention” strategy.

The book is not only concerned with prevention. It is primarily an invitation for those who have left God to return to God (pp. 223, 364, 282, 302, 348, 416, 421). Everyone can appreciate the value of such an invitation.

On this point I have significant appreciation for some of the topics he addressed, and he addressed them out of his own experience. They appear in his five steps for “coming back to God”—yes, just as in the plan of salvation for “alien sinners,” there are also five steps in coming back to God. These steps are outlined in chapters 38-42, and to these steps God responds with “awesome love and grace” (p. 346, chapter 43).

His five steps are essentially: (1) confess your sins and forgive yourself, (2) forgive others for their inattentiveness and gossip about your past, (3) pray and release your resentment against and disappointment with God, (4) recognize how God has used circumstances—even negative ones—to bring you back to God’s self, and (5) seek out friends to help in your return.

These are helpful, especially self-forgiveness (see my post) and releasing our resentment against God (which I have called “forgiving God”). And just as the hypocrisy and gossip/slander of Christians often hinders others from returning to God, returnees must learn to forgive those who have mistreated them in their sin, whose hatred has hindered their return, and whose gossip has made it more difficult. These are good reminders.

So, I have an appreciation for how Shank correlates his own experience, the experience of those he has interviewed, and the reality of the church in our American experience with the process of emotionally and spiritually returning to God in the midst of fallible and imperfect communities, that is, churches.

Nevertheless, I do think the book is lacking in significant ways.

First, the theological atmosphere disturbs me. Shank emphasizes divine instructions, steps, and self-resolve, but does not give sustained attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in sanctification and renewal. Indeed, there is little, if any, acknowledgement of the work of the Spirit other than the Spirit is the one who gave us the Scriptures or instructions. The “plan” appears as something we work toward “success” rather than a life the Spirit empowers us to live with the Spirit’s guidance through the Scriptures. The book, though couched in narrative, practically offers us a business plan for “success.”

Shank’s model is in danger of creating the kind of situation he rightly wants to avoid. He is concerned believers will become disappointed in God and despair over their circumstances, as he did himself. This is a legitimate concern, but the theology that drives Shank’s “plan” is one of self-reliance, that is, we have to work the plan, work it well, and only then will we succeed. That places tremendous pressure on the believer to achieve and perfect their lives rather than depending upon God’s empowering Spirit who works through us and in us as well as depending upon God’s gracious acceptance, even in our struggles. Of course, Shank believes God gives us all we need, but what we need is simply instruction rather than empowerment. In the end, it all depends on us working the plan, and then God’s “awesome grace and love” will be apparent.

Second, the hermeneutical (interpretative) lens through which Shank reads the Bible is the same as that which produced his first book, and I critiqued that in my first review. The same proof-texting of Scripture emerges here, and the same assumptions about reading Scripture are present. I will offer one perspective to illustrate this. Interested readers can read the first review to see more examples.

While rightly pointing out “the scriptures must remain in their intended context for the Truth to be found and understood properly” (p. 325) and “we must put effort into allowing the Bible to interpret itself (p. 326), he insists the “commands of God are easy to identify” and “no deep interpretation is needed” (p. 210). “The big things are easy to interpret” (p. 210).

These “big things” are: one body, the church; one baptism in water; Lord’s Supper every first day of the week; and singing without mechanical instruments (p. 210). Essentially, these items do not need interpretation, or at least “deep interpretation” (though, if we remember the first book, they do need a lot of muscle and a shovel to dig out since they are not readily available to the superficial reader).

Yet, it is exactly “interpretation” (hermeneutics) that is the key to reading Scripture well, and interpretation is necessary at every reading of Scripture.

Shank insists no one has a right to “private interpretation,” by which he means a “personalized” or “individual” interpretation. If he means Scripture should be read in community, I agree. But he does not say that. Rather, he quotes 2 Peter 1:20-21 to support his claim (pp. 326-7), and this is proof-texting itself. Peter’s point is that Scripture does not arise out of a prophet’s own interpretation (that is, out of his own autonomous thinking)—it is not about reading Scripture but about the origin and production of Scripture.

What Shank seems to want to say is something like this: there is a public, obvious, and clear meaning to Scripture to those who actually study it in context, and there should be little debate about it since “even the most uneducated can understand the Bible.” In other words, on the important stuff—though one needs muscle and a shovel (so maybe it is not so “clear”)—it is eminently clear what the Bible means, particularly the “big things.”

The problem, however, is discerning the “big things,” and Shank identifies these as church patterns (which are, strangely, the very ones Churches of Christ find unique to themselves in some sense—reading it through Shank’s eyes) rather than on the larger themes of mercy, justice, and humility. In the end, his legal hermeneutic is intended to defend church practices rather than encourage merciful, gracious, and humble living.

Third, his ecclesiology (the way he thinks about church) emerges in the context of liberal vs. conservative ideology. He wants to eschew both liberalism and conservativism within the “brotherhood.” Shanks simply wants to be nothing more than a “New Testament Christian” (p. 211).

He identifies the “liberal subset” with: wider fellowship than Churches of Christ, “some use mechanical instruments, some accept any previous baptism [the historic rebaptism controversy, JMH], some have this new ‘praise team’ thing….some of them disregard the Bible’s qualifications of an elder, and then there’s the whole DMR [Divorce-Marriage-Remarriage, JMH] situation” (p. 197). He identifies the “conservative subset” with “the non-institutional [particularly those who forbid treasury money for orphanages, JMH], the one-cuppers…” (p. 198). There are so “many factions that we lose count” (p. 199).

Now, of course, Shank positions himself in the middle, “Biblical” ground among these questions. Liberals and Conservatives are extremes—in the former “every religious person is saved” and in the latter “almost no one is saved except the tiny group that meets together” (p. 199). Shank occupies the right ground because he has correctly and rightly understood the Bible whereas these others have not.

Interestingly, Shank asks conservatives, “So why do our brethren feel as though they can make the kind of judgments they make on others in our brotherhood?” (p. 200).

That is a good question. Perhaps Shank should answer it in regards to those whom he calls “liberals,” especially since both are “good-hearted, God-fearing people who have been baptized into Christ and who are sincerely trying their best to do what God wants them to do” (p. 209).

It seems to me Shank might want to give the same grace to the “liberals” he offers to the “conservatives” in the previous quote. The difference for Shank, it appears, is something like this:  he has collected the “commands of God” that are “easy to identify” and labeled them essentials since “the big things are easy to interpret” (p. 210).

This ease is rooted more in his hermeneutical and ecclesiological presuppositions than the text of Scripture. He does not recognize his own interpretative moves and the “pattern” he imposes on the text.

What we both need is a dose of humility and grace to the other in our interpretations as we each do our best to read Scripture well and live out our faith in the present with mercy, justice, and humility.

Shank’s two books essentially provide a kind of 1950s theology of the church driven by a 1950s way of reading the Bible. His first book provides the “first law of pardon,” and his second book provides the “second law of pardon,” as those “laws” were typically described in Churches of Christ in the 1930s-1950s. With both, one is now fully instructed as to how to be “faithful to the church,” as his first book put it.

May God have mercy on both of our feeble hermeneutical attempts, and may we both rest in the grace of Jesus our Lord whose awesome love abounds for us of all.



Muscle and a Shovel: A Review

September 5, 2014

The full review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shanks is now available in a PDF file. Anyone may print and distribute this as they desire.

The text is also available on Kindle.


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!



Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)

August 21, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first blog in this series is here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here. In my first post, I described the purpose of Shank’s book and the ways in which I appreciate its effort. However, I have some serious concerns about the book which I will now address in two posts. A full review of 21,000 words is available here.]

Gracious Speech

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”   Colossians 4:5-6

Kindness to All

How Shank describes “denominational” leaders and churches is polarizing and disrespectful. This is a significant problem.

It sets up a not-so-subtle contrast—even if true—between “the denominations” and “the truth” that is emotional in character. The portrayal of denominational leaders as unhelpful and greedy, for example, contrasts with Randall and real truth-seekers. Denominational leaders are dismissed categorically. This plays well emotionally in some quarters, but it is an unfounded generalization.

Denominational leaders do not come off very well in this book. They are “arrogant Pastors” (8:1115), and Michael’s Baptist Pastor, in particular, is “condescending” (8:1083), “pompous” (9:1149, 28:4778), greedy (23:3694), and “lives off our donations while [he] parks his fat a__ in that fancy chair that we pay for” (8:1095). “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God” (28:4752). They are nothing but “false teachers” (30:5063) who pervert the gospel (40:6543-45) and thus are anathema (cursed) by God. Pastors, or “denominational preachers,” are “religious experts” (24:3858), “high-paid, well educated, professional clergyman” (24:3884) who “no longer endure sound doctrine” (28:4747) and demand others “call them by a spiritual title [Reverend] with a word that’s used in the [KJV] Bible exclusively for God’s name” (28:4744). This language judges motives, sincerity, and their love for God.

As such, the narrative implies a personal, character-driven, question: Who will you believe? Would you believe Michael’s pastor who “responded in a condescending tone that conveyed an unspoken message which told me I was stupid for wasting his precious time with such a rudimentary and trivial question” (8:1084) or Randall who was “encouraging, meek, respectful, and it was evident that he really loved God” (5:853)? The narrative sets us up so that if we believe the denominational preachers, then we have chosen the “bad” character in the narrative over the hero in the story. This is nothing more than an emotional appeal based on broad generalizations and narrow experiences.

Denominational churches don’t come off well either. While I could go point-by-point with repeated misunderstandings and caricatures of denominational teachings (including Michael’s historical errors, which abound in the book–see my book review for some details), I will note only how Michael assesses the “Community Churches.” His critique is particularly harsh based on a visit to a Bible class in an unidentified community church. From this experience (and a few others) he provides a sweeping characterization of community churches. They are “no brain, no backbone, all fluff” and they stand “for almost nothing” (20:3222). Recognizing his attitude “wasn’t exactly Christian,” he regarded the community church folk as “a bunch of idiots” (21:3267). The “Community Church crowd” is “sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage” (21:3293). They “accept everything except true Bible unity,” and the community he visited “needed psychiatric help” (22:3547).

The language is unkind and lacks gentleness. Michael’s rants sound more like extreme political rhetoric (whether left or right) than something that belongs in an evangelistic tract proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Scripture calls us to a different sort of engagement with people than what is reflected in these attitudes expressed by Michael (and some stated by Randall). Hear the word of God:

“Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, apt to teach, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Shank’s book reflects the values expressed by the above Scriptures.

The book does not listen well. Denominational preachers and churches are summarily dismissed as inept and ignorant. The narrative oozes with disrespect for others, and there is no extended attempt to listen to them, their views, or give them a fair hearing. Counter-arguments are rarely advanced, and nuances are overlooked. Denominational preachers and churches are caricatured rather than heard. It is insulting rather than spiritually forming.

Jesus calls us to be, like God, “kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35) and to live with mercy toward others (Luke 10:37) because “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The book’s language appeals to emotion, prejudice (towards education, ministerial profession, etc.), and class-envy.

Honest Hearts

Honesty is a key word in Michael’s story. It appears, in some form, thirty-four times. It is the undertow of the book. Honesty is the key virtue in reading the Bible correctly. And, of course, honesty is a godly virtue.

At the same time, the way honesty appears within Michael’s story is condescending and lacks humility. Since Michael was honest, and if everyone else is as honest as he was and as diligent as he was, then everyone would come to the same conclusion that he did. In other words, people are only truly honest and sufficiently diligent if they agree with Michael.

Michael sometimes recognizes that there are many honest people among the denominations. To his credit, he acknowledges that there are good, honest, and sincere people in various denominations (17:2532, 24:3804) though “blind guides” lead them (24:3861). But—and this is the significant point—they are misguided, deceived, or satisfied with their present circumstances to the extent that they will not question received traditions. In other words, denominational people (especially leaders) won’t deal honestly with the text or its context. “They won’t reason together honestly,” Michael opines, “They won’t sincerely listen” (5:815). Such judgments of motives are unkind, and Michael has no way of knowing whether they are actually true or not.

It is almost as if when one disagrees with Michael, they are insincere and dishonest. Is that really a fair characterization? Is that the standard of honesty? Is one dishonest because they disagree or thinks that a text should be interpreted differently than Michael interprets it?

Michael believes that his particular understanding of the “gospel is so simple that every person of sound mind and accountable age can understand it and obey if they choose to,” and this will happen if “honest-hearted people” read the Bible for themselves. In other words, if you are honest and your use your muscle and shovel (show due diligence), you will agree with Michael. And if you don’t agree with Michael, then you—assuming you are of “sound mind and of accountable age”—are dishonest, lazy (including apathy and other similar vices), or, more ominously, rebellious and unwilling to listen to the truth.

Randall, in fact, says: “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (that is, the way Randall construes that “plan;” 35:5782). And, Michael counsels, “if you are honest with yourself and with God you’ll flee from man-made denominations” (38:6165). “No honest individual after studying” the Bible could do otherwise (39:6375).

Listen to how Michael summarizes this point near the end of the book (39:6279)

Denominationalists refuse to accept the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. They ignore the elements that they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept.

However, when honest, sincere, good-hearted, moral, Truth-seeking people research the entirety of the Scriptures, they consistently and unanimously find God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is [and then we have the five steps of salvation listed, JMH; my emphasis]

So, if one does not come to the same conclusion as Michael, then they lack one of the virtues listed. They are dishonest rather than “honest,” or they are insincere rather than “sincere,” or they are malevolent rather than “good-hearted,” or immoral rather than “moral,” or apathetic rather than “Truth-seeking,” or perhaps they were too lazy or apathetic to research it sufficiently. But if anyone has these moral virtues along with a due exercise of muscle and a shovel, then they will join with everyone else who has those virtues because it is consistent and unanimous in the lives of good-hearted, honest, moral and sincere people. In summary, if you don’t agree with Michael, you are either “ignorant or dishonest with God’s Word” (39:6366).

I think that is an unfair account of life. It lacks humility and kindness. In other words, it loudly declares to fellow-believers in Jesus, “I know I’m right, and if you disagree with me, then there is something wrong with you! There is something wrong with your heart!”

May God have mercy!


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 1)

August 11, 2014

 [Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Obeying the Gospel

In 2011, Michael Shank published the story of his own conversion. He describes how he was convicted by his encounter with the word of God when an African American co-worker named Randall led him through Scripture. Previously, Michael was a church-going Baptist whose sincerity was authentic and whose life was decent and moral but less than thoroughly dedicated. In other words, Michael was “Christian” in mostly a nominal sense (4:582-596).

He was awakened from his apathetic slumbers when Randall, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, asked, “have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord?” (3:449). Michael soon learned, through Randall’s gentle questioning, that “saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not obeying the gospel of Christ” (3:478). This set Michael on a quest, mostly under Randall’s tutelage, to “know what the gospel was and how people obeyed it” (3:484).

Searching raised many questions for Michael, which Randall addressed. They discussed baptism, how the church is organized (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons), what kind of music a church should use (instrumental?), denominationalism, Calvinism, unity, and tithing as well as other questions. Michael wanted to know the truth—he asked religious leaders, read his Bible, researched at the library, and studied with Randall.

In the end, Michael and his wife Jonetta were baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ in Nashville, TN.

The book is an evangelistic narrative. Michael Shank came to the conclusion that though he was “saved” at the age of eight in a Baptist church and was immersed at the age of thirteen in a Baptist congregation, he had not really obeyed the gospel. He only obeyed the gospel when he was baptized on March 15, 1988 at 1:15am (38:6004).

Not only an evangelistic narrative, the book is an extended evangelistic tract. Towards the end of the book, Michael invites his readers to obey the gospel:

            “Friend, if you’ve read this book in its entirety you have been taught of God” (38:6103).

            “Someone gave you this book for a reason….Will you obey the gospel of Jesus Christ or will you reject it?” (38:6112, 6121)

Chapter Thirty-Nine, after a brief history of the Sinner’s Prayer, outlines “God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is” (39:6278ff): hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.

Michael portrays his own conversion story as an objective search for truth in the Scriptures. His final chapter (Forty) begins with this appeal

            Please let me point out something that I hope is completely apparent. I’ve used no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. I’ve merely shared my story and revealed the Scriptures of God just as it happened.

            Here’s the hard part. Will you accept the simple, plain, straight-forward teaching of God’s Word (40:6502)?

Consequently, Michael encourages everyone “to get out your shovel and dig. Read the Word for yourself. See whether the things I’ve shared with you in this book are really so” (40:6560). It takes “muscle and a shovel” to discover for oneself what the Bible teaches. It takes some persistent willingness (muscle) and honesty (shovel) to dig deep enough—to work hard enough—to discover the “Truth.” “It takes a heart that is willing to dig. It takes an honest heart (Luke 8:15) that is willing to lay aside preconceived ideas” (24:3846).

What Did Michael Find When He Dug Deep?

The “Truth” Michael discovered was essentially “proper scriptural baptism,” and how this ushered him into “the true church of Christ,” which is the body of Christ (26:4246). This is the basic message of the book, that is, it is “about the gospel and the church of our Lord” (22:3562). Baptism is the moment God saves because it is the moment we reenact the gospel; it is the “split second in time” when sins are washed away (38:6075).

This is a critical discovery for Michael. Since it is the gospel that saves and baptism is the reenactment of that gospel, God saves in baptism because of what God does in baptism. Consequently, Michael emphatically states, “The argument that men and women can be saved before baptism is a lie. It originates from the father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning and in whom is no truth” (21:3453, emphasis in original).

Baptism is only biblical if the believer submits to it for the “right reason.” Specifically, Randall said, “If you get into the water of baptism thinking that your sins are forgiven before you get into the water, you’re not being baptized for the right reason. That’s not Bible baptism” (35:5677). The “right reason” is to be baptized for (in order to receive) the remission of sins in accordance with Acts 2:38 (21:3360). So, Michael reasoned, “if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical” (36:5872).

God adds the baptized to the church, the body of Christ. What group is that on the contemporary scene? What are the criteria for identifying the “church of Christ”? “The way you identify the true church of Christ today is” by what “it teaches and how it practices” (26:4247).

Randall has a rather long list and it is a particular sort of list (a summary begins at 32:5380). Here is the list—“Plain Bible teaching with no human opinions” (25:4194):

  • biblical name or descriptor (25:4136)
  • non-denominational (25:4172)
  • autonomous congregationalism (25:4180)
  • governed by elders, served by deacons, and headed by Christ (25:4180, 27:4464)
  • “five articles of worship” on the first day of every week, including the Lord’s Supper, prayer, singing, giving and preaching (26:4251)
  • the Lord’s supper every first day and exclusively on Sunday (26:4281)
  • singing without instrumental accompaniment (26:4361)
  • free will offerings without the regulation of tithing (27:4349)
  • teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel (30:4960).

The church of Christ practices and believes only what is prescribed in the Bible. It is the New Testament church because, guided by the New Testament alone, it neither adds nor subtracts from what is prescribed there.

In essence, Muscle and a Shovel is about how to obey the gospel and what constitutes the true church of Christ. According to Shank, one must be immersed in water for the right reason (for the remission of sins) and be “faithful to the [right] church” (25:4005) in order to have eternal life.

This explains one of Randall’s earlier statements, which startled Michael, and—no doubt—astounds others. Nevertheless, it is the clear import of what Randall taught Michael.

“Mr. Mike,” [Randall] said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (6:941).

What I Appreciate

I value a non-denominational approach to Christianity, a high view of the independence and importance of the local congregation, the government of the congregation by wise, experienced, and godly elders, weekly communion at the table of the Lord, and an emphasis on congregational generosity rather than imposed financial programs.

I also value believer’s baptism. I appreciate how baptism is given more significance than the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Indeed, I have argued, as Michael also ultimately concludes, that baptism is the sinner’s prayer (cf. my 2004 Down in the River to Pray with Greg Taylor, p. 197).

I welcome the reports of baptisms that arise from the reading of Muscle and a Shovel, and I rejoice when anyone is immersed in obedience to God out of an authentic trust in Jesus as Redeemer.

What I most appreciate about the book is how Randall serves as a model for us.

In fact, Shank says this is one of the major reasons for publishing the book. He wanted to encourage us: “Will you become a Randall?” (40:6736). When he reviewed the notebook that he rediscovered in 2008, he knew “Randall’s attitude, approach, love, sincerity, persistence, scriptural ability, compassion, faithfulness, and desire to save the lost was a story that needed to be told” (40:6652).

One of the most encouraging aspects of the book is how everyone is called to read the Bible for themselves without a slavish dependence upon creeds, Pastors, or traditions. Everyone must pick up the shovel and dig; pick up the Bible and study it. Everyone must take responsibility for their own spiritual journey, including whether and how they read the Bible.

Another formative aspect of the story was its inter-generational and multiracial nature. Randall is African American, and Michael is Caucasian; Randall was in his mid-thirties, and Michael was twenty; Michael served in a higher capacity in the company for which they both worked. Michael was baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ, which is, arguably, the “mother” of all African American churches of Christ. Marshall Keeble called this Nashville (TN) congregation home, and Alexander Campbell (African American), S. W. Womack, G. P. Bower, and Keeble planted it in 1896. The Jackson Street church has long honored God in many ways, especially in their support of evangelism and a passion for the lost. So, this is a beautiful testimony to how two men can study together, love each other, and embrace each other in the Lord despite their social, economic, generational, and ethnic differences. It truly embodies Colossians 3:11—what matters is a renewed image of God, not our economic, social, or ethnic status.

The relationship between Michael and Randall illustrates how one person can lead another into deeper discipleship. Michael saw the testimony of Randall’s life, and Randall loved Michael enough to speak into his life. The fruit of this relationship is the heart of the story.

In my next two blogs, I will address some of the book’s serious deficiencies.

Alexander Campbell, Gratuitous Evil and Meticulous Providence

June 11, 2013

Yesterday I received my copy of J. Caleb Clanton’s new book entitled The Philosophy of Religion of Alexander Campbell (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013). I had previously read the manuscript in early 2012 and am pleased to see it in print.

Caleb taught philosophy at Pepperdine for several years but now teaches at Lipscomb.  I am grateful that Lipscomb has secured his services as a philosopher, and a philosopher who is interested in mining the resources of the Stone-Campbell tradition.

I deeply appreciate his engagement with the resources of the Stone-Campbell Movement, particularly Alexander Campbell, in the discipline of Philosophy of Religion. Of all the early Reformers, Campbell is the best—perhaps the only choice—for such a project.  However, my appreciation not only extends to the subject matter, but also for how Clanton brings Campbell’s philosophy of religion into dialogue with contemporary discussions. In the language of Vatican II’s aggiornamento, Clanton brings the Campbellian philosophical tradition “up to date.”

Clanton’s work is impressive. His analysis of Campbell’s ideas are fair, clear, and illuminating. His re-contextualization of Campbell’s thought is insightful. He demonstrates that Campbell squarely faced the questions that philosophy of religion raised in the early nineteenth century. Campbell was well-acquainted with the philosophical issues of his day. Not only does this demonstrate that the Stone-Campbell Movement has its own “philosopher,” but that the philosophic tradition Campbell represented may yet still provide some guidance in our current context. And, yet, I think it remains clear—as Clanton’s discussion of the Campbell’s ideation argument for the existence of God indicates—that Campbell, as a philosopher of ideas, is a deeply rooted empirical Biblicist who only ventures into metaphysical waters as a negative apologetic while always staying within sight of the empirical shore.

At the 2012 Christian Scholars Conference I offered a response to Caleb’s manuscript regarding Campbell’s understanding of Arminian-esque theodicy. Campbell’s theodicy, as Clanton unfolds it, is focused on the Free Will Defense, responds to the “Divine Hiddenness” problem, and articulates a high view of providence (even meticulous providence) that denies gratuitous evil.  My response to Clanton is available here.

“Miraculous Movements”: Muslims Coming to Jesus

May 9, 2012

My longtime good friend, John King, is engaged in training people around the world in Discovery Bible Studies as part of the CityTeam Ministries’ Disciple Making Movement or the Church Planting Movement (specifically the work of David Watson). I love what he is doing with the support of his wife Debra.

John recommended that I read Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims are Falling in Love with Jesus (Thomas Nelson, 2012) by Jerry Trousdale. Since John began telling me about his work I had wanted to read something substantial that tells the larger story. I am happy to report that this book does just that.

Is it possible that 200,000 Muslims have become Christians in West Africa since 2007? Is it possible that 6000 new churches have been planted? Is it possible that 45 new people groups have been reached? This book tells that story which includes more than 350 different ministries cooperating in these efforts. It is not so much a history of that development as it is a story that narrates the church-planting or disciple-making method that facilitated such Spirit-generated fruit. That method involves saturating prayer, finding a “person of peace,” focusing on groups rather than individuals and utilizing the Discovery Bible Study method.

Surveying the reports and analyzing his own experience, Trousdale notes seven “paradigm shifts” in his own approach to ministry (chapter 12):

  1. Make Intercessory Prayer the Highest Priority (or, nothing is more important than prayer…period!).
  2. Make Disciples Who Make Disciples (or, invest time in discipling a few who will themselves disciple others).
  3. Invest Time in the Right Person (or, instead of mass marketing invest in a “person of peace” who will “bridge the gospel into that community”).
  4. Don’t Tell People What to Believe and Do (or, give space for the Spirit to work through the Word as people discover Christianity for themselves).
  5. Never Settle for Revealing Just One Dimension of Jesus’ Life (or, follow the model of Jesus’ own ministry who demonstrated compassion rather than merely disseminating information).
  6. Never Substitute Knowledge About God for an Obedience-Based Relationship with God (or, information is good but obedience is better).
  7. Understand that Jesus Does Impossible Things Through the Most Ordinary People (or, professional ministers are helpful but not necessary).

This is not an academic book, and that is a good thing. Rather, Trousdale utilizes extensive oral reports from former Muslims and on-the-ground ministers who have seen and experienced this tremendous harvest. The stories from former Muslims are compelling.

The book is filled with stories of answered prayer, courageous believers, Muslim conversions, dramatic transformations, and God’s faithfulness to his witnesses.  Through these stories, we learn about Muslim dissatisfaction with their sense of assurance, their lack of knowledge about Jesus, the social pressure that hinders their own search, and the violence that follows converts. People are often martyred in Africa for their witness to Jesus.

The witness present in this book is a sobering encouragement for believers who live in the comfort of the United States. It is also a report of what God is doing and in reading it we should all give thanks for God’s marvelous movement among Muslim people-groups in Africa.

Reading these stories encourages us to look more simply at Christianity. Western modernism has complicated Christianity and academia has often subverted it. The movement of Christianity in West Africa among Muslims is simple, powerful and courageous. Meeting in small churches (an average of 32 disciples per congregation), these disciples are changing the landscape of West Africa by the power of God’s working among them.

I must admit that my Western skepticism is high (some of the stories are way outside my comfortable box), but I also recognize Western skepticism is often antithetical to what God is actually doing. I too easily limit God for the sake of my own rational, emotional and self-righteous comfort. So, I’m listening and hoping to learn more. May God help my unbelief.

Who is My Enemy? New Book from Lee C. Camp

November 11, 2011

My dear friend, as well as colleague, Lee C. Camp has recently released a new book entitled:  Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam–and Themselves. Lee is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville (TN) where I also teach.  

Lee uses a line from a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi as a hermeneutical principle:  “Grant that we may not so much seek…to be understood as to understand.” He focuses this principle in the light of Mirosalv Volf’s call for “double vision” in his book Exclusion and Embrace, that is, to look at any question from the other’s point of view, especially our enemies. To love our neighbors is to understand their point of view even if we might not agree with it.

Consequently, Lee attempts to understand Islam’s presumed orientation to war-making, and at the same time compare it with the Just War tradition in the history of Christianity. The results are stimulating and disconcerting.

The Jesus story, Lee claims, is nonviolent, and the leading theologians of the early church until the fourth century were also nonviolent. They opposed violence and war-making. Following his teacher and mentor John Howard Yoder, Lee suggests that a Jesus politic generates “a distinctive community that has its own particular, if sometimes peculiar, ways of life together” (p. 32). This community loves its enemies, seeks peace, rejects violence, and pursues justice. The Christian politic is a “politics of suffering, nonretaliatory love” (p. 37).

Interestingly, Lee suggests that Muhammad initially employed a similar hermeneutic. He “counseled nonretaliation” in his early years, but this changed due to excessive persecution in Mecca against his followers and the rise of his power in Medina. Muhammad now permitted his followers to defend themselves and even aggressively attack representatives of the persecuting power. Muhammad, at this time, was an advocate of self-defense.

This is the difference between the Jesus and Muhammad stories. Jesus rejected the use of violence but Muhammad employed violence and “war-making in his administration of justice” (p. 45). Muhammad sought a just society and used force to secure it. Jesus sought a just society and used suffering love to secure it.

Lee suggests that what developed in Islam after Muhammad was a classical tradition of war-making that is similar if not morally equivalent to the Just War tradition within historic Christendom.  The “criteria and limits upon war…paralleled in many ways the Christian Just War tradition” (p. 59). Islam, like Christianity (using Greco-Roman resources), developed the need for a just cause, declared intent, a legitimate authority, and limits for how to conduct war. The formal logic, Camp contends, of historic (e.g., Constantinian and Augustinian) Christian and Islamic war-making criteria is essentially the same.

But war is not always conducted on the basis of what are regarded as “just criteria.” Indeed, war-making in the European Christian tradition seems to arrogate to itself the right to transcend those criteria as needed. Whether it is the Crusades, or Puritan assaults on Native Americans in “New England,” or Sherman’s march to the sea, the Just War tradition failed to hinder unjust war-making. Lee recounts some of these stories; they are horrific. These ventures have at least one thing in common–violence against non-combatants or the redefinition of combatants so that it includes everyone living in the city (Jerusalem), village (Pequot), state (Georgia), or nation (Germany and Japan). As Lee states, the West likes the Just War tradition’s “formal logic–that war can be justified–but [it] does not like its constraints” (p. 95). These stories should be told in the West so that our national narratives might hear and take account of Western abuses of the Just War tradition.

The logic that extends transcends the constraints of just war-making in some situations in the West is the same logic that is utilized by Muslim terrorists. “Total war” in Western practice (whether “Christian” or the Enlightenment politics of liberal Western democracies) is similar to a terrorist “holy war”–they both violate “just war” criteria, particularly the death of non-combatants (including women and children). “Moral equivalency” is the contention and is thus the justification articulated by terrorists (whether some Muslims or some right-wing American militia). The logic that burned crops in Georgia in order to make the South “beg for mercy,” that firebombed German and Japanese cities in order to subvert civilian morale, and that nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force surrender is formally the same logic as Muslim or American (e.g., the Oklahoma City bombing) terrorism (p. 101). That is a chilling conclusion but one that Lee argues convincingly.

At this point in the book, Lee “takes stock” (chapter 14) and it is important to hear him carefully. First, “the founding narratives of Christianity and Islam are different.”  While Muhammad used the sword to end the conflicts on the Arabian peninsula, Jesus “employed the way of the cross to deal with” conflict (p. 105).

Second, “the mainstream of Christian tradition looks more like the Muhammad story than the Jesus story” as it has rejected the basic narrative of peace-making in the Jesus narrative.  He states this clearly: “I simply mean that the formal shape, the basic logic, of the church’s understanding of the employment of force on behalf of justice was more like the subsequent teaching of Muhammad than the teaching of Jesus” (p. 106).

Do we believe the peace-making ethic of Jesus is realistic? Jesus lived it; he is our model. He is a peacemaker, and they killed him. That is realistic. When we advocate peace-making, it will upset some…especially when we advocate it on Veterans Day. But it is, as Lee argues and I believe, the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, the ethic of Jesus.

Two New E-Journals

March 11, 2011

Two new electronic journals, one named Kingdom and the other named Missio Dei, have published their inaugural issues.

Kingdom is published by the Bible faculty of Freed-Hardeman University. Its masthead quotes Romans 14:17, “For the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”   Ralph Gilmore, Distinguished Professor of Bible and Philosophy at FHU, is the editor. The intent of the journal is to publish academic articles of theological and religious significance written by “FHU students, faculty and/or alumni, although not necessarily limited to them.”  Ralph, in his introductory editorial, hopes the journal will be “Christ-centered, kingdom-centered, text-centered and service-centered in academic environment designed for spiritual growth through critical thinking.”

Missio  Dei is edited by four young missional church-planters and scholars. They are Nathan Bills (ThD student at Duke University), Charles Kiser (church planter in Dallas, TX), Greg McKinzie (missionary in Arequipa, Peru), Danny Reese (Missionary in Huambo, Angola) and Jason Whaley (Missionary, Wollongong, Australia). They were are at one time or another students in some of my classes at Harding University Graduate School of Religion. The purpose of the journal is to “provide a medium for exploring the rich tradition and ongoing practice of pariticipation in the mission of God among the churches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.”

I wish both of these journals great success and long life.

Meeting God at the Shack: An E-Book

December 3, 2009

Now available on Kindle.

I digress from my “salvation” posts to announce a new E-book. I will return to the salvation theme once my work load decreases a bit which is quite large at the moment as the semester comes to an end at Lipscomb University.

Over the past year or more, I have reflected on William Young’s book The Shack in the light of my own personal journey into the world of spiritual recovery.  I found much in Young’s novel that paralleled my own experience.

Last year I posted on some significant themes I found in the the book–both in terms of pastoral (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and theological assessment (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)–but I have now completed a brief book with short chapters on The Shack as a parable of spiritual recovery.

For those who have read my previous material on God, faith and suffering (such as Yet Will I Trust Him or Anchors for the Soul), this book is a continuation of my journey. I think it is more profound and more mature than my previous writings on the subject. It is, nevertheless, still ultimately inadequate as an “answer” to the struggle of life, faith and peace continues in human hearts, including my own. Nevertheless, God offers peace even when there are no “answer?

The first part of this book discusses spiritual recovery while the second part addresses some of the theological questions that concern many. But even in the second part I am much more interested in how this parable and the theological questions it raises offer an entrance into the substantial themes of divine love, forgiveness, healing and hope. These are the main concerns of the book.

I think the question the novel addresses is this:  How do wounded people come to believe that God really is “especially fond” of them?

Only after reading the book through this lens are we able to understand how Young uses some rather unconventional metaphors to deepen his point.

My interest is to unfold the story of recovery in The Shack as I experienced it through my own journey. So, I invite you to walk with me through the maze of grief, hurt, and pain as we, through experiencing Mackenzie’s shack, face our own “shacks.”

I offer the book with this dedication:

In the past eighteen months many have showered their love upon me….
my employment—Lipscomb University and Harding Graduate School
my counselors—I have learned much about myself through your help
my church—Woodmont Hills Family of God
my bible class—the Sonseekers of Woodmont Hills
my men’s groups—where I continue to learn and practice intimacy
my spiritual care team—God’s gift to Jennifer and myself
my small group—you are all such a joy to me
my brothers and sisters—Mack, Sue and Jack…and sis-in-law Melanie
my nieces and nephews—Allison, Brittney, Ian, Carson, Logan
my mom—you love me no matter what
my daughters—Ashley and Rachel, both faithful and loving
my wife, Jennifer, for whose steadfast love I am deeply
grateful and without whom I would not be able to
share my story in this book.

They have embraced me and through them God has loved me profoundly.
Thank you!