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.