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

[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!


14 Responses to “Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)”

  1.   Charles McLean Says:

    Shank’s reasoning, if I may charitably call it that, is not original in the least. It boils down to the well-worn “no true Scotsman” fallacy, repeated ad nauseum throughout the text. The sad syllogism reads like this: “No honest and sincere student of scripture can interpret it differently than I. Therefore, if one interprets the scripture differently than I do, he is either dishonest, insincere, or not a student of scripture.” This long-debunked fallacy leaves the reader to conclude, “So it is worthless to listen to that deceitful idiot. Just listen to me.” Oy.

    IMO, John Mark uses pretty kind terminology to discuss the spirit of Shank’s book. In my reading of Shank’s words, the adjectives “hateful” and “arrogant” leap to mind again and again. Randall’s words (whether real or fictional) carry a veneer of humility which Shank seems unable to avoid breaking through with his own heartfelt outbursts of disdain for those outside his denomination.

  2.   Warren Baldwin Says:

    Well said, John Mark. I felt like Mike was trying to convert me to the one true church as he understands it rather than to Christ. This is what is so sad about the approach that sets one up as right and everyone who disagrees automatically wrong: there is no room for discussion, give-and-take, disagreement, grace, further discussion, fresh understanding, respect for the other, etc. It is adversarial to the core, and other people are not sincere seekers to engage with, they are opponents to be slain by questioning their motives, intelligence and knowledge. My concern for someone converted by reading the book is if it was Muscle and a Shovel that converted them to a church, or the person of spirit of Christ that converted them to God. That is a big difference. One good thing about the book that I like – it is giving us cause for much discussion!

    •   Steve Says:

      “I felt like Mike was trying to convert me to the one true church as he understands it rather than to Christ.”

      I think this is the important concept.

      I had been having a very good conversation with a man of a different denomination who loves the Lord, love’s God’s Word and truly appreciates what happened at the cross. Someone gave him a copy of Muscle and Shovel.

      The guy who gave him the book understands all the Scriptures on baptism. The man he gave it to understands what happened in Redemptive History that led to the Cross.

      “My concern for someone converted by reading the book is if it was Muscle and a Shovel that converted them to a church, or the person of spirit of Christ that converted them to God. That is a big difference.”

      Because of that book two people who love the Lord won’t talk to each other.

  3.   Kerry Holton Says:

    Thank you for writing these words, John Mark. I believe they have the s(S)pirit of Christ in them. And they are words that many of us need to hear. Many thanks for writing from your convictions.

  4.   Tommy Holland Says:

    Accurate assessment. This explains quite well how our fellowship has gotten the deserved reputation that is such a ‘turn-off’ with so many folks that I encounter at my secular medical job.

    •   Steve Kell Says:

      Tommy–our families began working together in the ’50s in WI… Dad spoke of he and my mother’s visit fairly recently with your mother. A lot of water under the bridge over the years, but I’d enjoy the chance to chat with you at some point down the road, if you are so inclined.

  5.   John Clemmons Says:

    I’ve enjoyed the first two of your “Muscle and Shovel” blog reviews John Mark and I look forward to the next. The mere fact that this book has “tickled the ears” of so many of my brothers and sisters saddens me. It is a true stumbling block for many of them that seriously consider following our Lord’s commission for his church today.

  6.   Rick Says:

    I enjoyed the book! I studied out of a false doctrine many years ago and this book brought back the memories to me of what I struggled with. You are bashing Mike like he was a well in formed well studied Christian when he was saying what he said. I took it as what he (Mike) went through on his journey to seeking the truth. Straight is the gate and narrow is the way and few there be that find it. Does the religious world really grasp what the Lord is saying here? Stop sugar coating and watering down what would lead one out of doctrines of men into the body of Christ. Yes we are to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Why do you think the warnings are on the cover of the book? I am glad he told the account just as HE lived it. Be cautious about criticizing a man because he only tells a true story about the struggle he endured in seeking the truth. I suppose The Lord Himself was considered to be narrow minded. We see where it got Him.

    •   johnmarkhicks Says:

      Unfortunately, it is not simply how he lived that is told, but what he believes is actually true such that we are “taught of God” by his story (as he claims). And Randall confirms his attitudes toward others. So, it is not simply a story told, but a story told that we might believe it, including the supposed truths both from Scripture and from his relationships with “denominational” people. To cloak unkind conclusions and attitudes toward people in a lived story without correction or explanation is tantamount to telling it as it is rather than as he simply lived it.

  7.   Lori Eckstein Says:

    Thank you, thank you for saying so succinctly what I have been thinking. This book (and workbook) is being used by a small group of women at our church (of Christ) and I was invited to join the study. I read the book in one sitting because I was so astounded, or shocked actually, at what was said, I couldn’t put it down! I don’t know if I will attend the group because I am not sure I can share my thoughts in a loving manner! Regardless, thank you for your comments.

  8.   Russ Says:

    thanks brothers,
    i have never read this book but as i read the quotes in your review i can see that i need to redeem my time in way that will be to the fowarding of christ , those quotes are opposed to that

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I would always encourage people to read the book for themselves, especially if they will pass on a critical or negative attitude about the book. I don’t think it is helpful to critique something one has not read. However, you can certainly point them to reviews of the book even if you have not read it yourself. Blessings, Russ.

  9.   Glen Leath Says:

    I was just in the middle of writing something and hit the wrong key stroke and I suppose the message went into space somewhere. May be it will come back as a comment and I can complete it later…….. Satan works in mysterious ways, but I am not defeated.

  10.   Eric Vieth Says:

    I am a member of the Church Of Christ, converting from Catholicism in my mid-twenties. Naturally I agreed with all of Michael’s doctrinal stances, and particularly appreciated Randall’s explanation as to why Peter was never a Pope. Since many in my family remain Catholic, I have a hard time (especially on the phone) trying to explain the Greek meaning of the two “rocks” Jesus mentions in Matthew 16:18.

    However, I do have a major problem with the book.The author is careful to point out that the book is completely true “in every sense”, whatever that means.Again, while I believed all of the doctrinal issues BEFORE I read the book, it’s hard for me to believe that all of the situations occurred, let alone in the order in which they happened. It’s just TOO slick, TOO smooth, TOO predictable. Though I certainly believe in God’s Providence, I have a hard time with the person of Randall – who may be the most knowledgeable Christian I’ve ever encountered – conveniently entering Michael’s life, and despite his “job” at the company, manages to be there for Michael each time the latter comes up with one of the common, worked-over differences between the Church Of Christ and everybody else.Naturally Randall has the pat answer for the pat question, turning to the Bible passage with lightning speed. Then we have the character of Larry, Michael’s best friend & co-worker. Evidently (but rather vaguely), Larry has also become Randall’s “student”. Though we are not privy to Larry & Randall’s discussions, it becomes obvious that Larry has surpassed Michael as to biblical knowledge. Thus Michael now has two encouraging teachers at his disposal. How convenient!

    Look, I don’t want to be cynical. In fact, I do believe that all of the situations and Bible discussions DID occur, in some shape or form. But the perfect climb Michael managed to have towards the final goal was, well, too perfect. Faith is not a straight line upward. It’s more like some of the Wall Street graphs – ups & downs, peaks & valleys. Fact is. the book became extremely predictable, as in “Gee, I wonder which argued doctrine will be next; will it be instrumental music? yup, there it is!” I read books for knowledge AND pleasure. The enjoyment is lacking when you know what’s coming next….no mystery in “Muscle and a Shovel”, at least not for this reader.

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