When Shovels Break: A Review

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.



28 Responses to “When Shovels Break: A Review”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    The lack of attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification and renewal means a return to an anthropocentric, rather than theocentric, salvation narrative, which seemed to be theological characteristic of the Churches of Christ throughout much of the twentieth century.

  2.   rich Says:


    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.


  3.   Brian Humek Says:

    Sad to hear he had the problems he mentioned, but so glad he came back to the church, if not Jesus. At least there is hope for those who go to church but have yet to come to a personal relationship with Christ.

    His first book met many friendly minds in our congregation and they even had him scheduled to do a gospel meeting but he had to cancel due to a family situation which needed taken care of back at home. Seeing that his theology is basic 1950s C of C teachings, I’m glad he wasn’t able to make it to speak at our church. Just hope his family situation improved.

    Thank you for the very well thought out review.

  4.   Gary Kirkendall Says:

    A wonderful review. Your comments are thoughtful, rational, coherent, and in the Spirit of Christ. These are the kinds of serious discussions we need to be having as we decide whether or not we wish to be a movement pursuing the unity of all believers or a movement that is marked by its own secterian disctinctiveness. Grace has to be more than essentially a system from God through which men can save themselves.

  5.   Jarrod Says:

    Excellent review John, thank you. It makes me sad to see friends liking and recommending Muscle & Shovel. While Shank is a great writer and I believe him to be a sincere and true brother in Christ, his hermeneutic is deeply divisive and one that has been proven to do much harm.

    I especially appreciate this part:

    “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).”

    Exactly. Amen. May we extend to all our brethren the grace we so desperately need ourselves.

  6.   Michael Shank Says:

    Dear Brother John,

    Man brother, I reached out to you with love, forgiveness (for discrediting me and criticizing me as you have in the past) and grace a few weeks ago, inviting you to review the sequel. The sequel is, according to hundreds who have now read the work, a demonstration of the true grace of God and how the Spirit gives us guidance back to the faith.

    Brother, you have also made a very incorrect statement about this work. No where in this work do I disparage the “liberals” or the “Pharisees” – I said that wanted to be neither, but I simply wanted to be a first century New Testament Christian.

    I hope you might revisit the text again and offer an accurate correction. I also want you to know that a little over 2100 souls have been restored to the faith after reading the work (messages via Facebook, email, phone, texts, and letters). Brother, can we not rejoice in the Lord over such wonderful works that are by His hand?

    With love and humility,

    Michael Shank, Author
    Muscle and a Shovel / When Shovels Break

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:


      I am always grateful for anyone who returns to the Lord.

      I think I correctly represented you in your desire to be neither “liberal” nor “conservative”–and you think both are wrong, but to simply be a New Testament Christian. You do disagree with both “liberals” and “conservatives” (as you define them) in your book, and neither are New Testament Christians such as you are. I understood you to say that liberals make essentials unessential and conservatives make non-essentials essentials. Consequently, as you say, “I didn’t seek to be a progressive liberal, nor did I seek to be a rule-keeping Pharisee” (p. 211). Let me know where I need correction on your intention.

      You asked for a review, Michael. So, I offered one. I noted several positives about the book, but I also noted several negatives. I only did what you requested of me–I gave an honest assessment of your published work, as I have done previously (I understand, of course, you did not ask me to review your first book).

      As for “discrediting and criticizing” you, I had no malicious intent. I only stated where I thought you were out of sync with Scripture, just as you have critiqued so many others in ways that you thought they were out of sync with Scripture. Nevertheless, I appreciate your forgiveness, and I pledge that I will speak nothing except out of love and concern for the truth just as you also, in your heart, intend as well. Yet, when I see a problem or Scripture misconstrued, I do not hesitate to speak the truth, my brother. I trust you will do the same.

      God can use our fallible books, sermons, and efforts despite their errors or problems. So, I am grateful for whoever has returned to the Lord through reading your book. But that does not mean the book is without problems or errors.

      Thanks for responding, and, as always, I am your brother.

      In love and grace,

      John Mark

  7.   Michael Shank Says:


    Brother John, please forgive me for I meant to say in the previous response that I do sincerely appreciate the time you’ve taken in reviewing this latest work, and appreciate the souls who have responded on this site.

    Let us pray that each one of us might examine themselves and to employ their individual God given talent(s) toward the expansion of the blood-bough church of the Lord (Acts 20:28), teaching and making disciples of Jesus Christ as our Master desires. You have many published works in print, and I applaud your efforts.

    While I realize that I might not have the theology education you have, nor do I possess the writing talent that you have, I am humbled daily that that our Lord uses these 2 volumes to produce the fruit that He alone is producing, and I thank you for bringing attention to this latest work. May we meet in eternity. Again, God bless and know that you have my love and prayers. Michael Shank

  8.   Michael Shank Says:

    Brother John,

    Thanks so much for your response, and I pray you might see the “PS” I added, as well.

    I apologize for my lack of clarity in the first post, and should have written my true position which is that extremism (whether to the right or to the left) can be detrimental to the health of the soul. It is sad that we as a brotherhood cannot obtain the unity that first century Christians enjoyed so many years ago.

    With love and prayers,

    Michael Shank

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:


      I understand that you want to avoid “extremism,” and don’t we all. The problem arises in identifying what is “extreme.”

      This is where we might want to extend grace to each other and to those who disagree with us, even if we regard them as “extremes.” I think this is where we need humility and grace.

      It seems to me that at one level, like early Christians, we are united in Christ through the indwelling Spirit of God even though at another level, like early Christians, we struggle with forbearance, love, and humility with each other.

      Grace and peace,

      John Mark

  9.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Michael.

    As Paul said, I do not even “judge myself,” much less anyone else. “It is the Lord who judges me.” So, I leave the fruit or demerit of both our works in God’s hands. 1 Corinthians 4:1-5.

    We are called, as you know, to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God, and I trust we both yearn for such. God alone will judge whether we have so lived and taught.

    Theological education is helpful, but it is not required. What is more important is how the Spirit sanctifies, equips, and empowers us. May God’s Spirit rest upon you and sanctify your heart, brother.

    In Christ, with love and grace,

    John Mark

  10.   Rick Krug Says:

    JMH, you incised the error of Shank’s work quite well. His premise as to the nature of the NT and the following hermeneutical trusses are basis for the rest of the flawed conclusions.

    For example: the irony of completely missing the context of 1 Peter by making the “Intro to the NT” error of this “private interpretation” issue.

    Shanks completely ignores authorial intent and context through all of his proof-texting errors.

    But he did get one thing right: his theology does require his own muscle and his own tools (shovel) and really does not have necessity of the Holy Spirit at all.

  11.   Glen Leath Says:

    I am really a nobody as far as scholarship is concerned, I just read and study the Bible. It seems quite obvious to me though when speaking of the Holy Spirit, we need to go back to John and move forward. I am sure you know the scriptures. John says he baptizes with water, but he (Christ) will baptize with the Holy Spirit~~~~~a superior baptism. Jesus told the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit baptism. Peter when he was answering the people who were touched by his message and asked him “what must we do”? He said; repent and be be baptized everyone of you and you shall receive the “gift of the Holy Ghost”. He called it a gift and he was under the impression that the Holy Ghost was given following the water baptism. Later when he was witnessing to Cornelius a gentile the Holy Ghost fell on him and those with him prior to being baptized in water. Peter later says in Acts 11:16 Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said; John indeed baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost.

    Move on ahead to the Apostle Paul, the apostle to the gentiles where he says in Ephesians 4:5 One Lord, one faith, ONE BAPTISM. That baptism has to be the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:13 FOR BY ONE SPIRIT ARE WELL ALL BAPTIZED INTO ONE BODY whether we be Jew or Gentile~~~~
    That settles the baptism question, for me anyway.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:


      Your perspective first emerged in the 19th century with the Dispensational Movement.

      To identify the “one baptism” with Holy Spirit baptism is problematic. Even in the same letter, Paul thinks of “washing of the water with the word” as the means by which the bride of Christ is cleansed (Ephesians 5:26), and in Titus 3:5 it is “washing…and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” It is both/and rather than either water baptism or Spirit baptism.

      Part of the commission for all nations is to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (Matthew 28:19).

      But I will not belabor the point since this has little to do with this post, and I don’t think I want the comment section of this post to be consumed with a this question, as interesting as it might be.


      John Mark

  12.   Charlie Says:

    I never understood why the American restoration movement never attempted to restore a first century church without using the New Testament. If I understand correctly, the New Testament church only used the Hebrew texts. Perhaps, even the all-Gentile groups used oral traditions or no texts at all.

    I said all of that to say this: Perhaps Mr. Shank using his shovel to dig a hole that was never meant to be dug.

  13.   Gardner Hall Says:

    I’ve read, “Muscle and Shovel,” as well as your review of it. The spirit of that review as well as this one has been admirable and I believe you are correct in pointing out the flaws of an approach that perhaps unknowingly emphasizes a system oriented approach to God, more than a Christ and grace centered approach. I hope that our brother Shanks, whose spirit I also very much appreciate, might one day recognize that a few elements of his writing, though certainly not all, promote the former. Though I don’t agree with your under emphasis of the need to seek “common sense” Bible authority in our congregational activities, I do appreciate much of what you write and always the spirit with which you write.

  14.   Steven King Says:

    Brother Hicks,

    I greatly enjoyed your review of When Shovels Break. I too was asked to review the book (prior to release) on a private level. Of course, I am a not any sort of authority in the theological or literary world but my simplistic mind found immense spiritual value in the general message of the work. Having been raised in the Church of Christ, I have observed within the body, a large percentage of Christians who have fallen away as Shank points out. Those who have fallen away are in dire need. They know what they once were in Christ but they haven’t a clue how to return amazingly enough! Of course, as you rightly point out, the Holy Ghost is the person to guide all Saints’ lives. However, the work Shank provides is a highly useful tool to point them in the right direction. You see, I’ve been there as well, dear friend. It is a dark place being outside of Christ and not having a clue how you got there. It would be a tremendous blessing if more talented authors such as Shank and yourself would produce work on the subject of our brethren who are hurting and in need of a word of encouragement and guidance that will, Lord willing, lead them back to the Word which is the ultimate goal.
    In His Kingdom’s Joy,
    Steven King

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I am grateful for whatever God uses to renew lives in the kingdom, and I am grateful for your post as this reminds me of that very thing. At the same time, we must hold each other accountable in the kingdom lest we create our own rule rather than live under the reign of Christ. So, thank you for your comment. It is helpful.

  15.   Joe B Says:

    The reasons that “shovels break” to use shanks’ metaphor in the context of the churches of Christ in the United States is pure and simple; legalism! In the comments section of the review that JMH wrote about the book Shank claims that 2100 people had been restored after reading his book “When shovels break”. I would be interested to see how that statistic was measured. Another more interesting statistic would be to see how many people have left because of legalistic literature like his book. I have a high suspicion that the ratio is highly disproportionate to those who have left then those who have been restored. I hope and pray that one day our identity can move past our feeling that our legalistic theology is superior to all other theologies. Shovels break because they are used in the wrong manner!

  16.   Michael Shank Says:

    Brother John,

    It is now December 8th and we have heard of approximately 4,000 restorations to the Lord due to When Shovels Break – to God be ALL THE GLORY! I am just curious… have you, or any of the brethren in this forum produced a work that God has used to his glory such as this? your humble brother, mike

    Michael Shank

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:


      As I have said many times, I am grateful for every person who turns to the Lord. I rejoice with everyone who finds God.

      I wonder why you ask about the fruit of another? God uses each of us in so many different ways, and I think it best to leave the judgment to God about such things. “Fruit” can be rather deceptive if we deny or devalue another’s fruit for the sake of exalting our own or we fail to recognize the relativity of our fruit evaluations. I think it best to leave it with God who will judge the worth of our work (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). Even Paul refused to judge himself or judge anyone’s ministry prematurely (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).

      We can rejoice in what fruit we see, and I do rejoice with everyone who returns to the Lord. Comparing fruit is a bad habit and is ultimately destructive, as Paul noted when the Corinthians wanted to compare the fruit of Paul and Apollos.


      John Mark

  17.   Michael Shank Says:

    To Joe B:

    How was 2100 measured? By emails, text messages, telephone calls, facebook posts, twitter posts and hand written letters. It is truly said that you, a “brother”, would imply that I am lying or deceitful. It is truly sad. Joe B., show me “YOUR” fruits, please.

  18.   Brian Humek Says:

    John Mark,

    Amazing words on fruit. I’ve oftentimes lowered myself to comparing fruit, but not so much at putting other people down for their lack of it, but for thinking bad about my own lack of provable fruit. You are right, it’s best to leave this all up to God. I for one will feel better by not comparing fruit and have been trying to do better at this as of late.

    Thanks for the reminder,

  19.   Kevin Withem Says:

    To compare ourselves or the fruit bore through ministry (especially numerical) is no way to derive the correctness of one’s views. It’s irrelevant to the discussion, and can lead to an unhealthy pride.

  20.   James Says:

    I believe our work should speak for itself. If we have to keep bragging about and justifying it, that is at the best the cause of suspicion regarding our claims. At worst it could be an issue of pride. And we all count “success” in different ways anyway.

    BTW whatever came of the death threats? Did they catch the perpetrators?

  21.   Camron Davis Says:


    I just ran across your review and appreciate your comments. Spending too much time with our nose in a book trying to find the rules keeps us from experiencing the Savior. I’d rather spend my time looking to love on people and just be the hands and feet of Jesus wherever I am as the Spirit leads. Rather than worrying about falling away, we need to be “falling forward”.


  22.   Clarence Campbell Says:

    I too would like to see the statistics as Joe B. states “Another more interesting statistic would be to see how many people have left because of legalistic literature like his book.” So Michael S. can you provide this information? Thank you

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