Book Review: Muscle and a Shovel, by Michael Shank

Muscle and a ShovelI first want to address the form of the book Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank that I purchased. It is an e-book (Kindle) and the 5th edition. I purchased it for $9.99. It was strewn with typographical errors and poor grammar, had no table of contents or means by which to jump to chapters (there are 40, plus the following sections: introduction, epilogue, end notes, bibliography, and Bible verses used in each chapter), no links to end notes from where noted within the chapters, and missing end notes! I repeat: this is the 5th edition since its initial publication in 2011. Five editions in three years, and it’s still in this condition. Without having yet mentioned anything about the actual content, this is enough to see little care has been taken in editing and likely speaks to the quality of the work itself. It does.

My reason for purchasing the book is simple: I was asked to read it in its entirety no matter how I felt along the way, to take notes, and to then offer my thoughts concerning its potential use in someone’s “outreach ministry.” I was asked to not read anything about the book (no abstracts, reviews, etc.) beforehand in order that I might approach it without any preconceived notions or bias, at least as little as can be expected. So, that’s what I did (or didn’t, as the case may be). This is, however, a book review and not the place for me to express all my thoughts concerning the task I was given, though I will make a few notes to caution those who would consider reading it.

As a book, it appears to be a strange and disjointed, autobiographical narrative that preaches at the reader in an attempt to convince them to read the Bible in a way rather specific to a particular end of the spectrum within the Church of Christ denomination. (It is “about” Michael Shank’s conversion from the Baptist to Church of Christ denomination.) I found much of storytelling of daily life events to be mundane and distracting from the larger context of the book. Not only were they simply not written well, they often did not make much sense wherein they were placed. The text is unnecessarily long, and cutting much of this “storytelling” would make it much more tolerable.

However, there is still the issue of the way in which the reader is being preached to. There is constant repetition of the same Bible verses, and they are always typed out in their entirety every time. I understand the desire to print full Scripture references in a book that is intended to “teach,” but not every time, least of all the same ones. This could be trimmed and save a lot of room, again making the book a bit more tolerable. Using the King James Version of the Bible for everything is also not very helpful. Of course, it is still used by many churches who consider it to be “the authorized version,” which simply shows a lack of understanding the history behind that phrase and the number of errors found within the text. (Someone reading the book along with me needed, on numerous occasions, to go to another translation simply to understand what was being said.) There is great history and tradition behind the KJV, but it is horribly outdated and ought not be used by most for Bible study today, especially if they are new to Scripture.

The author belittles people he’s trying to reach and uses examples and exaggerations that make it appear as if all people within a particular denomination are exactly the same as that which is poorly described. Do they exist? Yes, just as they do within the author’s own denomination. However, saying someone is an idiot or needs psychiatric help, for example, simply because they do not read a verse the same way (usually because they disagree on how it is to be read based on preconceived notions of biblical interpretation handed down to them, just as with those in the Church of Christ) is self-defeating, especially when trying to convert the very people being insulted. Though the book attempts to refute that assertion, the point is made therein: “We (the Church of Christ denomination) are the only ones who read the Bible correctly, we are the only ones who know the truth of Scripture, and everyone else is going to hell, even though we state we do not make that judgment call because God is the final judge (but if you read and present the Bible like we do, it is the obvious conclusion).”

For these reasons, and so much more, I would not recommend Muscle and a Shovel to anyone as a “good read.” In fact, it’s quite poor.




Now, since I’ve likely offended many in my Church of Christ tradition by saying these things, especially by calling it a denomination, I feel I must mention a few things I normally would not include in a book review.

The author notes how a few denominations came to be and why they are wrong but fails to properly address his own history. The Church of Christ (yes, big “C”) is not the only church of Christ (little “c”) as many purport. It is a branch within the history of Christianity and stems from men just as every other denomination comes from those who have influenced a particular direction or way of reading Scripture. In my opinion, there are two major blinding factors to those within the Church of Christ not understanding themselves as a denomination: 1) they simply redefine the word “denomination” in such a way that they intentionally exclude themselves, and 2) they are woefully unaware of their own history.

(Note: There are many who do not fall within the ignorance described here and remain within this particular tradition for numerous reasons, which I admire. In my own experience, I have been pushed away and described as an apostate and heretic for disagreeing with my tradition in its general narrowness of scriptural interpretation and exclusivity, and currently find myself living in an area that needs much more than the tiny [~20 people], local [20 minutes away by car] Church of Christ is teaching and offering—nothing—and have partnered with other Christian leaders in the area and lead a congregation in my home. I still don’t agree with denominationalism, which is why I do not fully associate myself with one (the Church of Christ), but I work with those therein and am still thankful for the good that has come from my Church of Christ heritage. In fact, when I’m visiting family and traveling, I still take my family to a Church of Christ.)

First, a denomination does not necessitate a central organization or governing body, but the Church of Christ has enough of a connection through hermeneutics, language, teachings, preachers, schools, and publications to be understood as having an unspoken (though loudly spoken) central governance that stipulates who is and isn’t “in” to fall within their own definition of “denomination.” They also have churches that fall within a wide spectrum, wherein not all believe the others are “in” (usually the more conservative, the more exclusive), just as is the case with many other denominations. Though they often claim that “church of Christ” is merely a descriptor and have concocted a theological doctrine by which it is a necessary descriptor, they certainly function as the “Church of Christ,” a denomination with a specific label.

(Note: The Church of Christ is not a cult, as some still purport, though it is generally so narrow in its approach to Scripture and other people that they alienate others who consider themselves to be [and are!] in the church of Christ, or any of the other names used for the people of God in Scripture that are more numerous than this single reference in Romans 16:16. Many are simply offended by the hijacking of this particular label by one denomination to the exclusion of all others from being associated therewith.)

Second, the Church of Christ came about as the result of Stone, the Campbells, and others desiring to get away from denominationalism and focus on unity in Christ and an emphasis on the written Word of God (the Bible). As with most denominations, the men by whom they were founded (or not!) did not intend them to be so, and they often spoke against it. However, just as with the Church of Christ, the further people were separated in time from these men the more they wanted to set up a particular system based upon their teachings (or twisted versions thereof).

The beginnings of the American Restoration Movement, of which the Church of Christ was a part, were by men who disagreed on much but agreed on Jesus, the Son of God, and a desire to get back to a New Testament example of living as the body of Christ. They disagreed on what the Church of Christ now considers to be salvation issues (names, labels, baptism, and the entity and function of the Holy Spirit, just to name a few), but they believed in unity in Christ and worked together to further the Kingdom of God, even in using different names and descriptors of the church but considering one another brothers and sisters (or sister congregations, as they are commonly known). This is the kind of unity for which many of us still strive, and it saddens me that many within the Church of Christ are not even aware of this part of their heritage and are actually opposed to it. However, this is what the author of Muscle and a Shovel speaks against. As a major debate in the history of the splitting of the Churches of Christ concluded on one end, it’s all right (good, of God) or it’s all wrong (evil, of Satan). This has been the trajectory for the Churches of Christ for some time, but many have begun to break away from this lie and are much more willing to listen to and journey with other believers in order that we may all become better disciples of Christ (another descriptor that turned into a denominational name “Disciples of Christ” within the American Restoration Movement and the other label used in its founding by Stone and Campbell).

Michael Shank uses the often expressed hermeneutic of “speaking where the Bible speaks, and staying silent where the Bible is silent” by way of looking at the New Testament through “commands, examples, and necessary inferences,” but fails, as many do, to show in the Bible (!) where these hermeneutics may be found about how to interpret itself! Why? This is what has been handed down through tradition but is understood to be “the way” (the most logical and right?) in which Scripture must be interpreted. This hermeneutic defies itself, but it is unquestioned. Therefore, though I may fully agree with some of what is expressed in his book, I cannot (must not!) agree with the way in which much of it concluded, especially when several issues addressed (the use of instruments, the plausibility of miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, et al.) are approached in ways I find to be out of context (a phrase often used in the book) and the side on which someone lands on these “issues” (issues to many within the Church of Christ) is used to condemn someone.

As an example of consistency, I present the often used passage of Ephesians 5:19 that is used to say using an instrument in worship to God is evil. Those within the Church of Christ who hold to these narrow hermeneutics and expressions thereof must, out of necessity and fear of condemnation, sing with their heart (not vocal chords!) because that’s what Paul says, and it must be done in unison (melody!) without harmony! The Eastern Orthodox tradition continues to sing in unison for many reasons, but the basic ancient tradition thereof and its means of maintaining unity are two big ones. If the Church of Christ is going to call upon history to express a split in the church over the use of instruments, it must also contend with an even earlier split by way of the introduction of a single voice of harmony. The four-part (or more) harmony the Church of Christ so adores and finds so beautiful (how is that any less emotional and entertaining than the way others describe the use of instruments?) is evidence of an expression of division in history that it claims as evidence for not causing division and being “right” with Scripture. It is utterly inconsistent, and that is an issue that must be addressed. I absolutely love a cappella singing (that’s still “music,” by the way, brother Michael), and it’s how we often sing in my church; however, I cannot make it an issue that it is not because the “issue” comes by way of faulty logic and hermeneutics (Muscle and a Shovel uses a lot of basic “logic” jargon).

There are a plethora of things I feel must be addressed within Muscle and a Shovel by anyone reading it or desiring to use it for outreach, but I hope what I have written here has demonstrated my reasons for dissuading others from reading and using it. There are plenty of other resources out there for the good found within Muscle and a Shovel that I would recommend rather than have someone read this unnecessarily lengthy and frustrating book that would require a lot of hand holding, explaining, and correcting along the way. I actually find the book to be dangerous to the spiritual growth of others in their relationship with other believers. In the language of the KJV, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). Though I do believe it was the author’s intent, I do not find this book to demonstrate love.


Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy as we continue to search out His truth and live unified in His Kingdom. Forgive us of our ignorance and infighting as we strive to love you and one another more. God bless us, every one.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Muscle and a Shovel, by Michael Shank”

  1. There are loads of things, especially in your Epi-rant (I made a new word- it refers to epilogue – but I combined epic and rant) that I won’t address here, but Man you’ve got a little pent up frustration there.
    I wanted to address the book itself.

    First off, this guy is not John Calvin. He is not writing in a style of lofty mountain grandeur. He is writing an autobiographic tale of his road to conversion. It is “disjointed”, because recollections are rarely linear. It was not meant to be a treatise for the masses, he just felt he could explain the steps down the path he took and hopefully it would lead others to the same conclusion. He is not Milton or Bunyan. This is not meant to be an allegorical tale of ascension. Cut the guy a little slack.

    As to the content, I concede he did not have to use the KJV. It would have been nice have something a little more accessible to the modern audience, especially to those that are new to scripture.
    There was quite a lot of belittling, but much of it was self-deprecating. The “why didn’t I see this before” approach does work on a certain level to encourage readers to look deeper into the bible and not be soley dependent on past traditions. Many of his points are valid, such as the “Where is the sinner’s prayer found?” and others.

    I find this book a good conversation starter and for those who have not grown up hearing the arguments presented in the book it can lead to good study. At the very least, it does a fairly decent job in presenting many of the defenses and counter arguments that the COC use to debate various “denominational beliefs.”

    It definitely speaks more to the laity than it does the advanced scholar, but is leading people to question why they believe what they believe. Your response to this book was fairly spot-on as to what I expected, but I think, while being far from perfect, it does have its merit.


    1. I’m not sure which part is considered the “epi-rant,” but considering my review and family, I thought it was important to address a couple specific concerns with the book’s content. Shank certainly isn’t Calvin or Bunyan, but after taking a look at what others had to say about the book, I think I read it to have had the same intent as they did. It is not merely an autobiographical exposé on his conversion experience, it is an attempt to convert the reader by means, as you already stated, are common among those in the CoC. Included in the book are selected responses from previous readers:

      “If every Christian gave 10 copies of this book to their friends and family the world could be evangelized in a short period of time!” (Mark A., Oklahoma)

      “Congregations of the Lord’s church should make a commitment to giving 100 copies of Muscle and a Shovel to the lost in their communities. Can you imagine what the Lord could do through this work? We would once again create a Restoration Movement instead of living in a Restoration Standstill.” (Janice T., Alabama)

      I think we read the same thing, except that we came at it from different perspectives and different places within the CoC tradition. Seeing that others have understood the book to be one thing, and I read it to be the same, I thought it necessary for me, one from the CoC tradition and interacts with many outside that tradition and even read this blog, to further explain why I would dissuade others from reading the book.

      Yes, as you stated and as I mentioned in my review, there is some good within the book, things that may cause others to reconsider their own positions, and those with which I am in full agreement (the perspective on the “Sinner’s Prayer,” as you mentioned, for example), but I still believe there are other resources that handle this better as a whole that do not necessitate the drudgery of getting through this particular book. Yes, it would start conversations in some circles, but again, I would use other resources to start those conversations—better conversations. I can conceive of a time in which I would use the book, and that would be to take others in the CoC tradition on a journey of seeing how damaging they can be and how their arguments may often argue against themselves.

      Just as we have both read from the early church fathers and know the heretical language that was often thrown around when people disagreed, you and I have both noted the lack of love found therein and hoped Scripture could be discussed in a different way. Yes, there was a good bit of self-deprecation in the book, there was more aimed at the reader who is not in line with the given arguments, even by way of his own self-deprecation. Even when I agreed with him, I often disagreed with the way in which it was expressed. Understanding more about what it’s like to hear and read this kind of material from the outside—via my own experiences, my wife who did not grow up in the CoC, and all of my family, friends, and acquaintances here in Northeast PA [most people have never even heard of the CoC up here]—I offer a perspective those within the CoC should consider when reading, writing, and speaking in this way. Even Randall, the one who converted Michael, did not express himself in as much a demeaning tone as did the author to his potential audience, at least as described in the book.

      Believe it or not, I’m looking forward to our discussion on the book because we’ve always been the most civil in our disagreements than has been the case with other family members. Love ya, bro. :)


  2. I actually thought Durough’s review showed incredible forbearance and kindness, and interpreted the book in the most favorable light. The idea of handing this book to someone to introduce them to Jesus is akin to introducing a toddler to pet care by putting him in a cage with a full-grown wolverine. Frankly, Shank’s prickly tome could probably be re-titled and sold to the non-coC market as “Why We Are Not Members of the Churches of Christ”. Taken in total, the book makes a reasonable case for that point of view.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s