Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank is a self-published book relating the story of his conversion from being a Baptist to a member of the Churches of Christ.
It’s gained immense popularity among the more conservative Church of Christ congregations. Some churches are buying copies by the box and distributing to their members. It’s a popular Bible class study.
I posted a series of articles reviewing the book beginning last year. In just the last few days, a number of further reviews have been published.
John Mark Hicks has published a 64-page review in the form of a short book, available at Amazon as a $2.99 Kindle ebook. He has also posted his review at his blog as a free .pdf download. As is true of everything he writes, this is well worth your time. Hicks concludes,
The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy. 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), and thus condemns the guiltless (to use the words of Jesus). 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!
At Wineskins, Jim Woodell has just posted an insightful review. His is much briefer than mine and John Mark’s, and he puts his finger on what, to me, seem to be some of the key problems of the book. In particular, Woodell explains,
Muscle and a Shovel places the emphasis for salvation on the sinner and the sinner’s obligation to God. I admit I have been there and done that (I tell my story of redemption in a little book entitled, Heaven’s Star) however scripture places the emphasis on Jesus Christ and the provision of salvation through him (Romans 5:6-10). We are saved by his life! Salvation is about what God, through Christ, has done for us, not about what we do for God.
But, the teaching of this book leads one to put their trust in themselves rather than Jesus Christ. Human pride. Self-dependence. Self-sufficiency. It is all about a person lining up with the right steps. In the past, going through these steps, has been illustrated with a ladder that one must climb one step at a time until the top is reached. That is provided you don’t miss a step! And the right words have to be spoken on that 5th step, “for the remission of sins” or your baptism is not valid. And then there is the right practice that must follow also or you are damned, even if you followed the right steps initially.
I should point out, though, that we’re seeing an amazing disconnect in our brotherhood. There are many who think Muscle and a Shovel deserves a place on their bookshelf right next to the New Testament. There’s another group that thinks it deserves a place at the county landfill. Interestingly enough, many times those two groups co-exist within a single congregation.
And that’s exactly right. And it’s sad that, as Tim points out, it’s hard to find much about Jesus in Muscle & a Shovel.
Jesus is a minor character, at best, in this book. If I want to talk to people about the gospel and don’t center that talk around Jesus, something is seriously wrong. This book isn’t about bringing people to Jesus. It’s about bringing them to a certain church.