Review (and thoughts on) “Muscle and a Shovel – By Michael Shank” By Axel Hoogland.
I read the book Muscle and a Shovel on the urgings of a friend. I was asked to read the book for about 6 months (starting August 2013) before I finally bought it around February 2014. Then it took me until October 14th 2014 to start reading it. I was finished by October 25th. Not because it was a great book, but just because that’s the kind of person I am. I hope to finish books in a reasonable amount of time. This was while taking notes and looking up bible verses and doing a bit of reflection. I’m intending to do more reflection as I write this review.
I have decided that it’s beneficial to take notes before reading a book to see how your perceptions and prejudices change as you read. My notes before this book are below and thus begins my book review of Muscle and a Shovel.
“I am going into this book skeptical as it’s written to be promoting the Church of Christ, from what I understand but I am interested to read the story.”
Immediately the book begins with 2 quotes.
“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.” – Morpheus, The Matrix
The 2nd was a quote I had never heard before and is a recurring theme in the book.
“It is easier to believe a lie one has heard a thousand times before than to believe a fact one has never heard before.”
I was definitely influenced by The Matrix quote as I grew up in the era where the Matrix was one of the movies for nerds. I am also Catholic. Some would argue it’s a system. I’m aware of my biases to thinking that that is the one true church of Christ. I tried to check my ego at the beginning of the book and read on.
The next page is basically a challenge to the reader and a warning that their views could be challenged or even changed by this book. I viewed this as basically a way to try to get readers to keep reading when they encounter something they disagree with. Sort of a “bet you can’t do this” challenge which some people fall for. I thought this was a bit childish. Then next page was the blue or red pill scenario from The Matrix again so I was once again content.
The book tells the story of Michael Shank (the author’s) conversion from lukewarm Baptist to baptized Church of Christ member. It starts with him about to be baptized (in March 1988) but then jumps back to tell the story of how he got there starting with him moving with his new wife to Nashville for his new job as an engineering technician for a printer company, starting in August 1987 so the book covers 8 months. He quickly meets the other main character in the book Randall, who works in the shipping department of the same company.
I was already much more interested in the book than when I started it since I could connect with Michael as we’re both engineers and he’s on a journey to find “The Truth”. The book is basically a cycle of questions by Randall, followed by searching for the answers by Michael. Michael usually thinks he finds the answer from some pastor and returns to be corrected later by Randall. The first question from Randall that stuck out to me was “Have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord?” The second was “How were you saved?” These were (and still are) questions that have been in my mind lately. The first has been more phrased as “Who goes to Heaven?”, which leads to “How do you get to Heaven?”, which in my mind leads to “Obey God” which leads to “What does it mean to obey God’s word?” I think this last one is the important one. It seems many people are able to ask the question, but not many are able to answer it. Despite how easy everyone seems to think it is to read the Bible and interpret, I challenge that it’s not inherently easy, partially because I think the Bible is a written in a way that can be difficult to interpret at times. It even mentions this in 2 Peter 3:16 about the writings of Paul
“He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
I believe this is because a lot of peoples judgements are clouded by their sin or by others.
The 2nd question “How were you saved?” is interesting because it is a question I hear a lot from those outside the Catholic church, but not often inside.
Chapter 3 is important as it starts discussion on baptism. This is a prevailing theme in the book as it starts with Mike and his wife about to be baptized and ends with their baptism.
The next interesting revelation came at the beginning of chapter 4 from Mike “My friends and I all wore the label of Christian, but there was little difference between my lifestyle and the world around me.” This is a thought that was interesting to me as it’s something that I was confronted with in 2012 by a new friend at the time. It definitely started me moving on a new path, but it has definitely been a bumpy road and I’m still on it.
A page later another revelation, “My ultimate goal was to become a software CEO in the Silicon Valley with a seven-figure salary and stock options.” This by Mike. It spoke to me again as i’m wrestling with my goals. By the end of the book Mike learns that money is not the ultimate satisfier.
Chapter 6 is titled “Am I going to hell?” in my version. From what I understand chapter titles have been removed in newer version of the book. I am very interested in the question above if you reference my thoughts earlier in this post. This is a question I ask often, although usually I ask “Who gets to go to heaven?” One thought a friend pointed out to me was that heaven and hell aren’t referenced often in the bible but the “Kingdom of God” is referenced very often. Interesting.
Next thought “All denominations teach conflicting doctrines”therefore, it isn’t possible that all of them are biblically correct.” is a statement not far into Chapter 6.
Again a profound statement that I’ve thought myself. This is one of the first parts I’d like to propose a question. Not all are biblically correct.This is a nice straightforward way to ask “Do you believe is Sola Scriptura?” At this point in my life, and acknowledging my Catholic upbringing, I have to say no. Referencing this page, #10 “When all is said and done, Protestants who accept sola scriptura as their rule of faith appeal to the Bible. If they are asked why one should believe in their particular denominational teaching rather than another, each will appeal to “the Bible’s clear teaching.” You can read up on Sola Scriptura yourselves and think on it. You know my stance that the Bible isn’t as clear as people act like it is, or we wouldn’t have 30,000 denominations arguing with each other.
Another thought I had on this point was the history of the Bible. It didn’t appear by itself. In fact, the church assembled the bible, picking from many books available and assembling them, guided by the Holy Spirit. Here is an article on the history of the Bible.
Probably the most directly confrontational quote in the book appears at the end of chapter 6. “If you’re a member of any denomination … that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal damnation.” This was from Randall.
I will freely admit that I have not had a ton of conversation with other denomination pastors (although probably more than most people, which would only require one, and I’ve had more than that). In chapter Michael asks a Baptist Pastor who started the Baptist church. The pastor replies, John the Baptist. Michael starts to search for this in the bible but eventually can’t find it, much like the cycle of many things in the book. Now this point was pretty quickly dismissed by Randall as completely false and proven with a quick look through the bible and history to understand that the Baptist church was actually started in the Netherlands in the early 1600’s. So I’m not sure if this was really what some people thought in the 1980’s. Since they didn’t have the magic of the internet it is possible that the pastor was really taught incorrectly so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. With the internet, it should be easy to look up simple facts like this these days, I wish Michael Shank would have done that with some of his facts later in the book.
Skipping some more to chapter 13 “Cutting off the end of the ham” In this chapter Michael’s tells an old story of a wife making a ham who cuts the end of it off and throws it away. The husband asks why and she says because that’s how her mother did it. Eventually it gets around to that the grandmother had a pan that was too small to fit a full size ham. The point of the story is that traditions or “how we’ve always done it” definately need to be questioned at times. If your teacher’s can’t give you a straight answer, maybe it’s time to move on, or ask a more clear pointed question. This was something that I have grown better at by talking with those who have different beliefs than myself. Often if we get in the rut of believing only what were taught, we don’t actually understand why we believe it. Ask questions, it helps you grow.
Chapter 14 “Feelings…Nothing More Than Feelings” brings a few interesting thoughts. First is Michaels confession that he was sure he was saved when he was 8 because he felt a great peace when he said the Sinners Prayer. Randall points out that this could have been a placebo effect of a young boy being told he was saved by those in power or perceived to be in power. Of course you could say it was also the Spirit. Hard to argue things of feelings! The next thought comes shortly after when Michael mentions a personal relationship with Christ. This was another thing that I was not particularly exposed to until much later in life as that’s not something that is often said in the Catholic Church. This article I read while researching to write my post mentions a lot about knowing God but mentions that many people are surprised to hear that “personal relationship with Christ” is not actually found in the bible anywhere. What it does mention is knowing God.
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? (Gal. 4:8-9)
It goes on to discuss the signs that you know God, mentioned how you will act. Works? I will take this opportunity to share James 2:17 “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Repeated throughout the book is the quote “It is easier to believe a lie one has heard a thousand times before than to believe a fact one has never heard before.”
Moving to chapter 17 is the thought “If you know you’re going to be die and be judged, doesn’t it make sense to find out what you’ll be judged by?” Pretty sound advice.
The next important thought in chapter 17 is “There’s some truth in every denomination.”
Randall states that he’s not there to criticize others, but only to refute their false doctrines. This is where the most fatal flaw in the whole book comes in. He points to some of the “beliefs” of the Catholic church and he is very careless with definitions. He says that Catholics see the Pope as God on earth. This is the absolutely most incorrect thing I’ve ever read. It honestly made me question the whole rest of the book and Michael and Randall’s research skills. They undoubtedly had access to a Catholic priest. If they had taken a day to talk to a priest to understand what the Catholic Church teaches they could have had and accurate book instead of one that promotes lies. The Catholic Church does not teach that the Pope is God.
The second practice referred to by Randall is praying to Mary. Now this is something I’ve been investigating lately and here’s what I found. If you look at the definition of prayer it is 2 fold. One involves worship which is prayer to God. The other is a simple request, which is prayer to saints or Mary. The confusion in definitions is what leads to many disagreements between those who would otherwise be on the same side of a discussion. So synopsis. Catholics do pray to Mary and Saints. Catholics do not worship Mary or the Saints.
Which my confidence shattered I considered stopping here. But in keeping with my promise to my friend, in acknowledging that I had already gotten a lot of good out of this book (at least it got me to open my bible to check some verses) and in keeping with the thought that there’s some truth in every denomination, I read on.
A particularly confusing part came in came in chapter 18 when they began to talk about the word baptidzo and it’s translation to english. They contend that the history of baptidzo always means immersion. If you read here that obviously an oversimplification, referencing other parts of scripture. Again, I am becoming uneasy about Michael and Randall’s research abilities.
In chapter 20 Michael has made the decision to leave his current church. He states he is faced with either Catholicism or Protestantism. This is a pretty narrow minded statement. I’m making an assumption here that when he said Catholic he was referring to the Roman Catholic church, which is the only Catholic church most people in the English speaking world know. He completely ignored the Orthodox Catholic church (more often called the Eastern Orthodox church) which had broken away from the Roman Catholic church earlier than the Protestants, based on Constantinople being the political power of the day and not generally for any reasons dealing with faith.Then he makes a broad statement that “Protestantism” is his other option. With many many different denominations, and more appearing every day based on new divisions, thats not really a bucket. Michael points to the hours he spent at the local library researching different denominations as proof that he was sure Catholicism was wrong. It’s too bad he didn’t save himself that time by talking to a priest for a total of 5 minutes. He could have been set straight on all the things he’s gotten wrong, some of which I pointed out earlier.
A few pages later he brings up a thought on original sin. This is one that makes me pause and think. He states “Children are, until they come to an age whereby they fully understand right from wrong (and are able to choose between the two), innocent and free from the spiritual consequences of sin.” I believe this one is pretty easily disproven by a little biblical research. Romans 5:18 “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” This seems to make it pretty clear that original sin as taught by the Catholic church is real. Read here for further thoughts on the topic.
A funny thing does happen later in chapter 20. Michael is “kicked out” of a bible study for referencing the bible.
I didn’t find much out of the normal discussion on topics until chapter 24 in which Michael asks himself “Why had I never questioned what I’d been taught in religion?”. This is a profound statement. It is one I’ve been embracing laterly. As Michael has found, sometimes you will find there are no answers or as I’ve found, there are answers.
I found another interesting fact in chapter 27. The Church of Christ does not use musical instruments.
Chapter 29 “Killing the One-Man Pastoral System”, is a chapter dedicated to proving that a church having one pastor can lead to rogue pastors. I can agree with him on this topic. There are many one-off churches that people are drawn into because of the charismatic nature of one pastor. When that pastor dies, moves or otherwise stops preaching, the church can wither. This is too bad. In contrast, we have the Catholic church which is fully in communion with the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Catholic church. If a priest were to go rogue, he’d be reigned in quickly.
Jumping to chapter 38 and near the end Michael makes the decision to turn away from sin. “The pleasures of sin must be sacrificed in order to follow Christ. My smoking, drinking , cursing, lewd jokes, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life – all of these things had to be turned away from in order to follow the One that offered eternal life.”
This is a point that Michael and I can again be reconciled on.
Then he and his wife are baptized, again since they had each been baptized in their youth. This is a point of contention I am still researching.
A final thought of the book was sharing the “secret” of Randall. How he was able to rattle off so many bible verses. He would memorize one verse a year. Write it on a note card and carry it with you and memorize it for a week. Then write another verse the next week. Review the cards periodically and you’ll be far ahead of most people. Practice makes perfect just like any other skill.
My final thoughts on the book are as follows. It was a good book overall in the fact that it challenged me to read my bible more and research more. I commend Michael in his efforts to seek the Truth. I’m not sure of his resolve though. He seems to have done a lot of half research and at some point just accepted what he found or was told. I sympathize with him as just taking the time to write this review was trying on my patience at times. I hope he comes upon this review and it challenges his thoughts. If you read this far in my review you probably understand that I take issue with a lot of what is taught in the book, as you should also based on the fact that there are some blatantly wrong “facts” stated. I hope this challenges you to read farther into your faith. Read this book if you desire. Let it challenge your beliefs. The time you take to research to prove or disprove your beliefs will be the best way to grow.
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Thank you Phil for the cover image.