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Much hash has been made of Jars of Clay abandoning their Evangelical roots. I’m not interested in that debate. The fact of the matter is that we are all called to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

That is what I see (and hear) Jars doing: making their faith their own, refusing to be defined by the convictions others project onto them. How this works in practical terms is that while honoring their past, youthful zeal has evolved into a deeper, more mature faith.

In essence, these are a group of guys who are so secure in their faith that making music about real life–their lives–comes naturally now. They have freed themselves from the expectations of a subculture that wants to keep them in a box called Christian music. As if Christians can’t make music about life, about struggle, conflict, heartache, without name-checking Jesus every few bars.

Last night at the show my wife and I attended, Dan Haseltine said (speaking of Inland), “This is a record that took us twenty years to make. One that we couldn’t have made when we were eighteen, and knew everything.” Meaning that he, and the group, have lived, have struggled, have seen and experienced things over the years. They’ve had victories, suffered losses, had setbacks, have had children, fights with their spouses…

They’ve lived.

And they’re better for it.

Last night’s show was at a smaller venue, so right off the bat you know it’s going to have an intimate feel. (My wife and I, because of my work schedule were late, and missed the first opening act, Kye Kye). What I noticed when Brooke Waggoner (an artist whose work, unfortunately, I wasn’t acquainted with prior to last night) began her set was that Stephen Mason (Jars’ guitarist/bass player/raconteur) was on stage, playing bass for her.

And from where I sat, he looked like he was enjoying himself–just playing for the sheer joy of it.

After Ms. Waggoner’s set, and during the intermission, the members of Jars were onstage setting up their own equipment. No roadies, just them–checking guitars, taping down lines and set lists. Gone was the bombast of, say, the 11th Hour tour. No video screens, no fog machines, no special effects.

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Just four guys (and supporting players) and their instruments.

The set list was a mix of old, and new, tunes. All delivered with passion, and without pretense. These are clearly men who trust one another implicitly (they would have to to still be doing what they do after all these years). I got the sense, based upon the repartee between Dan and Stephen, that these are guys who don’t take themselves seriously at all.

But they do take very seriously what they do, and that’s make great music. Despite being up on the stage, performing, the greatest impression I got from them was that they were both humbled, and honored, to be performing for us.

Among the old standbys, there were: One Thing, Flood (a rousing acoustic rendition), and Faith Like a Child (a crowd favorite, and certainly a highlight). Missing from the back catalog were: Love Song for a Savior, 5 Candles, Unforgetful You.

But they couldn’t play everything spanning their near twenty year career.

New songs included: After the Fight, Loneliness & Alcohol Alcohol, Inland, Fall Asleep, and others.

In all, it was a rousing, energetic, yet intimate, show. Looking forward to see where they go in the future. Of all I’ve said here, perhaps the best summation of the performance (and the highest praise), comes from my wife, Lisa, who said, “They’ve grown.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Do you like Jars of Clay? What’s your favorite song? Have you heard Inland?

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As with his previous book, 31 Days to Finding Your Blogging Mojo, Allain has writting another winner. He knocks it clear outta the park! It’s smart, yet simple, clear, and actionable. Anybody wanting to build a tribe can follow these steps. Bryan shares the lessons he’s learned from:

Over 10 years of blogging,

Putting on his own conference,

Reaching out to people he admires.

This book is packed with such practical wisdom that it would be cheap at twice the price! It really is that good.

Don’t take my word for it–pick up a copy, and put the steps into practice. And watch your tribe grow!

Click here to get your copy on Amazon. Starting tomorrow, October 30th, the book is free (through November 3rd).

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What you can do to help:

1) Do Bryan, favor, and read Community Wins, or Bryan’s previous book, 31 Days to Finding Your Blogging Mojo.

2) Leave favorable reviews on Amazon.

3) Tweet out your love: “@bryanallain is at it again with #CommunityWins. Check out @randomlychad’s review at http://randomlychad.com”

Iscariot is the forthcoming novel from Tosca Lee. It is due to be released on February 5th of next year. I was privileged to receive an electronic galley from NetGalley. (For my book-loving friends, this is a great way to read, and review, upcoming books).

I’ve made no secret of how much I like her work, and have even had her here on the blog for an interview. Her work resonates with me, and her work ethic inspires me (I’m told she engaged in a marathon 19,000 word writing session as the deadline for Demon: A Memoir encroached upon her).

Every writer, I think, needs a muse, and I’ve found a writer in Ms. Lee that inspires me to greatness. I may never achieve her level of success, never be more than a guy with a blog–and a dream–but at least I’ve got a star to shoot for (though I may crash back to earth). With that in mind, here’s my advice to those of you write: consider a writer you’d like to write for, give yourself an “ideal audience,” and shoot for that every time you sit down at the keyboard. I’ve picked Ms. Lee because she crafts gorgeous sentences, includes vivid descriptions, is a crackerjack at research, and very ably draws her readers in.

What does that digression have to do with her forthcoming book, Iscariot? For me, it represents a return to form, to the first person narrative of her earlier works, Demon: A Memoir, and Havah, the Story of Eve. If you have been following her career, you know she has been engaged in writing a trilogy with mega-bestselling novelist Ted Dekker, called the Books of Mortals.

As with most Dekker books, the series contains labyrinthine plots, amazing twists, global conspiracies, etc. worthy of the best of Ludlum.

Iscariot is nothing like that.
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As I said above, it represents a return to form: the story is stripped (oh, it has its twists), the plot is simple, and the point of view is intimate. Ms. Lee makes perhaps the boldest choice I’ve ever seen a novelist make: she narrates the story from Judas’s perspective. To help put this into perspective, allow me a comparison from popular literature:

Author George R.R Martin is engaged in the telling of vast tale, encompassing many volumes, known as the Song of Ice and Fire. In this story, he has a character known as Jaime Lanister, who is the architect of the inciting incident that gets Martin’s story rolling. He is a character readers love to hate. Where Martin’s story differs from Lee’s is that his is a tale told from multiple points of view (there are alternating chapters). Jamie Lanister is not a point of view character until well into the series.

But when Martin introduces him as such, things change. The reader is forced to see things from Lanister’s perspective. At first it feels akin to having sympathy for the devil, but the monster quickly becomes a man. Lanister is human after all.

Likewise Lee, in her portrayal of Judas, forces the reader to see events through his eyes, and process life through his mind. Like George R.R. Martin, one of her great strengths as a novelist is the sympathetic portrayal of much-maligned characters. And it turns out that Judas Iscariot, arguably the most notorious traitor of all time, was just as human as you or I.

Not a cheery thought to contemplate, but a necessary one. For who among us, at one time or another, has not betrayed Christ?

The brilliance of this book–though it goes beyond the biblical narrative (as it must)–is that it sets Judas in the proper context of Israel’s history: his is an occupied state, the religious structure is oppressive, the Roman rulers are cruel, and crucifixion is all too common. People, Judas among them, are anxiously expecting a Messiah–one who will deliver Israel from her enemies. What they get–what he gets–is something, or Someone else entirely. For the curious, the story moves quickly from the setting of Judas’s childhood to the central relationship of the book: that of Judas and Jesus.

Yes, like Revenge of the Sith, the ending is known: Judas betrays Jesus. But what a journey getting there! It is nothing short of a tour-de-force! You will see Judas in an entirely new light.

Have you read any of Tosca Lee’s books? Will you read Iscariot when it releases in February?

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I was recently privileged to host author Tosca Lee here for an interview. (You may read that interview here). Today, after a long hiatus, I’m bringing you a random book review: Ms. Lee’s Demon: a Memoir.

Demon was published some five years ago (and was subsequently rereleased in 2010), but is new to me. It has been–rightly so–compared to Lewis’s classic Screwtape Letters. As apt as that comparison is, as the books cover similar thematic ground, I feel it in some ways misses the mark.

What do I mean?

If you know the story of Screwtape, you know it’s a book comprised of a series of letters from a senior demon (Screwtape) to a junior tempter, Wormwood (his nephew), with advice on how best to lead “the Patient” (a human) away from God. Ms. Lee’s approach eliminates the middleman–the “Wormwood,” if you will–and poses the question:

What if “Screwtape” showed up in person?. How would the “Patient” react? Would he, dare I say, perhaps be entranced?

And that is exactly what happens: Lucian (the “Screwtape” figure here) makes an appointment to meet with Clay, a man recently divorced, onr who works for a midlist publisher, and who has failed as a novelist. I don’t want to give anything of this delicious novel away, but suffice it to say that Clay is, despite solid proofs of who Lucian is, entranced, and agrees to tell Lucian’s story.

Which is really Clay’s story (and ours). More I can’t say.

I’ve given you the bare bones there above, but in brief:

Ms. Lee has a strong sense of place–one feels as if one is in Boston (where the story takes place). The main characters of Clay, and Lucian, do indeed feel like a real person and/or demon, respectively, and their motivations are solidly believable. (A note on this: Ms. Lee, as Lewis before her, doesn’t set out to prove the supernatural: it just is. She takes it for granted from the outset. As a Christian myself I do as well, but as the book is true and consistent to its own inner laws, I don’t feel like a non-believer would have any trouble willingly suspending their disbelief. And indeed emerge on the other side maybe reconsidering things. That said, the book’s primary purpose is not as a polemic, but a work of art.

And it delivers.

The book is that well written.

Supporting characters feel like real people, and the broken relationships depicted feel suitably broken. Nothing feels forced, fake, or contrived. Her descriptions are lush without bogging down the story, and her prose crackles with an electric tension from first page to last.

Do yourself a favor, and read Demon: a Memoir.

This has been a “random” review. Come back for more in the coming weeks.

Have you read Demon, Ms. Lee’s book, Havah, or either of the Books of Mortals she’s working on with Ted Dekker, Forbidden, or Mortal? What did you think?

Have you read any other books lately?

Share in the comments!

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Building A Life Out Of Words, by Shawn Smucker, isn’t Henry James, but it is indeed gripping. (And probably far more accessible to the modern reader than Mr. James. Truth be told, I’ve never read any James; I heard that line in a movie, and just like the way it sounds. Shawn’s prose is both lush and lyrical). It is the story off how how one man, with a wonderful woman at his back, left a life that was robbing him of joy to pursue his God-given purpose: being a writer. More than that is a story of faith, of staying true to the course even when things looked bleak, and trusting God to provide. Shawn’s story is the closest thing to a real life “Rocky Balboa” that I know: this little guy showed that he wasn’t just a contender, but a champion.

What his story isn’t is (yet another) “how-to” book: you’ll find no advice here–ala Jon Acuff–on how to be a “quitter.” This is how Shawn became that quitter in his way, on his terms. Or rather on God’s terms. It seems to me that if we as Christians buy into notion of the sovereignty of God, then that God had a hand in getting Mr. Smucker to a place where giving it all up was the best decision for both him and his family. (None of which to say that there is no value in this book for the non-believer; far from it).

And the world is a better place for it. Those of you who have read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (or have seen the films based on those excellent books) will understand what I mean when I say that Shawn has the faith, and tenacity, of Sam Gamgee. For Sam is the only one who both stayed true to Frodo, and indeed just plain true, to the end. Even when Frodo himself was overcome by temptation, Sam was not. To my mind, Mr. Smucker is a man of that kind of faith. And the world is a better place for it.

Would that I had these gifts: his faith, and his facility with words.

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Interspersed throughout the text of Building a Life Out of Words, you will find practical advice, and life experiences, from other folks who are either themselves building lives out of words, or trying to. While I appreciated their inclusion, and see the value they add to the book, in a way I resented the intrusion: I wanted more of Shawn’s story. (And indeed that I could meet him; alas, his journey is not bringing him to the Phoenix area).

I’m given to understand that Building a Life Out of Words is available for Kindle, Nook, and in PDF format; links to purchase it can be found here.

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Shawn blogs (almost) daily at http://shawnsmucker.com. He is currently traveling the country for four months with his wife and four children in a big, blue bus named Willie, looking for service opportunities as well as other writers to meet up with. You can find him on Facebook (Shawn Smucker, Writer) and Twitter (@shawnsmucker).