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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!

The simple genius of Blue Like Jazz is to me this:

It presents the world as it is–not as we would have it be. In this way, it is like the Bible itself, which presents the human race as we are: as sinners. (Yes, even Christians sin. Shocking, I know).

So there are:

Lesbians, drug references, partying, and general debauchery portrayed on the the screen. Should this surprise us? I defy you to show me a college campus (the movie’s setting) where none of the above occurs (yes, even Christian ones).

This may ruffle some feathers, but so did Jesus. We need to be shaken, to feel uncomfortable. It’s good for our souls.

By that, you’ve probably gleaned that this is not a movie interested in preaching to the choir. What it is interested in is the story–the journey that young Don takes. To me, the road he travels is reminiscent of:

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” (Psalm 139:7-12, ESV).

And that to me is the difference between Blue Like Jazz, and other “Christian” films; specifically, that it’s not afraid to show us Don’s (and our) darkness, but in the end it’s not about embracing that darkness, rather it’s about sharing what Jesus means to each of us individually as believers vs. telling others what Jesus should mean to them.

The simple genius there? Show vs. tell. And Donald Miller, Steve Taylor, and company do it very well.

Like the apostles of 2000 years ago, it is my hope that this movie turns the subculture of Christian cinema right side up.

As I asked in the post’s title: “Going the movies this weekend?”

See Blue Like Jazz. Get your tickets at Blue Like Jazz Tickets

You’ll be glad you did.

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This past Thursday evening, my wife and had the privilege of seeing Blue Like Jazz on the closing night of the Phoenix Film Festival. I have written before of the impact Donald Miller’s work has had on me: How Blue Like Jazz ‘Saved’ Me.

So to say I was anxious to see the finished film is an understatement roughly the size of Shatner’s ego.

I was psyched!

So how did they do?

1) The picture didn’t look like it was filmed on a shoestring budget. The colors were lush, the cinematography outstanding.

2) The acting was crisp, and believable. These were real people. Like life, the funny parts were funny, and dramatic parts powerful.

3) The crisis in you v Don’s life felt real. You will believe the inciting incident, for sure. (How many of us have been there?)

4) The screenplay–adapted from Miller’s book by himself, Steve Taylor, and Ben Pearson–captured the intersection of clashing cultures perfectly.

5) Taylor has grown immensely as a director since The Second Chance–he knows how to elicit the best performances from his actors.

6) As I learned in recovery several years ago, I need to “accept this sinful world as it is–as Jesus did–not as I would have it to be.” This seems to be the principal thesis of the film, namely what does it look like when a person of faith crashes down in a world whose problems (sins) are greater than merely being, say, an inattentive dad? How does that person relate, fit in–does he hide? Where is God in this?

7) The ending, without being mawkish, is one of the most poignant, and powerful, I’ve ever seen.

Truly the movie, like the book before it, is about the intersection of life and grace.

Blue Like Jazz is, like, for real, man.

When the movie comes out this Friday (April 13th), be there. Don’t hide your kids, wife, or your husband–go! (Well, maybe get a babysitter for the kids–this film earns its PG-13 rating).

What are you waiting for?

Go!

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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).