Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 12/18/20

Picture of The Spider Who Saved ChristmasAlong came Raymond Arroyo. The author of a bestselling biography Mother Angelica, Raymond Arroyo is known television viewers as the lead news anchor on EWTN, the Catholic TV network she created. Those not prone to see him on that channel may know him as a witty social commentator seen regularly on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle. Still others may recognize him as a prolific kidlit author whose works include the popular Will Wilder adventure series (published by Penguin Random House) and his new Christmas-themed bestseller The Spider Who Saved Christmas (Sophia Institute Press). I recently spoke with him about his latest work that spins the faith-filled tale of Nephila, a cave-dwelling spider who, legend has it, played a pivotal role in story of the first Christmas.
JWK: So, you’re a busy guy. Besides turning out children’s books you also are known for your cultural commentary. I believe I see you on Laura Ingraham’s show about once a week.
RAYMOND ARROYO: I am. I’m on the Ingraham show a couple of days a week and then I have own show on EWTN, The World Over where I interview newsmakers.
JWK: I find that interesting. You’re a journalist on a network that looks at things through the lens of faith, you’re a sort of witty pundit on Fox and then you’re writing these bestselling kids’ books. You have your hands in a lot of things.

RA: I’m either a schizophrenic or a Renaissance man.

JWK: We’ll go with renaissance man. I would imagine, from the books you have written, that you have a certain affinity for C.S. Lewis.

RA:
I do. Like many of us, I’ve read C.S. Lewis. I love children’s literature. I’ve read a lot of it and have read a lot of it to my children. I’ve rediscovered many of the books that I loved as a child – whether it was Charlotte’s Web or Peter Pan or Treasure Island or all the wonderful Rudyard Kipling books (like) Just So Stories and The Jungle Book.  All of those informed in some ways, I think, who I wanted to write for and my style but the thing that marked me most is when I rediscovered all of those books reading them to my children.
C.S. Lewis used to say that “No children’s book that can’t be enjoyed by a fifty-year-old is a very good children’s book.” I now get what he meant by that. What he means is unless that book has some eternal reach and truth that can not only touch the child in their youth but touch that child when they’re older it really isn’t a great piece of literature or worth very much. So, I’ve always tried to write with an eye to the young person that’s reading today and the young at heart who might be reading it again later.
The Spider Who Saved Christmas, my new picture book, really is about more than just the story on the surface. It’s about all of us being here for a reason and that we all have a role to play. We all have a gift we’re given and we have to deploy it at the right time in the right place. But, no matter what that gift is – no matter how small or insignificant the world might tell you that gift is – it’s needed, it’s crucial and it may come in handy at just the right moment. And that’s how grace works. That’s how creation works.
JWK: So, how did this story come to you? I understand it’s based on an existing legend.
RA: Yes, The Spider Who Saved Christmas is based on a very old legend. I was actually doing research for a Will Wilder book – that’s a series I write for Random House – and relics and western antiquity are at the center of that (series). So, I was doing research and I ran into a Bible commentary (as I looked some object up. As I was flipping through, I came across this tiny footnote. All it said was (that) there is an ancient legend about the Holy Family encountering a spider who saves them on their flight to Egypt. I had never heard this story. I didn’t know of it. The only inkling I had of this story is the one that I bet many of your listeners and you might have. If you’ve ever seen a Christmas tree with tinsel on it – Christmas tinsel – that is a remnant, a reflection, a holdover of this legend. For some reason, we lost the legend but we kept the tradition. So, we still decorate with tinsel. I always thought that tinsel (represented) fake icicles falling off of tree limbs.

JWK: That’s what I thought it was.
RA: Right. Well, it’s not. It’s actually an homage to this story and the spider’s web. I won’t ruin the story for you but Mary, Joseph and Jesus hide out in a cave on their way to Egypt and while there they meet this spider and the spider performs a service for them that only she can – that ends up being pivotal to their protection and to their futures. So, I thought “What a great story this is. I’ll expand it, I’ll flesh out these characters a little bit and let’s make this a picture book so young and old can encounter it together.”
I’m so happy to say I get letters all the time and emails every day from grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles who have incorporated the book now into their Christmas tradition which is exactly what I wanted.
JWK: Tell me about the TV special that will air based on the book.
RA: Fox Nation has recorded me reading to a group of children. So, I read the book to a group of children and they’ve kinda animated some of the spreads so that it comes to life a little bit. It’s kind of a slightly animated reading of the book and it’s a chance for people to encounter it in a different way with their families.
JWK: It sorta reminds me of those old Little Drummer Boy types of animated specials that used to air every year when I was a kid.

RA: 
All those stop-motion Rankin-Bass (animated shows), yeah.
JWK: Tell me about your successful Will Wilder book series. It strikes me as a sort of Christian answer to Harry Potter.

RA:
It’s a middle-grade series. It is fantasy but the difference is…that the axis upon which (Harry Potter) spins is witchcraft, wizardry and incantations…(Will Wilder) revolves around western antiquities and relics. They do touch our history and that, naturally, touches Christian history and western history. So, it’s a neat series because it allows me (to tap) into what every middle-grade series worth its salt does. It’s a battle between good and evil. In this case, it’s a12-year-old boy who has a particular gift – here I go again with the gifts – and it scares him a little bit. It scares his family at the start. He can see things others can’t and it turns out he is part of a much longer history. His family has been battling these dark elements, these demons, for centuries. And, he finds himself part of that story that he never intended (to be part of). Again, he plays a role in what’s happening now and in the continuance of that tradition. Much hangs in the balance of his decisions – like all of our decisions.
JWK: Getting back to The Spider Who Saved Christmas, do you think the story has any special resonance coming out during this season of Covid?
RA: You know, John, you often don’t know what you’ve written until it’s all over and released. I write the story but the story doesn’t tell me what it was written for and it doesn’t provide its lesson to me usually until after publication. And that has happened with almost every book I’ve written, whether it’s biographies or Will Wilder and this proved to be the same.
I wrote this book a year and a half ago – long before Covid was ever dreamed of – but now when I look at it part of the reason I think it’s been on the New York Times List for a month is because people are drawn to a sense of tradition. They want tradition. They want to understand their traditions.
And, secondly, a sense of wonder. We all (tend to) think of the Holy Family (as) sort of the Fontanini figures under your tree. Yeah, Baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph went to the stable. We get it. I think we (skip) past the reality. This story focuses us on how this family is a lot like us. We may not have angels floating over the house and three kinds coming to visit – chances are we won’t – but (in this time of Covid) we will probably (relate to) the position the Holy Family is in in my book. They’re on the run, they’re anxious, they’re hiding out in a cave trying to protect their loved ones from sudden death outside but what they discover in that cave – and this is the lesson, I think, for all of us – is that if you have the eyes of faith and, if you’re looking for it, hope is there. There is hope there, there is goodness there and, if we care enough for each other and expend our gifts on one another and for another, we can find happiness and hope even in dark circumstances. That’s what I think The Spider Who Saved Christmas most of all is speaking to this season in this time and is probably why it has resonated in the way that it has…I think people are looking for something to strengthen them and uplift them this season. And it’s a wonderful way into the Christmas story for families. It’s a wonderful way for parents and grandparents and children to talk about “Who are these people? Why are they on the run? Why is everybody chasing Jesus? Why are these soldiers chasing Jesus?”

And the small things. In the middle of the book, Mary tells Joseph who, naturally, (acts) as the father of a family. If you walked into a cave and saw this huge spider and webs everywhere, the first thing you would do is clear the webs out and try to kill the spider which is what Joseph does at the top of the book (but) Mary grabs his staff and says “No. Let it be. All are here for a reason.” She has this very different perspective on life…and that line ends up being the through line for the entire story because all are here for a reason whether it’s that spider or Mary or Joseph – or the Christ Child. Sometimes it’s those ignored people and things in the shadows that end up being vehicles for grace and most important things and people in the drama of life.

JWK: So, where can people get the book?
RA: Everywhere books are sold. If you go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, it’s certainly there. I would also encourage people to DiscoverLegends.com. There’s a preview of the book there but you can also find a link to the indie and independent bookstores. I would encourage you to buy it through an independent bookstore, if you can, only because they’re really struggling this year. It’s a lifeline to them to be able to sell to their audience (online). We sometimes forget about the independent (shops), so I want to remember them too.
JWK: And when will the Fox Nation special drop?
RA: That’s going to be up later in the month – I think on December 20th…I also have (another Fox Nation) Christmas special called An American Christmas Together (12/17). It’s a musical special with Dion DiMucci (The Wanderer) doing two new Christmas songs and José Feliciano joins us (too). It’s the 50th anniversary of Feliz Navidad. Kellie Pickler (is on). We go to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and she does some numbers for us. It’s a cozy kind of old-fashioned Christmas special with music. I love it…We got each of the artists at their homes or near their home. It’s intimate views, songs and it’s about why the holidays matter (and) why Christmas matters to these individual artists. It’s the music we grew up on. It’s the music we love. That’s on Fox Nation on the 17th of December. 
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Streaming Selection: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom film poster.jpg
Netflix’s film adaption of August Wilson’s classic play about the legendary 1920s blues performer Ma Rainey officially drops today but is already receiving early Oscar buzz. The all-star cast includes Viola Davis (as Ma Rainey), Chadwick Boseman (in his final film role), Michael Potts, Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo. The film is directed by George C. Wolfe and produced by Denzel Washington, Todd Black and Dany Wolf.
Synopsis: Tensions rise when the trailblazing Mother of the Blues and her band gather at a Chicago recording studio in 1927.
My Mini-Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom brings the late playwright August Wilson’s stage version of the real-life blues legend to the screen via a production that is a lavish, big-budget slice-of-life period piece. Though a little slow to start, the film soon enough pulls you into the compelling world of black musicians in the 1920s.  From top to, well, bottom, it boasts first-class writing, direction, productions values and acting (including from Chadwick Boseman in his final film role). The film has a lot to say about faith, justice, racial discrimination and overcoming life’s hardships. Most perceptively, it effectively dramatizes the power of controlling your anger (even if justified) as opposed to the potentially tragic consequences of allowing it to control you. As portrayed by Viola Davis, Ma Rainey is a woman who knows who she is (“a child of God”) and knows how to channel her anger in a way that garners productive results.  Recommended.
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Postscript:  I’m taking off for the holidays. See you Monday, January 3rd. Till then, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
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