Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 03/31/21

Raymond Arroyo just can’t stop writing. The EWTN anchor, Fox News commentator and prolific author is just out with The Thief Who Stole Heaven, the second in his Legend series that kicked off with 2020’s The Spider Who Saved Christmas. I spoke with him about that book in December and a lot has transpired since then – particularly regarding Cancel Culture. Regarding his latest work, the two-millennia-year-old story of the Good Thief who was crucified next to Jesus is surprisingly relevant to what has become one of the most debated issues of our time.

JWK:  Why did you choose this particular story as the second entry in our Legend series?

Raymond Arroyo: Like you and so many, I knew of this Good Thief who is not named in the Gospels. He has no name there but tradition says his name was Dismas. I came across the origins of this thief among the writings of St. Augustine and JohnChrysostom, the ancient Church fathers.  You go back to the fourth and fifth centuries of some of these writings and they all tell a similar tale – slightly different, but similar – where this thief may have met Christ at an earlier time in his life when he was a younger man.

So, when I started digging into those writings, it’s really much more than a legend. It’s probably a historical fact that over time has been lost. It somehow made sense to me and I saw this Good Thief as really a bridge between Christmas and Easter in that he probably met the Christ Child as a baby…when the family was fleeing to Egypt. (He had) the intention of robbing them and he doesn’t because he’s so captivated by this child.

You know, not only do you see the story appear again and again in some of these ancient writings but, as a storyteller, it makes sense to me because why, otherwise, at the end of his life – in the final moment when everyone is condemning this Preacher from Nazareth hanging on the cross next to him – does this thief suddenly rush to the defense of this guy having never really encountered him before that? So, now we know he probably did.

I love origin stories. I love anything that sheds light on a story we think we know and makes us consider it a different way. And, then I stood back from this story to realize this is the first tale of Easter. The Good Thief is the first tale of Easter. He is before saints and kings and queens and even the Apostles. It is this degenerate robber who is the first to enter Heaven. He is the first story of Easter. When I came to this (personal) discovery, I thought families should encounter and grapple with this story and consider it and the best way to do that would be in a picture book rather than a novel or a short story, all of which I considered.

I’m struck by the reaction this book has had. People understand, I think, the power of this story and that it’s never too late. Hope endures till the very end and mercy does as well.

JWK: I was going to ask you what you hope people take from the book but I guess that, more or less, answers my question.

RA: I hope that people will appreciate that no one is ever truly lost. We should never give up on people….Look, there are very few Easter books that really capture what this season is truly about beyond the bunnies, the eggs and the chocolate – all of which I love but this gets at the roots of what this season is about and it explains what makes the Good Thief good.

JWK: I could definitely see this story as a movie. Have you given much thought to that?

RA: I would certainly lend itself to adaptation. I think kids love the kind of swashbuckling pirate of the desert that Dismas is and yet it’s a kind of fascinating way into the story that we just take for granted. It’s not unlike the Christmas tale. You take it for granted. I wanted people to reconsider the humanity and the real choices that are made here and how grace passes us by. Opportunities pass us by. In this case, this thief meets the Christ Child and he doesn’t have a radical change of life. He makes all kinds of lousy and terrible decisions and then he gets a second pass. He gets a second chance to make it right. So, I loved that portion of it.

I also have a few letter here from children of prisoners, men who were actually incarcerated. One of the little girls wrote to me after reading it – and she read it several times with her father – that she realized that God had not given up on her dad even though he had done some pretty bad things. If that’s the message that is taken away, I’m all for it. I get it. That’s very gratifying to hear.

IMHO: Raymond’s book couldn’t be more relevant given how Cancel Culture is eating away at the very notion of mercy that Easter represents. Certainly comparing the current manifestation Cancel Culture to physical crucifixion is a huge stretch but, like Cancel Culture, crucifixion was merciless, was used to intimidate the population and to, in the case of Jesus, suppress ideas those in power held to be dangerous.

Cancel Culture is the direct opposite of what Jesus and Easter represent. As Raymond so eloquently says, “The power of this story (is) that it’s never too late…Hope endures till the very end and mercy does as well.”

Review: Roe v. Wade. The story behind the controversial 1973 Supreme Court ruling is the subject of a film that begins streaming via various platform on April 2. The star-studded cast includes Jon Voight as Chief Justice Warren Burger, John Schneider as Justice Byron White, Steve Guttenberg as Justice Lewis Powell, Robert Davi as Justice William Brennan and Corbin Bernsen as Justice Harry Blackmun. The film also stars Stacey Dash, Jamie Kennedy, Joey Lawrence, Tom Guiry and Nick Loeb (who also produces and directs) as abortion proponent-turned-abortion abolitionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson. My review follows the trailer below.

IMHO: In Hollywood it doesn’t get more much more third-raily than making a movie that directly challenges Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal throughout America. It’s almost as dangerous to one’s career as it would be to produce a film suggesting that last November’s election may not have been the most secure in the nation’s history. The latter is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The former took nearly 50 years and is this movie.

So, if nothing else, producer/director/star Nick Loeb and his cast of established actors (who easily have found work on a “safer” project) deserve credit for even having the guts to take on such a film. They deserve even more credit because they have actually turned out a brave movie that works dramatically and, yes, features some very strong performances – especially from Jon Voight as Chief Justice Warren Burger, Jamie Kennedy as abortion proponent Larry Lader and Loeb himself in the leading role of the abortionist who eventually switches sides.

When assessing how even-handed the movie actually is, it’s, of course, worth bearing in mind that it was at least partially funded by the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (which, BTW, is an independent organization unaffiliated with the Catholic Church) but, for the most part, the script rings true – particularly the basic medical facts and the part about how the Big Media of the time (i.e. the broadcast TV networks) were used to sway public opinion on the issue. Regarding the latter, we see the same dynamic is at work today (with the new wrinkles of social media and Big Tech) on a host of issues ranging from abortion to climate change to election protection to an ever expanding of list of other subjects that are supposedly settled beyond question. Debate is under attack in America and this movie dares to push back.

I do have some two criticisms though. First, though Loeb himself is a Jew and no doubt didn’t intend it, there is a part of the film suggesting a role Jewish rabbis in promoting abortions that, IMHO, could be seen as, well, problematic. Also, the movie accurately notes that Norma McCorvey (whose pregnancy was used as the catalyst for Roe v. Wade even though she had already given birth to a child who was put up for adoption) later became a staunch pro-life advocate but fails to mention the controversy over her purported “deathbed confession” in which she apparently maintained that her conversion on the issue was done for money.  I don’t know the facts surrounding that and, either way, it doesn’t change my beliefs regarding abortion but it probably should have been included.

Overall, however, Roe v. Wade is a powerful film that should be seen. Highly recommended.

Note: I’ll be posting an interview with Nick Loeb on Friday.
On the light side: The animated family comedy The Mitchells vs. the Machines lands on Netflix on April 30th.
Could be fun.

Synopsis: An everyday family struggles to relate while technology rises up around the world! From the team behind Academy Award-winning  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and starring the voices of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Mike Rianda, Eric Andre, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien,
Doug the Pug, Sasheer Zamata, Elle Mills, Alex Hirsch and Jay Pharoah.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
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