I’m so convinced that the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground, and that what we put on the television can, by the Holy Spirit, be translated into what this person needs to hear and see.
It was not originally my intent to blog about Mister Rogers twice in ten days, but when I saw the new book The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth, I had to bite. As a child I had watched Rogers’s show without fail. As an adult, I actually lived down the street from Fred Rogers when I attended Carnegie Mellon University in the early ’80s. As the Pittsburgh PBS station where he filmed his show was right next to my dorm, Rogers would religiously walk by my window in the morning on his way to work. I ran into him a few times and he was always gracious and granted you his full attention. With Fred Rogers, you were always the most important person in the world for the time he gave you in conversation.
As author Hollingsworth so duly notes, my experience was the norm. After having interviewed Rogers in 1994, she began a correspondance and friendship with him that lasted until his death in 2003. What passed in many of those exchanged letters comprises much of the book, Hollingsworth letting us see the faith of the man behind the TV show, behind the ministry it was to him, and behind the simple way in which he treated the stranger as his neighbor.
Part biography, part devotional, and part a memoir of the author, this book’s core shows how Fred Rogers lived out the Gospel by caring for others in the gentle way that often made him the butt of jokes from people who could not understand what he was doing. That this should be a reflection of the Savior is no coincidence, for Rogers was an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church. Confounding his seminary profs, Rogers sought that ordination despite having no intention of pastoring a local congregation. But when he made the case that every child, every adult who tuned into his show was his church, the seminary granted him ordination.
Rogers’s vision for reaching people through the medium of television fill this book. In one case—a real hankie moistener—a boy who was horribly abused by his parents tells the author that his one respite was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The boy never lost hope that there were good people in the world because he saw how much everyone cared for and respected each other on the show. Lauren Tewes, cruise director “Julie” of The Love Boat fame, relates that the Rogers’ show actually helped her heal from an addiction to cocaine. No chapter goes by without some person telling how Rogers transformed life through his show.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for 900 episodes and Fred was the the creative spark behind every one. A trained pianist, he provided the background piano music for the show, and wrote over two hundred songs. His earlier experience with puppets in a show that ran before Neighborhood allowed him to communicate in a language children could relate to. It was his willingness to be vulnerable and to discuss difficult issues—my son and I watched the “Death of a Fish” episode recently—that made him like Jesus to everyone who tuned in.
Like the Lord, Rogers was a man of prayer who rose every morning at 5 a.m. to pray and read the Scriptures. Like the Lord, Rogers understood that silence is a critical part of a deep life, and he was unafraid to model silence and quiet for children. Like the Lord, Rogers saw potential in even the most scarred person, unfraid to reach out to the hurting, no matter what anyone else thought. Like the Lord, he wanted the little children to come to him and be loved, in spite of their circumstances. His greatest hope was that viewers would grow up to be all that God imagined they could be.
What you bring to this book will determine what you can hope to receive in reading it. Because of her close personal relationship with Rogers, the author writes with a tear in her eye that shows on every page. The book is so personal in countless ways that it is virtually impervious to critique. Fred Rogers comes off as a mythic person, saintly in a way that the vast sea of Mankind is not—Superman in a zippered cardigan and Keds. I suspect readers of this book who were impacted by Rogers’ show will see it as true to its subject, but naysayers will find all the treacle they know is inevitable in a book written about someone who was almost too good to be true.
Even if you don’t know which category you are in, give this swiftly-read book a try. Somewhere in its 165 pages it’s guaranteed to soften even the most hardened curmudgeon.