The witness of Mister Rogers
It was a matinee showing of a documentary about a public television host, which had already been in theaters for two months.
Even so, the theater was probably two-thirds full, and the moviegoers were rapt with attention and, by the end, overcome with emotion. As the grateful people filed out, the life and times of the man depicted on the silver screen left no dry eyes (including those of yours truly, I’m unashamed to say).
The man in question is Mister Rogers, and the movie is the new documentary about his life, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This past weekend Anne and I went to see it at the Magic Lantern. The movie was excellent, but I was just as taken with the crowd, and what their (and my) response might suggest about the opportunities for Christian witness in our pluralistic world.
By all accounts, Mister Rogers should not be popular, much less revered.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, he had all the panache of your grandfather’s cardigan—which was of course his uniform of choice. As the producer of the show admitted when interviewed for the documentary, “If you take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star. Yet, it worked.”
That’s an understatement. One of my favorite moments from the film was a clip of Mister Rogers asking his spellbound audience, “Do you want to know how long a minute is?”—and then proceeding to pull out an egg timer, set it for one minute, and wait silently for the time to pass.
This is not the stuff that celebrity is made of. And yet here we are.
So what accounts for his enduring appeal, even now, 50 years after the trolley first rolled into his neighborhood? Why were there not only so many people who came out for the movie, but so visibly moved by it?
The cynical response is nostalgia.
Mister Rogers just reminds Gen-Xers and Millenials of their carefree youth visiting Daniel Tiger, King Friday the 13th, and company, and they get warm fuzzies.
The ideological response is politics: the country is divided, hatred is spewed like sewage, and the reassuring voice and visage of Mister Rogers are a welcome respite.
There is something to both of these responses, to be sure. But I think that the appeal of the Cardiganed One is more elemental.
In one telling scene, one of Mister Rogers’s children quips (with tongue only partially in cheek), “It’s not easy being the son of the second Christ.” Surely Mister Rogers, like John the Baptist, would be quick to respond, “I am not the Christ!” But the mere association bespeaks what it is about the man that is so profoundly enchanting.
Fred Rogers embodied the kind of loving acceptance that is fundamental to the Christian gospel. As he says at one point in the movie, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.” Surprisingly, the filmmakers didn’t shirk from sharing the source of Mister Rogers’s compassion in his faith.
For more than three decades, he exhibited a gentleness too little known in our world—much less from a television star. He attended to the littlest and the least. Through his actions and through his words he showed people that they have worth and value apart from anything they can offer, but simply by virtue of existing.
In short, he exuded grace.
Though few would recognize it, much less admit it, I submit to you that what people find so compelling about Mister Rogers is the grace of Jesus Christ as it is refracted and reflected through this humble minister.
As was pointed out in the movie, some quibble that Mister Rogers was too kind, too accepting.
They insist that his gracious attitude may have even promoted a generation of entitled young adults who all believe, as he was so fond of saying, that they are “special.” I understand this critique and am mildly sympathetic to it.
On balance, though, what the world is not hearing from Christians, what they are not seeing from the Church, is grace. That is not to say that we should compromise our core convictions or tamp down our commitment to Truth. By no means.
But the witness of Mister Rogers is a stirring testimony that the simple kindness of neighborliness is alluring, that people continue to long for grace, and that for all its supposed secularism the world needs Jesus now more than ever.