Fred Rogers debuted his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, exactly 50 years ago in 1968—one of the most traumatic years in American history. His last show aired in 2001, mere days before the September 11 attacks marked a trauma that would define a generation. Spanning three decades of dizzying change, bookended by culture-shifting tragedies, Rogers’s show created something of a televisual safe space where children could process the difficulties of life (from death to divorce, Vietnam to the Challenger explosion, and everything in between) as they traveled (via trolley) between the quotidian comforts of a living room and the whimsical puppet community of The Land of Make Believe.
Like many adults today, I grew up watching and treasuring the PBS show. An excellent new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (now in theaters), directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), provides a nostalgic consideration of what made Rogers and the show so special. The film presents Rogers—ever clad in zip-up cardigans and tennis shoes, which he handled as lovingly and deliberately as he did words—as a singular figure in pop-culture history whose sincerity, compassion, and neighborliness on television stand in stark contrast to the cynicism, vitriol, and partisan fragmentation that define today’s media landscape.
When TV Cultivated Community
The run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood coincided with the height of the limited-choices network television era, when Americans could still have water-cooler discussions about TV because they all watched the same shows (e.g., M.A.S.H., Dallas, Friends). At one point in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? we hear Rogers say, “Television has the chance of building a real community out of an entire country.”
He was right, and his show proved it. But is it true today?
Fittingly, Rogers ended his show in the nascent years of the internet and at the dawn of the social media age—narrowcast forces that have undermined media’s “community-building” potential by infinitely expanding content options and the extent to which every consumer’s experience is different. There is no “neighborhood” anymore; no living rooms where viewers of all backgrounds can commune together. There are only niches and tribes and echo chambers. As a result we are becoming isolated consumers with little aptitude for or tolerance of community and its attendant complexities.
We may never have another Mister Rogers, but shouldn’t we be looking for ways to use media the way he did—to edify and dignify and model virtue?
How can media be used to build bridges rather than walls in today’s fragmented world? This is one of the timely questions raised by Won’t You Be My Neighbor? We may never have another Mister Rogers, but shouldn’t we be looking for ways to use media the way he did—to edify and dignify and model virtue? Christians seeking to influence culture with the gospel should watch this documentary and take note of what worked about Rogers’s project. He was clear on his message without being preachy. He took life seriously but not himself. He was funny, winsome, unafraid of being awkward, and he profoundly respected his audience.
Mr. Rogers’s Mission Field
Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who viewed children as his mission target and television as his tool. While the show’s government funding prevented explicit religious teaching, Misters Rogers’ Neighborhood embodied many Christian values. Rogers dignified people. Like Jesus (Mark 10:13–16), he respected and valued children as much as adults. Some of the most moving scenes in Neville’s film show Rogers embodying neighborly, Christlike love to the overlooked, whether singing a song with a disabled boy or washing the feet of a black man in a racially divided society. The slow, hyper-attentive way Rogers listened to and learned from people modeled a dignifying presence that has become a lost art in today’s distracted age.
The slow, hyper-attentive way Rogers listened to and learned from people modeled a dignifying presence that has become a lost art in today’s distracted age.
Rogers embodied grace too. Though his “you are special” emphasis may be validly critiqued (more on that later), his heart was to remind children of their inherent, image-of-God dignity. Likely influenced by his experience of being bullied as a child, Rogers wanted to create, via the intimacy of television, a space of hospitality where kids could be “loved into loving” and where the presence of the world’s “helpers” was highlighted. Rogers was not Pollyannaish. He didn’t think children should be blinded to the difficulties of life, from assassinations to terrorism to racism. He wanted to give tools to children, to walk with them through the range of life’s beauty and ugliness. He wanted them to know they were loved.
Though not hagiographic, the appraisal of Rogers (and his legacy) in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is wholly positive. Full of loving remembrances from Rogers’s wife, sons, TV collaborators, and friends (including Yo-Yo Ma), the documentary largely avoids engaging critiques. Less than a minute of screen time is devoted to the question of whether Rogers’s “you are special” emphasis had detrimental long-term effects on his young audience. In repeatedly (almost every episode) telling children they are special “just as they are,” did Rogers inadvertently contribute to the entitled, overly coddled, emotionally fragile, narcissistic tendencies we see among young adults today? It’s a question I wish the film took more seriously.
Rogers meant well, of course, and his instinct toward grace—assuring children their dignity did not depend on their doing “anything sensational”—is right. But one must be careful that this message of grace doesn’t veer into self-justifying esteem and “look within” grace—the “grace we bestow on ourselves” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer described, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
Kids need to hear that God loves them, of course. But they also need to hear that they are sinners in need of redemption—that their hearts are dark and deceitful, prone to wander, and not always the most reliable compass. They need to hear that Jesus is more special than they are—and that a life spent looking like him is far more fulfilling than one spent “finding yourself.”
Making Goodness Attractive
Ultimately Rogers had a humble and applaudable goal with his show: to create TV that made goodness look attractive. Going against the grain of children’s programming that often glorified cynicism, childishness, and other bad behavior (for example, The Simpsons, Rugrats, much of Nickelodeon, and so on), Rogers was unapologetically committed to modeling virtue, respect, growth, maturity. He didn’t think goodness needed to be presented with a wink. He found no fault in presenting a “neighborhood” vision that was idealistic, almost eschatological. In some ways King Friday’s make-believe kingdom stood in for the heavenly kingdom Rogers longed for children to glimpse—a world without injustice and pain and sin, where everything sad has come untrue.
Rogers was unapologetically committed to modeling virtue, respect, growth, maturity. He didn’t think goodness needed to be presented with a wink.
Perhaps the reminder we most need from Mister Rogers today is this: goodness is not only possible; it’s also compelling. It’s desirable. Sadly, many Christians today act like they can only be trusted if they trade in the currency of brokenness and earn “authenticity” points by foregrounding their addictions, their dark past, and their messy present. But Mister Rogers foregrounded order and was nothing if not authentic and relatable. Even in little ways—his precise manner of dress, clean-cut appearance, commitment to household chores (feeding the fish!)—Rogers showed that goodness, virtue, and order need not be demeaned or mistrusted. They can and do exist in the world. And they can be authentic too.
We need this message now more than ever before.