Published by Westminster John Knox Press on March 13, 2015
Genres: Biography & Memoir, Christian Life, Religion, Religious, Social Issues, Spiritual Growth
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration.
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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Fred Rogers was one of the most radical pacifists of contemporary history. We do not usually think of him as radical, partly because he wore colorful, soft sweaters made by his mother. Nor do we usually imagine him as a pacifist; that adjective seems way too political to describe the host of a children's program known for its focus on feelings. We have restricted Fred Rogers to the realm of entertainment, children, and feelings, and we've ripped him out of his political and religious context. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and although he rarely shared his religious convictions on his program, he fervently believed in a God who accepts us as we are and who desires a world marked by peace and wholeness. With this progressive spirituality as his inspiration, Rogers used his children's program as a platform for sharing countercultural beliefs about caring nonviolently for one another, animals, and the earth. To critics who dared call him "namby-pamby," Rogers said, "Only people who take the time to see our work can begin to understand the depth of it." This is the invitation of Peaceful Neighbor, to see and understand Rogers's convictions and their expression through his program. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, it turns out, is far from sappy, sentimental, and shallow; it's a sharp political response to a civil and political society poised to kill.
I remember Mister Rogers as a kind, gentle, meek soul. Kind and gentle, always. But meek? No way.
“In a very real sense, we’ve domesticated Fred Rogers and his radical pacifism. We’ve restricted him to the realm of entertainment, children, and feelings, and we’ve ripped him out of his political and religious context. . .The purpose of this book is to take Fred Rogers and his Neighborhood seriously.”
And this book delivers on that purpose. Michael Long looks at Fred Rogers’ progressive theology and his television show in its historical context, and gives us a riveting portrait of a surprisingly bold personality who knew exactly how to put his ideas into action, especially (but not exclusively) through the reach of his children’s program.
“Rogers held to a progressive view of divine revelation. ‘God evolves, learns, grows, knows,’ he explained to Junod, adding that this view was ‘probably heretical in some circles.’ It was indeed. Contrary to Christian fundamentalism and its millions of adherents, Rogers refused to believe that the God of yesterday remains the same today and tomorrow. So if there was a time when God quickly gave up on people and used violence to force obedience to the divine will, all that has changed. God has repented of those actions and now simply allows humanity to make its own choices, for good and bad, while always being present to any who call out. Changed, God is now faithful and nonviolent.” (page 28)
Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he didn’t preach at people. He didn’t accuse. He didn’t judge. He didn’t participate in boycotts. Because he “understood Jesus to be the nonviolent love of God incarnate,” he quietly and powerfully portrayed that love, often as a direct response to what was going on in the world. Through Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Rogers protested war; supported the civil rights movement, feminism, and animal rights; and gave “girls and boys permission to think and act in ways that seemed atypical for their genders.”
He wasn’t perfect, and he was aware he skated a thin line. He was always careful not to alienate significant portions of his audience—the parents of children he wanted to reach—while continuing to forge ahead. He was sensitive to his audience, the climate, on getting the timing just right, never pushing if the audience was light years away from acceptance. He also kept the young age of his audience in mind, respecting that he should focus only on the most pressing issues at the time—the issues children were most likely to be dealing with in their lives—not all of society’s woes at once.
I didn’t pick up on any of this as a kid! Peaceful Neighbor makes me want to go back and watch all of the episodes again. I won’t look at this show (or any children’s program) in quite the same light. I highlighted so much as I read because every example Long gives felt that important. There’s history, faith, socioeconomic issues, and politics all throughout this book. This profound little 176-page book…about Mister Rogers and his Neighborhood.