Peaceful Neighbor by Michael G. Long

Peaceful Neighbor by Michael G. LongPeaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael Long
Published by Westminster John Knox Press on March 13, 2015
Genres: Biography & Memoir, Christian Life, Religion, Religious, Social Issues, Spiritual Growth
Pages: 176
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.

rogers-kind-not-weak

“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.

  • I missed out on Mister Rogers (I was watching the Canadian show Mister Dressup, even though I lived in Detroit), but this still sounds really interesting. It’s always fascinating to find out the lives of the people behind the shows we watch.

  • Ooh – fascinating! It’s kind of like pulling back the curtain on Oz. I watched him a bit growing up, but not a ton.

  • This sounds like a great read, Monika; I really enjoyed another book about him called I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan. Mr. Madigan was on a spiritual journey, of sorts, and happened to interview Fred Rogers in his job as a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; the two of them became friends and it’s pretty cool. Thanks so much for sharing your experience of this one!

  • I was only alive to catch the last few years of new episodes (I was in sixth grade when the show ended), but Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood will always have a special place in my heart. My sixth grade social studies teacher even dedicated a few lessons to him when the show ended. I just remember how sad it was when he passed away. It’s definitely something I’ll always remember.

    I’m from Pittsburgh, and he’s a legend around here for everything he’s done. He’s rightfully applauded for always making the right decisions, even if they were tough. I’m so glad to see that someone is finally letting the world know just who he really was.

  • I don’t remember much about Mister Rogers, but this sounds like a really fascinating book!

  • Oh, I really need to read this, don’t I? I miss that sweet and amazing man! I grew up on his show and would love to know more about him as a man 😀

  • Mr. Rogers has always creeped me out. Even when I was a kid he unnerved me. Something about his perma-smile and his sweaters and his creepy doll friends. I think it’s good that there is another side to him that might remove or diminish that image of him for me.

  • Wow. I need to read this book. I always think of him as loving and kind, but I’m like you, I didn’t catch any of this either! The progressive theology aspect is really interesting.

  • I didn’t pick up any of this from watching Mr. Rogers as a kid either! I used to love that show.

  • Living a Life in Books Books

    I loved Mr. Rogers when I was little. Our local PBS station plays his show still once a week, but it’s during my daughter’s nap so I DVR it. I want her to learn all these important lessons that Mr. Rogers taught a generation of young people.

  • Just read this post and picking up this book NOW! I absolutely loved Mr. Rogers and would sit glued to the TV when he was on. Mesmerizing, compassionate, intelligent, everything! Great post.