TV + FILM
‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ is a 90-minute infomercial on what it means to be a Christian
Writer + Author
One of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s most famous novels is about a man attempting to reintegrate into high society after a stint in a mental institution. Myshkin is a purely kind soul, and the wealthy socialites around him are both baffled by and attracted to him. His unconditional kindness makes them feel loved, but his cluelessness as to how “the real world” works makes Myshkin seem naive, stupid even, which is where the novel’s title The Idiot - comes from. In a broken world like ours, true goodness is often mistaken for foolishness.
In the new documentary about the life of Fred Rogers entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Rogers is seen as a modern-day Myshkin, drawing from a well of gentleness that exposes how horrifying, and selfish, and greedy the rest of our world is, but in a way that moves us toward him. I have never seen a better example of someone who truly lived as I imagine Jesus would.
Maybe you’ve heard the rumors about Mr. Rogers, that he was a Navy Seal (he wasn’t), that he wore long sleeves to cover up his tattoos (he didn’t), or that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister (he was!). There’s a larger-than-life aura that surrounds Mr. Rogers, a mystique that makes him more a superhero than a man. The documentary attempts to ground Rogers in reality, telling us how he was bullied as a child, how multiple illnesses left him alone in his room with only his imagination, alluding to how emotionally abandoned he felt by his parents. We get the sense that Rogers didn’t show up in this world a saint, but in many ways is still a small child lying alone in his room, longing to be known and understood. But rather than this turning Rogers toxic, he became a source of seemingly unlimited empathy, able to understand the needs of children overwhelmed by an adult world.
The film shows us his flaws, such as they are. He was a man of intense perfectionism, who wrote, starred, voiced, directed, and produced every episode of his show. He swam a mile every day and prided himself on keeping his weight at exactly 143 pounds, which you can either see as admirable or as unhealthily obsessive. He was often wounded by the way sketch comedians and late night shows lampooned him, and throughout his life struggled with a deep melancholy, and perhaps depression. No, Rogers wasn’t perfect, but based on the interviews we see of those who knew him, he was as genuine, kind, and real as you would hope.
Throughout the film we see Rogers talk to U.S. senators, share practical jokes with his long-haired, party-loving hippy television crew, and, of course, share quiet moments with children that melt your heart. He isn’t a respecter of persons in these moments, bringing a genuine, unforced acceptance to people that had nothing to do with their importance to him.
He dipped his feet in a pool with a black man when hate groups were targeting desegregated pools. He would say things like ‘love, or the lack of it, is at the root of everything,” and it would change peoples’ lives rather than be a cliche. He spoke truth to power and only got truly, fiercely angry when the innocent children of the world were denied the unconditional acceptance he believed they deserved. During Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s first week he placed a thinly veiled takedown of the Vietnam War, and the power’s desire to build walls and resist change by returning to the past, and threw it into the “land of make-believe.”
Everything Rogers did flowed out of his faith in Jesus. He said he believed the gap between the television screen and the children watching his show was “holy ground,” and that television was a powerful technological advancement that would either be used for great good or evil. He believed in the ancient Hebrew concept of Tikkun Olam, restorers of creation, bringing God’s world back to its original intent. If you’ve ever believed in the redemption power of technology, you should have a Fred Rogers growth chart hanging from your bedroom wall.
This documentary is a must-see for any Christian. Rogers, seemingly, was indifferent to cultural power systems. He was a registered Republican who never talked about politics. He didn’t care if topics he believed important were culturally unpopular. He left a career in vocational ministry to bring God’s kingdom to children on public television. Now more than ever, our culture needs more Christians like Rogers, who seems to believe that the poor in Spirit, meek, pure in heart, and mourners are truly blessed and that the rich, powerful, influential and charismatic have the hardest time threading the needle and entering the kingdom.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the most inspirational movie I’ve seen in years. I don’t know if the filmmakers are aware of this, but they made a 90-minute infomercial on what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus, then mass released it to theaters around the country. It gave me hope, that - just maybe - writing things on the internet could make a difference while reminding me that will only be true if what I write springs from the character of Jesus being formed inside me.
Toward the end of the film, we see a series of cable news clips loudly bloviating about how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood created a generation of entitled kids who believed they were special. These pundits think unconditional love is something earned. Fred Rogers would probably say they need a hug, and to be told he loves them just the way they are.
Because Mr. Rogers isn’t the idiot, we are… but we’re loved anyway.