- 2018Mar 22
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of public television’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The milestone will bring with it a major book, a feature film (starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers), and even a U.S. postage stamp. When one considers all the ephemera of children’s programming, the ongoing cultural resonance of this show is staggering. Fifty years from now will anyone note the anniversary of Gumball or Clarence? I doubt it. So why does Mr. Rogers, even long after his death, still beckon us into his neighborhood?
Fred Rogers, after all, is hardly the sort of person one would choose to “connect with the next generation.” He was a Presbyterian minister, of all things. Those cardigan sweaters and loafers would have seemed out-of-date in all fifty of the years since the first broadcast aired. Mister Rogers had no zaniness or charisma or celebrity pull that one would audition if one were looking for someone to speak to children.
But that is why he persists in the public imagination. Mister Rogers was never “Fred.” He was Mister Rogers. He was a grown-up, and that’s exactly what children loved.
That’s the part of Fred Rogers’s work that is probably the easiest to misunderstand. One can listen to the songs he sang… “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive…” or “I like you just the way you are…” and assume that Rogers was a live-action version of a sappy self-esteem curriculum. Rogers, though, would talk to children about the darkest topics possible, addressing children’s fears directly, whether those fears were about being sucked down the drain in a bathtub or parents’ divorcing or the death of grandparents. He even helped children think through terrorist attacks and war, in a way that neither waved away the darkness of violence nor surrendered to fear or anger.
When one listens to those old broadcasts, what is striking is that Rogers, while not startling children with graphic details inappropriate for them, deals honestly both with the children and the subject he’s addressing. There is reassurance, but it seems to be an earned reassurance—the reassurance of one who is a diplomat from the world of grown-ups.
I think often of the account I read of a man who grew up in extreme neglect and abuse but found a few minutes of respite every day when he entered Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “When he said, ‘I like you just the way you are,’ it was as though he was speaking directly to me.” Rogers transcends generational differences and media trends because he had a unique ability to break through the fourth wall of the screen, to seem to be actually talking to his audience, to actually almost see them.
The idea of being seen, of being acknowledged, is almost universally recognized by early childhood development scholars as necessary for the healthy emotional and mental growth of a child. As a Christian, I think this need points not only to the foundations of nature, but beyond nature. At the baptism of Jesus, the Father’s voice announces, “You are My beloved Son, and with you I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
Children were drawn to Rogers not because he was a spectacle; he wasn’t. They were drawn to him because an adult seemed to look over that glass divide and say to them that their value was not in their striving and doing and buying and consuming. “It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair. But it’s you I like. The way you are right now. The way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you. Not your toys; they’re just beside you…But it’s you I like.”
Sappy? Yes. Awkward? Kind of. Mister Rogers would probably plead guilty to all of that. But, for at least fifty years of children, he never seemed to be selling anything. In an era in which whirl is king, Fred Rogers provided a little vision of stability. He had the same house, the same mailman, the same puppets, and in his personal life, the same wife. In a world of fractured neighborhoods and splintered families, who can honestly say that we don’t need to see, somewhere, that such is possible?
In 1997, Rogers received an Emmy Award for lifetime achievement. His acceptance speech went viral, and is widely viewed even now. What made it so was not some sort of explosive antic, but his request to the crowd to take ten seconds, in silence (“dead air” in television-speak) to think about the people in their lives, living or dead, who had believed in them, helped them along the way. Those ten seconds were filled with images of world-renowned celebrities wiping away tears. That, I think, is why Mister Rogers still matters.
His program reminded us that we are not alone. He reminded us that no matter how we display and act tough, however much we “win,” that what we really want is to be known and to be loved. Mister Rogers never seemed to care whether people thought he was old-fashioned or irrelevant or not “edgy enough.” He remembered what it was like to be a child, but he had loved being a grown-up, and he knew we could too.
We are looking, ultimately, for the weight of the glory of the kingdom of the reigning Christ. But, sometimes, along the way, it’s good to be reminded that, despite all the brokenness and loneliness of a fallen world, it can be a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Photo: Fred Rogers, the host of the children's television series, 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,' sits for a promotional portrait in this picture from the 1980's. 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood' will broadcast its last new episode August 31, 2001 it was announced August 30 in a statement by Rogers from Nantucket, Massachusetts. Rogers died at the age of 74 February 27, 2003 at his Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home. He had been suffering from stomach cancer.
Photo courtesy: Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
- 2018Feb 27
As a child, I remember being in church and seeing a man sitting in front of me, with his arm resting on the pew. The arm was covered with a large tattoo of a woman who was, well, let’s just say she didn’t fit what we would consider biblical standards of modesty in her attire. This was not in a “relevant” urban church, mind you, but in the most stereotypically “hellfire and brimstone,” King James Version-quoting, gospel hymn-singing southern revivalist church you could imagine. I couldn’t believe I was seeing this, in my church. I was simultaneously thrilled (when else does one get to see naked women in church?) and outraged (how dare anyone do that in my church?). So I nudged my grandmother and pointed, as if to say, “Can you believe this?”
My grandmother leaned down and whispered. I expected her to share my outrage (though not my secret titillation). She was, after all, a pastor’s widow with strict moral standards who had once washed my mouth out with soap because I had said “Gosh,” which was, of course, to her just a rebranded way to take the Lord’s name in vain. But that side of her didn’t show up in that moment. She whispered, “Yes, honey, He doesn’t know the Lord yet, and he’s had a hard life, with drink and drugs and all. But his wife had been trying to get him to come to church for a long time, and we’ve all been praying for him. He’s not trying to be ugly to anybody. He just doesn’t know Jesus yet.”
I’ll never forget that word “yet.” With that one word she turned my imagination on its head. She put before me the possibility that this hardened ex-military man with the naked woman tattoo might one day be my brother-in-Christ. And, in time, he was. I suppose as time went on this new Christian started to see that his tattoo was potentially a stumbling block to others, because I started to see it less and less as he started to wear long sleeves to church. Some of the other kids in the church said that (since tattoo removal technology wasn’t much of a thing then) that he had added a bikini to her, and then later a one-piece bathing suit. For all I know, he may have died with her in a plaid pantsuit and a briefcase. I guess this man started to see that tattoo as emblematic of an old life he’d left behind. He didn’t need a tattooed pastor (and in that church, he never had one). But he did need a church that didn’t see his tattoo as evidence of a life gone too far, of someone too rowdy to be loved with the call to repentance and faith.
I don’t like tattoos, and I can’t emphasize this enough (especially if you’re one of my children, one day, reading this). But if the Spirit starts moving with velocity in this country, our churches will see more people in our pews and in our pulpits with tattoos, and that ought to change our public witness. Now, what I do not mean by this is that we need more Christians to tattoo crosses or the Apostles Creed or the sinner’s prayer across their arms and necks. That’s not a sign of gospel awakening. It’s just, at best personal fashion, and, at worst, more marketing in an already over-marketed American Christian subculture.
Tattoos don’t mean what they used to. They don’t signify necessarily, by a long shot, the kind of “tough” image they used to. But sometimes they do. There are people around us with markings of blood-drenched skulls, or of profane sexual boasts or of threats to violence. Some demonstrate fearsomeness. Some are pagan, or even occult. As I see them in the streets around me I am chastened by how rarely my first thoughts are rooted in my grandmother’s wisdom. Again, not everyone with tattoos is an unbeliever or has lived a hard life. But I wonder how many people don’t listen to our gospel message because they assume they don’t “look” like the kind of people who would be Christians—namely shiny, happy Republicans. And, shamefully, how many times to we filter out our gospel preaching and our social witness to people who would , upon baptism, be able to pose nicely for our ministry advertisements? How often do we assume the good news of Christ is a message just like a political campaign or a commercial brand, targeted toward a demographic of a certain kind of buyer?
That was precisely Jesus’ point in his story of the two sons. He turned to the religious establishment and said, shockingly, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31). That was Jesus’ point from his sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, throughout his public ministry, and right to his dying moments, pardoning a repentant terrorist. Jesus was building his church with those who seemed to have wrecked their lives forever: prostitutes, Roman collaborators, outcasts with infectious diseases, demon-possessed grave-dwellers, and on and on. If we’re really carrying forward his message, this means there are going to be people listening whose very bodies may carry messages contradictory of the Word of God. So did our hearts and psyches. The young woman with the “Legal Abortion Without Apology” tattoo or the old man with the Hell’s Angel marking, they may wonder, as they feel the pull of the gospel, “How can I enter with this visible reminder on me of my past?” That’s not a new question. That’s the question we all had to ask, regardless of how “respectable” we looked when we came to Christ: “Deep is the stain that we cannot hide? What can avail to wash it away?”
Jesus will build his church, with us or without us. But if we are going to be faithful to him, we must share his mission. This means we don’t just talk about lost people; we talk to them. And we don’t talk to them as enlightened life-coaches promising an improved future, but as crucified sinners offering a new birth. The hope for the future is not that Christianity will be seen as more respectable or more influential in the sectors of American power. The hope for the future is churches filled with people who never thought they fit the image of “Christian.” We’ll see that the markings on the flesh, whatever they are, count for nothing, but that what counts is a new creation (Gal. 6:15). We’ve come not to call just those who look like whatever Christians are supposed to look like, but the whole world. If the church is powered by the gospel, then the Body of Christ has tattoos.
That reality ought to crucify our dour, gloomy, curmudgeonly pessimism. Our fretfulness is evidence of defeatism, a sign of wavering belief in the promises of Jesus himself. That’s what the elderly theologian taught me, as I stood there and wrung my hands over the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies I saw in the Christianity around me, and wondered, “Does gospel Christianity have a future in this this country at all?” He looked at me as though I were crazy. Of course gospel Christianity had, and has, a future. But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans. He was right. Christianity is not like politics, rife with the dynasties of ruling families. God builds his church a different way.
The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might currently be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic today. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star this week. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.
But the Spirit of God can turn all that around. And seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8-16). After all, while Phillip was leading the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ, Saul of Tarsus was still a murderer. And that happens over and over again, as God raises up leaders who seem to come out of nowhere, with shady pasts and uncertain futures. And none of us would be here, apart from them.
This article is adapted from my book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, a version of this post originally ran in October of 2015.
Photo courtesy: BillyGraham.org
- 2018Feb 22
Today I have a piece in The Wall Street Journal reflecting on the life and legacy of Billy Graham.
Here’s an excerpt:
I remember the scene well: Years ago I was sitting in the pews of an almost-empty church listening to an Episcopal bishop discuss why Billy Graham was irrelevant. The prelate insisted that Graham was not the problem. No one could question his sincerity or integrity—only his message.
“Modern people simply cannot accept the supernatural basis of Billy Graham’s gospel,” I recall the bishop saying. “Billy Graham should change his gospel or he will never reach our world as it is.” A man sitting next to me turned and said, “There are 40 people here, and four million listened to Billy Graham in a crusade last night.”
Graham, who died Wednesday at age 99, was perhaps the most significant Christian evangelist since the Apostle Paul. This wasn’t because of his media savvy or political influence. He transcended all of that with an obvious belief in the Gospel he preached—obvious even to those watching on television or sitting in a stadium’s nosebleed seats. Graham did not think the brave new world needed anything other than an old-time Gospel.
Read the entire piece here.
Photo courtesy: Flickr