Friday, October 18, 2019

Believe on the Name of Mr. Rogers and Be Saved

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks's biopic of Fred "Mr." Rogers will be released in November, and I'm wary of it.  Meanwhile, numerous people are using the movie and Rogers to push religion.  That's not unfair, since Rogers was a Christian and a Presbyterian minister.  But this sort of thing annoys me:

The article itself isn't any more nuanced, which is troubling given that the writer touts himself as "a scholar of American religion, politics and popular culture." Sure, Rogers saw his program as a ministry, and his religious beliefs as important.  But did his beliefs determine his ideas about children and television, or was it the other way around, so that he molded his "faith" to reflect what he thought was good and important?  Given how unusual he was both as a person and as a teacher, I think the latter is much more likely.  How many other white American Christians were shaped by their faith to take similar stands and set a similar example?  Not many.  They too let what they believed and wanted for other reasons shape their construction of Christianity.

As an atheist, I prefer Rogers's version of Christianity to that of (say) Pat Robertson or Billy Graham.  But as an atheist, I don't see any reason to believe that Christianity made him the person he was.  Rather, the person he was constructed a Christianity that suited the person he was.  The Bible itself -- never mind two millennia of church tradition theological torturing of the source material -- can be, and has been, mined to support pretty much any belief, value, or action one likes.

One thing that worries me about Tom Hanks as Rogers is Hanks' well-known tendency to avoid uncomfortable truthsThis review of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood reinforces my worry.  According to the reviewer, it "isn't about Rogers himself" but about the troubled young journalist sent to profile him, who is redeemed by being bathed in Rogers's goodness.
"A Beautiful Day" portrays Rogers as a guardian angel of sorts, not pushing Lloyd to do the right thing but using his secret sauce, that relentlessly good heart of his, to ease him down the right path. The film is really about a man finding that his own way, by listening to an elder who teaches him about forgiveness the same way he taught kids for decades about friendship, war, divorce and everything else they might need in their little lives.
I suspect that if Tom Hanks had been given the opportunity to create a children's TV show, he would have just left out the hard parts that were the most important to Rogers: the antiwar material, the grappling with violence and death, the provocative spit-in-the-eye to white racism.  Now that I've seen all of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, last year's documentary on Rogers, and read Michael G. Long's book Peaceful Neighbor: The Countercultural Mr. Rogers (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), I'm even less inclined than I was before to see Rogers as a simple feel-good guardian angel for adults who regret having grown up, and more inclined to see him as a tough campaigner with iron in his soul and ever-decreasing patience with those who collaborated with the status quo and tried to make things worse.

According to Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers grew up in a family and environment that discouraged the expression of anger.  I think this explains the tension that I always felt underlay his beaming, sunny TV demeanor.  He used his puppets as proxies to express feelings that he couldn't let show in his own person.  But I got the impression that like many people, as he got older he outgrew some of his repressive upbringing.  There were two bits from the documentary that impressed me in this regard, though the entire film is impressive.  First, that after the September 11 attacks Rogers became more visibly angry, because he felt that no one had been listening to what he'd been saying for so many years.  Initially it would be easy to see his anger as prideful, as if he alone could have changed American culture; contrariwise, his fans would read it as evidence that everybody else had failed the Great Teacher.  I believe Rogers had more sense than that.  I think what made him angry (but also, at times, despairing) is that so many of his fans had failed to learn the lessons he'd been teaching.

The second bit, which confirms my reading of Rogers's anger, was an interview with one of Rogers's public-television colleagues.  She recalls the time Rogers told her that in the face of tragedy was that "part of Fred's answer was always to tell children that we, the parents, would take care of them."
Sometimes I found that a difficult message myself as the parent of a young child.  Sometimes I felt I was lying.  I knew that there were things in this world that I couldn't protect my child from.  
Of course, and Rogers knew that as well as she did.  But we have to try anyway.  (Perhaps we could begin, proactively, by not glorifying the child-killers among us, by not arming child-killers elsewhere in the world, by not tearing children from their parents' arms as they flee from the child-killers in our pay.)  What annoyed me when I first saw reactions to Won't You Be My Neighbor? was the adults who wanted Rogers to protect them.

As Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, says in the documentary,
"What would Fred Rogers do"? It's not a question that you can answer. The most important question is, "What are you going to do?" 
That, it seems to me, is exactly the question many of Rogers's adult fans would prefer not to be asked.  They wish he were still with us, so that he could make them feel better in a scary world.  They want him to say, Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  It's a very Christian sentiment, but it rejects everything Fred Rogers worked for.