Mr. Rogers and Two Film Reviewers

Mr. Rogers and Two Film Reviewers November 23, 2019

It ought not to be necessary to defend the proposition that Fred Rogers was a wonderful human being, a fine Christian witness, and exactly the antidote for our dehumanizing age.  This should not be a claim that requires defense, but a claim that invites celebration.  His life and witness ought to be, especially in Christian circles, nothing but an occasion of rejoicing over one of the greatest success stories, both in sanctity and in global evangelization, of our time.

Steven Greydanus, being normal, gets this and so when he reviewed Won’t You Be My Neighbor? a year ago, he offered a morally sane assessment of the man:

Ultimately, this is not because of the style or substance of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, but something unquantifiable and unreproducible: Rogers’ manifest goodness. His hopes for a more united country may have been dashed, but in one respect he undoubtedly succeeded: He wanted to make goodness attractive, and he did.

Is Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood hagiographical? Is it necessarily a bad thing if it is? Hagiography is usually a bad thing in biography because most of us aren’t saints. (One remarkably hagiographic detail: Each morning, after swimming laps — there’s underwater footage of Rogers’ slight frame in the pool — he stepped on the scale, and, according to the man himself, every day he weighed in at 143 pounds: a number that, to him, signified the 1-4-3 letters of the words “I love you.”)

Rogers wasn’t a perfect man, even if one of his sons recalls that it could be difficult “having a second Christ for a father.” But when his widow, Joanne, recalls reassuring him toward the end of his life, as he contemplated the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 and wondered out loud if he were one of the sheep, that if anyone qualified as a sheep, he did, it’s hard to imagine any reasonable person disagreeing.

We can’t live in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and our world will never greatly resemble it. But what’s stopping us, any of us, from trying to bring to our interactions with others a little more of what we admire in Mr. Rogers? Is the divisiveness and cruelty of our world a reason not to treat each other with kindness and love, or is it more important to do so?

Like Jesus, like Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? challenges each of us to try to be better neighbors.

Would you be mine?

Likewise, in his review of the new biopic Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Deacon Greydanus expresses perceptions of Mr. Rogers that emanate from what most people would call ordinary human decency:

“At the root of all learning and relationships,” Mr. Rogers once said, is “love — or the lack of it.” There is so much lack in the world. Humanity is like a gaping wound of lack of love.

Mr. Rogers loved us all as much as he could. It wasn’t remotely enough. He was a lonely prophet in the wilderness, long since shouted down by competing voices.

Rage and hopelessness are increasingly ubiquitous cultural realities. Divisiveness and polarization spread and metastasize — in the political sphere, but also in popular culture, in our churches, in our homes and families. (The holiday season has always been stressful, but increasingly family get-togethers are like parties in a minefield, events to be survived as much as savored.)

Beautiful Day is about forgiveness and the seemingly unforgivable. I’m not sure that’s a point of contact with director Marielle Heller’s last biopic, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring a caustic Melissa McCarthy as the unprincipled literary forger Lee Israel; if so, it’s almost the only one.

Forgiveness has become almost an old-fashioned word, a relic of an ethos we as a culture no longer quite believe in. We find it increasingly hard not only to like or tolerate one another across cultural or moral fault lines, but even to imagine or accept the idea of liking or tolerating one another.

There are exceptions: an African American befriending Klansmen and leading them gently out of racist hatred; an Orthodox Jew inviting the scion of a white-supremacist family to weekly Shabbat meals and turning him from his ugly heritage.

Yet these exceptional examples, while they inspire, also cause discomfort. Warfare is simpler without fraternizing with the enemy.

Lloyd’s path forward is clearer because Jerry shows signs of penitence and reform. What would it mean to love him if he were unrepentant, or (what is almost worse) made noises in the direction of repentance but continued in the same abusive patterns of behavior?

Beautiful Day doesn’t have all the answers. Mr. Rogers didn’t have all the answers. I called him a prophet in the wilderness. Like many prophets, he was an odd duck, and Beautiful Day attests his eccentricity as well as his virtue. It also attests, very subtly, the effort and the cost of his constant generosity to everyone. (There’s an oblique but startling moment at the end that, without in any way detracting from his virtue, hints at the darkness of Mr. Rogers.)

But, like a prophet, he was in touch with something larger than himself, and that something occasionally comes into focus in Beautiful Day, particularly in a rare sequence of sustained cinematic silence and in a moment in which we see Mr. Rogers praying for various people by name, as he did every day — a list that here includes Lloyd, his wife, their son … and Jerry.

It doesn’t come to a climax, as the real Tom Junod’s Esquire profile did, with Mr. Rogers leading Junod to pray himself, as he never had before. The term “grace,” so notable in Junod’s account of Rogers, is absent here. The film’s Mr. Rogers is clearly religious, but his faith doesn’t make as much of an impression here as it did on Junod.

Yet I came from the film not just inspired but challenged once again by the simple goodness of Mr. Rogers: thinking about what I can do to be a better neighbor to those around me — and certainly to refrain from acting on my less generous impulses. (I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop any time.)

None of us by ourselves can guarantee a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Perhaps we can at least aspire to be prophets in the wilderness.

That, and sentiments like it, should be all any normal Catholic has to say on this extraordinary, and yet ordinary, decent, good, and holy man.

But in the increasingly diseased world of American Christian conservatism, which is now light years from healthy Catholic orthodoxy, Ed Feser (already a Folk Hero for the Most Wrong Subculture in the Church for his championship of war on the Church’s teaching concerning the death penalty) delivers this demented broadside:

Against candy-ass Christianity

The Mr. Rogers biopic, with Tom Hanks in the starring role, comes out this week and has been getting a lot of positive attention – in some cases, embarrassingly rapturous attention.  This might seem surprising coming from Hollywood types and secular liberals, given that Rogers was a Presbyterian minister.  But of course, Rogers’ adherence to Christian teaching has nothing to do with it.  Commenting on the movie, Angelus magazine reports that “Hanks mentions that Rogers was indeed an ordained minister but seems to take comfort that Rogers ‘never mentioned God in his show.’”  In the movie’s trailer, a man says to Mr. Rogers “You love broken people, like me,” to which Rogers replies “I don’t think you are broken” – never mind the doctrine of original sin.

So, why the adulation?  The movie poster reminds us that “we could all use a little kindness.”  The Daily Beast story linked to above tells us that Rogers was America’s “one true hero” and that “Hanks could very well be a living saint,” all because of their extraordinary… “niceness.”  Indeed, “Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers may save us all,” because the movie reminds us that “the world we live in now still does have niceness in it.”

Niceness.  Well, it has its place.  But the Christ who angrily overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, who taught a moral code more austere than that of the Pharisees, and who threatened unrepentant sinners with the fiery furnace, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, was not exactly “nice.”

Now, my point is not to criticize Rogers himself, who I’m sure was a decent fellow, and who was, after all, simply hosting a children’s program.  I don’t know anything about his personal theological opinions, and I don’t know whether the movie accurately represents them or even refers to them at all.  The point is to comment on the idea that an inoffensive “niceness” is somehow the essence of the true Christian, or at least of any Christian worthy of the liberal’s respect.  For it is an idea that even a great many churchmen seem to have bought into.

This is evident from the innumerable vapid sermons one hears about God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness, but never about divine judgment or the moral teachings to which modern people are most resistant – and which, precisely for that reason, they most need to hear expounded and defended.  And it is evident in the tendency of modern Catholic bishops to emphasize dialogue and common ground rather than conversion, orthodoxy, and doctrinal precision, and to speak of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, if at all, only half-apologetically, in vague and soft language, and in a manner hedged with endless qualifications.

Such “niceness” is in no way a part of Christian morality.  It is a distortion of the virtues of meekness (which is simply moderation in anger – as opposed to too much or too little anger), and friendliness (which is a matter of exhibiting the right degree of affability necessary for decent social order – as opposed to too little affability or too much).

As always, St. Thomas illuminates where modern churchmen obfuscate.  Where meekness is concerned, Aquinas notes that just as anger should not be excessive or directed at the wrong object, so too can one be deficient in anger, and that this too can be sinful.  For anger is nature’s way of prodding us to act to set things right when they are in some way disordered.  The absence of anger in cases where it is called for is, for that reason, a moral defect, and a habit of responding to evils with insufficient anger is a vice.  Thus, as Aquinas writes in Summa TheologiaeII-II.158.1:

Chrysostom says: “He that is angry without cause, shall be in danger; but he that is angry with cause, shall not be in danger: for without anger, teaching will be useless, judgments unstable, crimes unchecked.” Therefore to be angry is not always an evil…

[I]f one is angry in accordance with right reason, one’s anger is deserving of praise

It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice.

Now far be it from me to disagree with masters like Sts. John Chrysostom and Thomas Aquinas about the idea of holy anger.  It is particularly amusing to me read Feser praising holy anger, having listened for years to American conservative Christians simultaneously orgasm over Trump’s sadism to defenseless children at the border while whinging incessantly that they are the real victims and telling me constantly that I am “filled with anger” when I protest the ugliness of their witness. In their world, anger is only legit when turned against real threats like people who love Mr. Rogers.

But here’s the thing: I think holy anger should be aimed at the powerful and unjust, not at the meek and good.  And for the life of me, it looks like that is exactly what Feser is doing here, all under the tiresome guise of “tough love” or “muscular Christianity” or some kind of Vorisian contempt for the mythical “Church of Nice”.  Indeed, he appears to be in such a hurry to pour contempt on the story of a wounded man healed by an encounter with the love of God through the witness of Fred Rogers that, like so many champions of the mercilessness of God, he clean misses that profound moment of prayer Greydanus describes because he is too busy looking for some way to be offended and victimized while simultaneously being abrasive and triumphalist.

I have mentioned in the past that one of the strange things I keep seeing is unbelievers begging for the love and mercy of God turning to Christians and pleading for them to show them Jesus–only to be rebuffed by Christians brutally rejecting them as enemies.  When a man like Fred Rogers (or, I might add, Pope Francis) does answer this cry for some tenderness in the name of God the response is a volcanic eruption of gratitude resulting in, among other things, films like this paying deep and emotional homage to people who are simply inexplicable apart from their Christian faith.  Despite the angry denunciations of people like Feser, the reality is that nobody will come away from the film baffled about whether Fred Rogers was a Christian.  The filmmakers have no intention of covering that up.  They beautifully and affectingly show us that faith.  It only a Super-Christian who spits on it as “candy-ass.”

This goes back to the fact, yet again, that in the world of American Conservative Christianity, the driving need is to see oneself as persecuted and rejected by “Hollywood types and secular liberals”.  The one mode of engagement with the world is a kill-or-be-killed Darwinian struggle for survival. That culture war narrative requires clinging to a pissed-off, sarcastic, and sneering tone and posture where it is utterly unnecessary.  It manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of an obvious victory for the witness of a great Christian man and come away contemptuous and condescendingly dismissive of “a decent fellow, and who was, after all, simply hosting a children’s program.”

The result is the perverse upside down world where one of the finest witnesses to the gospel in our time–and a story that is touching lives and drawing people to the Christ he believed in–is treated with contempt and the image of a violent gun-toting priest with a machine gun is held up as the ideal.

I will take one Fred Rogers over a million of that sort of false gospel of power struggle.

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