These days are hectic and divisive—and while it can feel as if the chasms between each of us are deepening, recent films about Mister Rogers’ life are helping us remember our shared humanity.
I recently went to a screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie about Mister Rogers inspired by true events. I left the theater with a fresh sense of wonder for the rhythms of ordinary life and relationships. I felt the same way after watching the Mister Rogers documentary released in the summer of 2018, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
There’s something about seeing Mister Rogers interact with people that leads us to appreciation for everyday life, to express our feelings in healthy ways, and to treat one another with kindness and respect. Couldn’t we all use a refresher on those topics?
A book doesn’t make you any more like Mister Rogers than a cardigan does, but we hope that these eight books help you reflect on what it means to learn from Mister Rogers’ example of a faithful, gentle, and creative Christian.
The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth
Fred Rogers almost declined his first meeting with Amy Hollingsworth, then a television reporter. The reason Mister Rogers accepted? A letter Hollingsworth sent to one of Mister Rogers’ critics (yes, hard as it is to believe, some people disliked him), in which she wrote, “Mister Rogers has stated that the guiding philosophy of his life is one he gleaned from a seminary professor: You can be an accuser or an advocate. . . . Shame on you for attacking one of the few people who actually tries to do something positive for my kids.”
Hollingsworth’s interview with Mister Rogers led to a long friendship, which she chronicles in The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers. Far from being a simple biography, Hollingsworth shows us how Fred Rogers’ faith—unspoken as it was on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—drove his vocation and relationships. It’s a gentle reminder to readers about the centrality of kindness, gratitude, and faith.
With Open Hands by Henri J. M. Nouwen
I found it fascinating that Fred Rogers was a friend of Henri Nouwen.1 I probably shouldn’t have been surprised—they shared the values of reflection, prayer, and gentleness, not to mention their enduring faith.
While Fred Rogers recommended Nouwen’s books as a whole to Amy Hollingsworth, you can start with With Open Hands, Nouwen’s first book on spirituality. In this book, Nouwen encourages readers to consider some important components of prayer, such as silence, acceptance, and hope.
Scary Close by Donald Miller
Somebody once told me we will never feel loved until we drop the act, until we’re willing to show our true selves to the people around us.
When I heard that I knew it was true. I’d spent a good bit of my life as an actor, getting people to clap—but the applause only made me want more applause. I didn’t act in a theater or anything. I’m talking about real life.
The thought of not acting pressed on me like a terror. Can we really trust people to love us just as we are? Nobody steps onto a stage and gets a standing ovation for being human. You have to sing or dance or something.
I think that’s the difference between being loved and making people clap, though. Love can’t be earned, it can only be given. And it can only be exchanged by people who are completely true with each other.
I shouldn’t pretend to be an expert, though. I didn’t get married until I was 42, which is how long it took me to risk being myself with another human being.
Here are two things I found taking the long road, though:
Applause is a quick fix. And love is an acquired taste.
“Can we really trust people to love us just as we are?” Sounds familiar. Donald Miller’s reflections in Scary Close help us think about what it means for us—you and me—to accept and give love to those around us.
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
Few books describe the war Fred Rogers fought better than The Screwtape Letters. It’s true that we don’t often think of Mister Rogers as a fighter (though an urban legend about his being a Marine sharpshooter still circulates). But Fred Rogers fought inattention, lack of compassion, and busyness by teaching children how to be present in both happy and sad times.
The Screwtape Letters is a fictional collection of letters from a leading demon named Wormwood as he instructs his young nephew, Screwtape, on how to prevent humans from coming to God. Wormwood offers Screwtape a variety of tools, such as keeping the humans too busy or anxious to think of eternal things, offering easy but disobedient ways out of difficulties, and making feeling without action seem sufficient. Ouch . . . those got me.
The Screwtape Letters is part of a collection of C. S. Lewis’ books.
Culture Making by Andy Crouch
Ever heard of a pastor who was ordained for ministry in television? Well, you have now. Amy Hollingsworth writes, “[Fred Rogers] was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church as an evangelist with a unique charge to serve children and families through the mass media.”3 He certainly did that!
One of the truly unique things about Mister Rogers is that he knew his audience (children), and he reached them by turning the fledgling medium of television on its head. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was something of an antidote for erratic, always-on entertainment for kids and adults alike.
Part of what makes Mister Rogers’ legacy stand out is that he bent a cultural medium to fit his calling instead of the other way around. Similarly, Andy Crouch, author of Strong and Weak (another excellent book), invites us to stop critiquing, copying, and consuming culture and begin creating culture instead.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson
This work from another beloved Presbyterian minister invites readers into a familiar slowness and intentionality. As our society—and even some of our churches—place increasing value on accomplishments, Peterson invites us to consider everyday faithfulness over a lifetime. This book walks us through the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120–134), teaching us to consider what it means to grow as Jesus’ disciples in our everyday lives.
Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren
Viewers of Will You Be My Neighbor? or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might pick up on a few of Mister Rogers’ practices mentioned in the movies. At one point in the Tom Hanks movie, Mister Rogers’ character invites another person to take a few seconds to think about the people who loved him into existence. At another point, we see some of Mister Rogers’ daily practices: praying for his loved ones, then swimming laps. Practices like these helped Fred Rogers be fully himself—to remember his origins, to know his physical needs, and to recognize his need for God.
Some would call practices like these “spiritual disciplines,” and indeed, they are. You could also call them liturgies—everyday routines that shape us to remember God’s love and power. This title from Tish Harrison Warren won Christianity Today’s 2018 Book of the Year award, and for good reason: she helps readers capture each moment as an opportunity to draw closer to God.
Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers by Shea Tuttle
Tuttle explores this kind, influential, sometimes surprising man: the neighborhood he came from, the neighborhood he built, and the kind of neighbor he, by his example, calls all of us to be. Throughout, Tuttle shows how he was guided by his core belief: that God loves children, and everyone else, exactly as they are.
Have you seen A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood or Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Tell us your favorite part of the movies—or what you remember most about Mister Rogers.