Movie Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
-Fred Rogers

neighbor

There are certain sorts of people in the world who attract others. Not in a physical sense. I mean the sort of soul whom we cannot resist being drawn to. The sort we don’t quite understand, but want to emulate. A pure and utterly authentic sliver of humanity.

Such slivers are few and far between, I’ll grant you. But they do exist, and you know one when you meet one. Whether all of us are willing to admit it or not, I am convinced that we are captivated by such men and women because of their resemblance to Christ. People who give of themselves, who put others first. People who love others wholly and without question.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s demonic narrator alludes to such saintly examples having a smell about them. They reek of goodness.

Well, ladies and gents, Fred Rogers (or as he is affectionately known to the world, “Mister Rogers”) was one such a man. I was thrilled to discover that the new documentary about the impact of his life and work, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was playing in my area, and yesterday I took myself on over to see it.

The film is a lovingly crafted demonstration of how and why Mister Rogers came to be so popular and beloved. As I sat in the darkened auditorium with a handful of other misty-eyed film-goers, and drove home later, I came to a conclusion. We love Mister Rogers because he loved us. His quiet, puzzling, humble, caring character is irresistible because it is reminiscent of Jesus. He was a hint of light, of hope, in a dark and scary world.

I hope this doesn’t sound blasphemous. My intent is not to deify Mister Rogers, who would have been first to admit that he was human, and an imperfect sinner, just like we all are. But the purpose of life is to have a relationship with Christ, and to become more like him. Some of us have gotten on a little better at that than others, and I don’t believe it’s sinful to acknowledge such individuals. Especially not when they’ve helped us along our own way.

Some years ago, I read a book called “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers”, by Tim Madigan. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” only served to confirm what I had already learned within those pages. Consider the following anecdote:

“… the Esquire passage I found most poignant and revealing was this one: Mister Rogers’ visit to a teenage boy severely afflicted with cerebral palsy and terrible anger. One of the boys’ few consolations in life, Junod wrote, was watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

At first, the boy was made very nervous by the thought that Mister Rogers was visiting him. He was so nervous, in fact, that when Mister Rogers did visit, he got mad at himself and began hating himself and hitting himself, and his mother had to take him to another room and talk to him. Mister Rogers didn’t leave, though. He wanted something from the boy, and Mister Rogers never leaves when he wants something from somebody. He just waited patiently, and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers talked to him, and then he made his request. He said, ‘I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?’ On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said: I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me? And now the boy didn’t know how to respond. He was thunderstruck… because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn’t know how to do it, he said he would, he said he’d try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean that God likes him, too.

As for Mister Rogers himself… he doesn’t look at the story the same way the boy did or I did. In fact, when Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him on being smart – for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself – and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me first with puzzlement and then with surprise. ‘Oh heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”

With the exception of one episode recorded on VHS, I did not watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood regularly as a child. I don’t have a heart-warming personal story about how he influenced me growing up. But that hasn’t stopped his messages from inspiring and encouraging me, now that I am an adult.

He offers me a glimpse, fleeting but clear, of the answer to the question: how then shall we love?

With pure hearts and no selfish, two-faced motives. By choosing action over apathy. By looking past the superficial details of a person, and rejoicing in their individuality as a brother or sister, made in the image of God.

Perhaps one of the greatest common fears among people is that we cannot be loved… that if people really knew us, we would find only disgust and rejection. One of the most beautiful gifts we can give another person is to acknowledge their insecurities, to look past their imperfections, and to love them wholeheartedly anyway. That is grace. That is loving the way our Lord did.

And that is what Mister Rogers reminds me. I am grateful to have seen this documentary, and even more grateful for the real-life example that its subject provided. It is the kind of encouragement (along with healthy doses of scripture) that we all need, yet rarely receive.

This has been more a jumble of ponderings than a proper review. But if it wasn’t obvious, all two of my thumbs are up. If you get a chance to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, don’t let it pass you by.

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