62.2 F

On Religion: Pondering the Work of Mister Rogers, a Pastor

During a dozen years of ministry, the Rev. Ted Giese estimates that he has performed 200 funerals and made 1,000 hospital visits to the sick and the dying. He also spends many hours in theaters, working on his movie reviews featured at The Canadian Lutheran website.

Thus, Giese knew exactly what was happening in a crucial scene in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” In it, PBS legend Fred Rogers — played by Tom Hanks — arrives with a pie for the family of a dying father who has been struggling to heal a bitter rift with his journalist son.

Leaning over the deathbed, Mister Rogers whispers into the man’s ear. Moments later, the son asks what he said and Rogers replies: “I asked him to pray for me. Anyone who’s going through what he’s going through must be very close to God.”

Anyone who has served as a pastor, said Giese, will immediately recognize what happened in this encounter.

“That was a pastoral call,” he said. “I don’t usually bring an apple pie with me when I make this kind of visit, but I know what that scene is all about. I know what that feels like as a pastor. It’s like you’re part of the family, but you are also there to provide the kind of care that people count on pastors to provide.”

This scene may have seemed strange for many moviegoers. The film makes it clear that Rogers is a deeply spiritual, even saintly man. He reads scripture and begins his day on his knees, praying — by name — for people he has met while doing his work.

But here’s the strange part. This movie never mentions that Mister Rogers was also the Rev. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister. It never notes that Rogers went to seminary seeking the theological depth that he believed he needed to address tough issues — life, death, disease, divorce, war, poverty, racism, loneliness — in child-friendly words and images.

For Rogers, “neighbor” for was not a random word that, for 33 years, he inserted into television scripts. He was, show after show, making a personal statement that affirmed a kind of love demonstrated in the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan and its haunting question, “Who is my neighbor?”

“I don’t know why the filmmakers decided to leave out the fact that Fred Rogers was ordained,” said Giese, who leads Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Regina, Saskatchewan, north of Canada’s border with Montana. “Maybe they thought it was safer not to, that Christians would simply assume that — based on the context — while other people in the audience could see a vaguely spiritual faith at work and leave it at that.”

The question that pastors need to ask, he said, is why the story of Mister Rogers continues to resonate with so many people, especially in a time when public discourse — news, politics and entertainment — has become so nasty, negative, coarse and cruel.

The script for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” was based on a true story about a journalist writing an Esquire profile of Rogers. An editor requested a short piece about an American hero. This evolved into a lengthy feature driven by this question: Is Mister Rogers a living saint?

It was impossible to avoid the role of faith in this drama. In the actual 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers, by journalist Tom Junod, there are 31 references to prayer. The piece ends with Rogers and another minister asking the journalist to join them in prayer, a moment that led Junod to confess that his wounded heart “felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella.”

That scene isn’t in the movie, either.

Nevertheless, said Giese, this “performance by Tom Hanks is so sanctified. That quality is soaked into almost every moment on the screen. This ends up being an anti-narcissism movie, a story about a TV star who was an anti-diva. …

“In most pop culture, when you try to capture that kind of spiritual quality it rings hollow. But that isn’t what happens in this case. I really think people will leave theaters thinking, ‘I wish that I could be more like him.’ People need to ask, ‘Why is that?’ ”

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Most Popular

Recent Comments

scamasdscamith on News Watch Ole Miss
Frances Phillips on A Bigger, Better Student Union
Grace Hudditon on A Bigger, Better Student Union
Millie Johnston on A Bigger, Better Student Union
Binary options + Bitcoin = $ 1643 per week: https://8000-usd-per-day.blogspot.com.tr?b=46 on Beta Upsilon Chi: A Christian Brotherhood
Jay Mitchell on Reflections: The Square
Terry Wilcox SFCV USA RET on Oxford's Five Guys Announces Opening Date
Stephanie on Throwback Summer
organized religion is mans downfall on VP of Palmer Home Devotes Life to Finding Homes for Children
Paige Williams on Boyer: Best 10 Books of 2018
Keith mansel on Cleveland On Medgar Evans
John Q. Citizen on