If there are modern-day saints in the most formal and ecclesiastically legal sense of the word, author Amy Hollingsworth has allowed us to share a wonderful visit with perhaps the best known and beloved of those saints. For 30 years, Fred Rogers was not only a children’s show host on PBS, but he was probably also the world’s best-known Presbyterian minister – even though most of his viewers were unaware of that fact.
Hollingsworth captures the theology and faith of Rogers well in her excellent 2005 biography “The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights From the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor” (Integrity Publishers, Nashville, 2005. 175 pages). It should be considered a must-read for all those who intend to work with children and all those who aspire to work in ministry.
Throughout the book, released shortly after Rogers’ 2003 death, Hollingsworth refers to a favorite quote of Rogers, one that originally came from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” In her biography, Hollingsworth tenderly recounts the faith and ministry life of a man who strove to live those words. Rogers himself, according to the book (and according to this reviewer’s familiarity with his long-running program) seldom if ever mentioned God, let alone Jesus, on his television program. Still, he said repeatedly, he viewed the space between the television set and his young viewers as “holy ground.” His mission was to let each of his viewers know that there were loved and special, just as they are.
In fact, it was no accident that his program was called “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Hollingsworth tells us that Rogers’ ultimate goal was to love his neighbor – just as Jesus commanded us to do in the Gospels.
“At the center of Fred’s theology of loving your neighbor was this: Every person is made in the image of God, and for that reason alone, he or she is to be valued – ‘appreciated’ he liked to say. He believed there is a sacredness in all creation, including fallen man, because of one man, ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone,’ (John 1:9)” Hollingsworth wrote of Rogers (p. 78).
A mother of two young children in the 1990s and a producer for a Christian television network, Hollingsworth contacted Rogers about her interviewing him for a program on her network. Hollingsworth says at the time, she was very familiar with his program, largely because her children enjoyed watching it. That initial meeting led to a close personal friendship between Hollingsworth and Rogers that would last until his death. Shortly after Rogers’ 2003 death of stomach cancer at age 75, Hollingsworth decided to write a biography of Rogers, focusing primarily on his faith, which clearly defined who he was. While Hollingsworth has written a number of parenting and faith related magazine articles in publications such as ParentLife, Christian Parent and Christianity Today, she had never written a book prior to the Rogers effort. The book is clearly her tribute to her departed friend.
The book is a winner both as a tribute and as biography for a man that most of America has at least a passing familiarity with. As referenced above, Hollingsworth is able to give page after page of how Rogers based his actions and his television program on Scriptural guidance and on ideas and theologies developed by some of the greatest of the church fathers, such as how a young Freddy Rogers was influenced by a monastery of Benedictine monks that existed in his hometown. It was the Benedictine idea of what it means to be a neighbor that shaped Rogers own understanding of that word.
Deep theological thinkers, looking for big words and lengthy systemic theories won’t find them here. Rogers was as simple as he appeared on television. He was a kind, loving man and he was so because of the freedom and joy he was given by his faith in Jesus Christ. Hollingsworth believes that her live and the live of unknown millions of other Americans are better for having been exposed to such a life. Her book makes that argument very effectively.
It is worth noting, as well, that Rogers could serve as something of a role model, in addition to his work with children, for those who attend seminary later in life or for those who plan to work in non-traditional ministries. Rogers was well into his 30s before he started attending seminary, basically on his lunch hour, and never served for a single minute as a parish minister, despite the fact that he was an ordained minister of the word and sacrament for almost 40 years.
I cannot endorse this book strongly enough.