And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. —Romans 8:28
Thus far Flawed Faith has been a series I’ve wanted to use to discuss films that aren’t traditionally thought of as being particularly kind to the faith. Dogma, Alien: Covenant, and Spotlight all have disparaging things to say about organized religion but the reason I delved deep into them is that even the most unsuspecting religious undertones can point to the glory of God. Even in flawed, materialistic anti-theistic art, I theorize we still see the yearning and existential desire to understand the universe.
Dogma teaches us that people are messy but often they yearn to understand faith through their skepticism and moral outrage to seek the divine. Alien: Covenant teaches us that people have significant anxieties about following God and that it’s okay to question things and seek the truth. Spotlight finally taught us that truth can be unbearable and horrifying but that it’s true and that it’s our responsibility to seek it as good Christians. As we continue with this series every month I want to use this to explore films outside of just this angel. There are plenty of other examples of modern filmmaking that explore faith in a more positive light and I want to use this series to spotlight these as they come along.
As this year has continued to slowly chug along I’ve found myself reflecting on all of the art I’ve digested in 2018 and have been left to consider what I would I believe is the best film thus far. There have been several strong contenders from the vital and exciting Black Panther to the poignant and hilarious Eighth Grade, the terrifying and unsettling Annhiliation to the nightmare fever-dream of You Were Never Really Here.
Above all of them one film has truly stood out and it was one I wasn’t expecting. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the kind of unassuming piece of documentary filmmaking you wouldn’t expect to hit you the way it does. Maybe that’s appropriate. Fred Rogers certainly wasn’t the kind of man to make you think he was that complex. In a way, he really wasn’t. That’s the point of course. He was exactly as he was sold on the box. This was the quiet tragedy of Fred Rogers, a rare sort of man who actually lived up to the difficult bar of being a decent person through and through.
Here lies the terrible question at the heart of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Can a good person actually make the world a better place? This is the question the movie plants on our minds from the first minutes of the film as it parades us through the life of the one time PBS star. Over the course of 912 episodes of publicly funded television, Fred Rogers used his platform to create a different and unique form of children’s programming. He deliberately defied what the safe strategies of marketing to children were.
His show was quiet, slow, reflective but necessarily earnest. He taught young children important values, difficult life concepts like death, divorce, and reinforced the importance of everyone being a special, important and unique person. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and faith was a vital aspect of his work. He never used his pulpit to preach as his stage was a secular one but the love and understanding that ached through his gentle stare and softspoken voice conveyed a Christian love more tangible than words ever could. He was what most Christians could hope to be. He was a good representative of the kingdom of heaven on Earth.
The film presents Mr. Rogers as an almost Christ-like figure to a degree that could be considered borderline apocryphal. At one point one of his sons makes an offhand comment that being raised by Fred Rogers was akin to being born a son of Christ himself. Maybe the film is overcompensating but it’s not hard to tell why. Mr. Rogers clearly affected the lives of millions of people who watched his show every day for their entire childhoods. Beyond that, the current zeitgeist clearly infuses the film with a kind of astonishment.
In an age of toxic twitter bile, political bifurcation, civil unrest, and the daily revelations that cherished childhood heroes are secret monsters the film rubs off with the sense that Mr. Rogers was something of a bizarre creature. The ever-present question of whether or not Mr. Rogers actually made a difference in the world looms. There’s clearly a vast chasm between the millions of people who he affected and the chaotic state of the world. In the rare moments when the facade briefly fades away and you see the real Mr. Rogers underneath the sweater, we come to see the man in a heartbreakingly humble light. He was a person like anyone else with fear and anxiety. It’s heartbreaking just to watch common decency and love of this magnitude come on stress and admit that it feels inadequate.
The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 NIV).” There is no doubt that Fred Rogers was a flawed man, just like the filmmakers who made this movie is flawed and we are flawed as well. Mr. Rogers was not Christ after all. Yet the effect of his life is undeniable. He wasn’t able to fix the world because no man can fix the world. We are fallen by our natures and any attempt to fix mankind will fail. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is beautiful because it teaches us that despite the fact that you can’t fix a fallen world you can bring goodness into the world.
Through your meekness, kindness, and humility you can bring moments of peace and joy into the lives of broken people. The Book of Psalms in the Bible tells us “The Meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace (Psalm 37:11).” We must go out into the world as representatives of meekness and faith. We will fail because the world cannot be saved in its entirety but we have an opportunity to repair a small part of it even if it’s only for a time.