Monday, July 1, 2013

Children, Mr. Rogers, and the Christian Moral Imagination.

I have always heard that Moral Theology and Christian Ethics lies not so much in knowing the right information, but in knowing the right questions to ask. If this is so, then I contend that Mr. Rogers is one of the greatest examples of Christian Moral Theology.

If you, by a terrible twist of fate, do not know who Mr. Rogers is or are just unfamiliar with him, read this article and WATCH ALL THE VIDEOS EMBEDDED!!!!!!!! But seriously you will not regret it.

Take a moment just click on this link =>Mr. Rogers as Moral Agent. 

Now I trust that you watched and read everything.

Anyway, if the moral life is about knowing the right questions to ask, then to be moral includes being intimately involved in the situations within which moral action is being called for.

***Now it seems appropriate to acknowledge that Christianity and the Moral are not good partners. I am unsure how to negotiate the relationship between the two since Ethics and Morality arise directly from the Fall. However, one cannot fail to acknowledge that Christian lives possess ethical implications. And so for that reason I use the word Moral, though it be imperfect.***

Back to Mr. Rogers.

According to Rowan Williams, correct rearing of our children has become a great moral challenge.

He writes of what has become a misunderstanding of childhood,

"Childhood, after all, is a period we've come to think of as 'latency', the time before certain determinations and decisions have to be made." (Williams, 11) 

This latency is seen as something that is to be born, a kind of waiting period or ritual before the child has become a mature moral agent.

In this modern conception, childhood is understood very impatiently.

This view of childhood, of latency, makes the child, in their own way, a subject of economic and moral pressure. Acted on, and expected to mature past childhood in order to become an active participant capitalistic economy of value. Pushed to mature. Everything prior to that maturation, tossed aside as irrelevant. Games to fill time before real meaning can be assigned. Meaning that in some cases the child's play is allowed, but never taken seriously. What is serious is the 'real' world that the parents already live into and the child awaits.

Play is illogical. Adulthood is logical. The real world has no need of it.

Returning to Williams, and one of my favorite quotes, about Alan Garner's book, The Moon of Gomrath. Williams writes, (its long sorry)

"Throughout the book, we're made aware of a tantalizing oddity, a sort of detachment and chill, in the behavior of the 'light-elves'; and, fairly well on in the narrative, an explanation is offered by another of the 'fairy' species. The elves fight with bows and arrows, not hand-to-hand, with swords: they kill at a distance, without seeing the eyes of their victims. 'You will find in the bows of the lios-altar much to explain their nature, which was not always as now.' But human beings use bow and arrows, don't they? And guns? So the child reader might ask. Well indeed: now look at human beings again, a bit more carefully. What might the difference be between knowing you're killing a specific person and indiscriminate slaughter? And does the latter make you another kind of person? We we not always as now?" (19)    

Ironic. We as Moral Theologians, Christian ethicists labor for the right questions, yet here in the child's imagination in play here they are.

Williams continues,

"This kind of moral exploration, by way of the play between the familiar and the often outrageously strange, is properly a function of all imaginative writing; and the fictional space as an opportunity for testing styles and identities - even at the level of the suburban soap - goes on being important for anyone trying actively to relate to the world." (19) 

The abandoning of this type of play and the solidifying of 'real world' moralities keeps the consistent questioning, or rather right questioning, that the Christian life requires aloft.

HOWEVER, it is important to know that not all play is equal. What I mean is that some play is relatively, or explicitly violent.

Hey, I grew up on the Power Rangers. So I am guilty. To this day I am still captivated by it. The intro tells you enough.

So what kinds of play? Enter, Fred Rogers.

It was not enough for Mr. Rogers to tell kids what to do, but created an entire world, or neighborhood in which the kids could enter. This was the "Neighborhood of Make Believe."

It was a magical place, oft quirky and cheesy according to today's standards, but it was a place of safety that kids could go. It was a place where dramas were played out in front of their eyes between characters like Tuesday and Friday (to orient them to the mundane). These dramas were dramas that looked fantastic but were familiar to the kids who watched them. As Rowan Williams said above, it allows them to test identities. If you wonder if he was able to know the things that ailed kids, just think about the fact that he wrote a whole song about not getting sucked down the drain.

But still, this fantasy world was a safe place where one could see 'friends' go through the daily struggles kids had to go through. What's the importance you ask? To ask the right questions, and to have the confidence that a friend cared, who understood. And ultimately the words spoken to the child was, "You are special and valuable." Sometimes the moral life arises out of the confidence that we are loved and understood. This also gives us the space to play, and be allowed to test the waters of identity with the patience of friend.

Furthermore, Sometimes the moral life requires the possibility of seeing a world where the right choice is normative. The Neighborhood of Make Believe was such a place. The fantasy world helps the child ask the right questions, test identities, and see the possibility of right living through the questions. Its hard to watch Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood and see that choices of violence, persecution, and anger are possible courses of action. Rather, it forms the child, the human, to be a creature that recognizes that valuableness and sacredness of the other. Namely, to see them as friends in the neighborhood. This new fantasy world assists in the establishing of a new imagination. Don't believe me? Watch this episode.

Be Yourself

Now, Christ is never mentioned by Mr. Rogers. I get that. But, Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. He did his education while filming the show and chose to give his life to the formation of the Child's imagination. You think he would be theological intentionally.

But then I contemplate the person and work of Christ.

You cannot deny the Christ-o-logic of this method. Because isn't it the mission of Christ to give a new imagination to humanity caught in cycles of violence? Does he not give us the imagination, the vision to see to a new world beyond our own? And furthermore, does he not give us the confidence that we are loved? Even unto the end of the age?

Don't think it was intentional? Listen to his speech at his induction into the TV Hall of Fame.

Hall of Fame Speech.

Or re-watch this speech.

Life Time Achievement Speech.

So maybe it wasn't Sunday School exactly, but it provides the imagination to see a magical world where lives can be formed in Christian love. Its the kind of therapeutic Christian imagination that we would need to cure our own violence and possibly the violence of the whole world.

And so I close with this story:

Fred Rogers once received a letter from a young boy who suffered from some type of developmental disorder that would send him into fits of rage. He was an avid watcher of Mr. Roger's neighborhood. He asked Mr. Rogers that if he was ever in his neighborhood, if he would come by. So, Mr. Rogers one day finding himself near this boy and with a few hours to spare rented a car and sought out this boy along with his handler.

(Note: Mr. Rogers had a handler not because he was vain or felt he was in danger, but because he was so present with whoever he was with he would have never gotten anywhere with out them.)

When they got their the boy was in such a state of excitement, but quickly it turned to rage as he was unable to calm himself and act the way he wanted in front of his TV friend. Into this situation, Mr. Rogers now sitting in the living room with this boy said, "Will you pray for me?" For some reason, this calmed the boy. They prayed. Fred Rogers visited a little bit longer and bid the family farewell. As he and his handler got back in the car she asked him, "That was quite a psychological trick, giving him volition in a situation where he had no control in order to calm down." Fred Rogers looked puzzled and then chuckled and said in a tone only he could muster. "Oh heavens no. I figured if a boy of his age could survive such things, he would be the one I would want to pray for me."

Knowing the right question to ask. Would you pray for me? It seems to simple to be true, but for Fred Rogers it was a part of a nexus of imagination that made such responses possible.

Maybe when we are confused about what to do in the violence in our world. What action to take, we might imagine returning to that neighborhood of make believe. To remember a man who spent his life helping kids find the right questions and the confidence that they were special and loved.

And I think its worth closing with a song he wrote, Goodnight God.          


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