Over the last couple of years there has been a pretty huge resurgence of interest in Mister Rogers. Beginning with the 2018 documentary, Won’t You be My Neighbor?, there has also been a new biography published about Fred Rogers, new publications of his poetry and music, countless magazine and newspaper articles, a celebration of #WorldKindnessDay wearing cardigans in his honor, and now a new film starring Tom Hanks.
What’s been surprising to me about this renewed interest is that it doesn’t seem to be generated by Gen-X adults – those who are in their 40’s and 50’s and grew up during the prime years of the Mister Rogers show. Instead, the energy of this new “movement” seems to be coming from Millennials (and even Gen-Z!), those in their 20’s and 30’s, many of whom did not grow up actually watching the show (at least not to the same degree as Gen-X). So why the sudden interested in this children’s TV show puppeteer amongst grown adults?
In a general sense I don’t think this should surprise us. Who wouldn’t want a friend like Fred Rogers? Who wouldn’t want to surround themselves with people who affirm us, love us unconditionally, and who seem to hang on every word we say as if it is the last word they will ever hear? As human beings we are made for connection, and we are attracted to the kindness of authenticity of others – even if it’s in a deceased children’s performer we’ve never met.
But I also think there is a more specific reason why we’re seeing this passion for Mister Rogers emerging today, in this cultural moment, at the end of one decade and the start of another. A recent report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that after decades of mortality rates decreasing and life expectancy increasing, the United States is no longer on track with populations in other wealthy countries who are continuing to see progress in extending life expectancy. For the 3rd year in a row, between the years 2014 and 2017 (and I’m sure future studies will reveal this trend continuing in 2018 and 2019) life expectancy is falling for people ages 25 to 64. The highest jump in death rates – a 29 percent jump! – has been among people ages 25 to 34, the generation who seems to be driving the most interest in Mister Rogers.
These findings reveal that there is no one primary cause of excess deaths, but it is the combination of destructive behavior from things like suicide, distracted driving, or opioid, alcohol, and other drug addictions. One medical professor summarized these findings: “People are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.”
Here is the tension of the culture we live in: so many of us are desperate for friends or family who will love us, affirm us, and accept us; yet at the same time most of us are weighed down by a pervasive feeling of shame, the feeling that we are never good enough and incapable of being loved or accepted.
The Christmas story resolves this tension for us. It reminds us that joy has dawned, and light has broken into the darkness. Yet there is one part of this story that often tends to be overlooked – Jesus’ genealogy as it is recorded in Matthew 1:1-17. When we take a closer look at this part of the story, we discover five women who deepen our understanding of how great our need for redemption truly is, but who also reveal God’s love to us in surprising new ways.