Fred Rogers and Holy Ground

There’s a quote that Fred Rogers gave in an interview years ago that speaks volumes about how he felt regarding the way his television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, impacted those who watched it.

The space between the television screen and whoever happens to be receiving it—I consider that very holy ground.

A lot can be said (and has already been said) about the impact that Fred Rogers’ program had on the lives of many. There’s even a new documentary about the program and about his life called Won’t You Be My Neighbor. (And if you get the chance to see it, I heartily encourage you to take the opportunity. It’s very good.)

That quote about the space between the television and the viewer has stuck with me ever since I first heard it. It’s a bittersweet statement to reflect on, knowing that it comes from an individual who is no longer with us. Now that I have children of my own, I’m constantly observing and considering how the things my children are engaging in are affecting them. In another interview, Fred Rogers talked about the various ways he saw that his program was affecting children, depending on their age. Older kids enjoyed the land of make-believe, with the set pieces and the trolley, while younger kids paid more attention to the puppets and the interactions of the characters. But the part that stuck with me the most was what he said about the youngest viewers. Apparently, the toddler aged viewers were most impacted by the times that Mr. Rogers himself was talking directly to the screen, because it made them feel that he was talking directly to them. They were entranced by him and understandably so.

Think about that for a moment.

Now think about the ways that children relate to television on a daily basis. We don’t have a tv at our home because I’m too cheap to pay for cable, but I’ve seen the way my children act when a phone is in their hands. They’re mesmerized. Honestly, I think it’s safe to say that we all are. But how many of us consider the space between our eyes and our screens to be holy ground? How many of the people producing the images that we are viewing consider that space holy ground? I guess it depends on how you define holy.

The fact of the matter is this: Fred Rogers was right. The space between our screens and ourselves is holy ground, whether we want it to be or not. Rogers saw how powerful the medium of television was and how much more powerful it would potentially become, and he went to great lengths to make sure that the message he sent out through that medium was a beneficial one. But he also saw the negative effects that could come. He saw that there were others who also considered that space to be “holy ground”, though their intentions were less than holy. Deeper still, he saw that the viewers—especially the children—were the ones who considered their television screens to be, in a way, holy, or at the very least, trustworthy. And in an age where miniature supercomputers can be found close to our bodies at all times, I’d say we’re contributing to that message now more than ever.

But even though there are some on the other side of our screens who would use that “holy ground” of communication against us, they’re not the ones who we should be most cautious of. Because these days, the power of that virtual world isn’t just in their hands—it’s in ours. Nowadays, we can create an alternate version of ourselves, a “better” version. We can show only the good about ourselves, and more so, we can stretch the truth to make ourselves look better than we actually are. And the most frightening part of all this is that we seem to value that virtual version of ourselves, and of others, more than the reality. This is where we find out just exactly what this “holy ground” is capable of.

In James K.A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, he writes:

Worship works from the top down, you might say. In worship we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.

I want you to read that quote again, only where it says “God,” I want you to insert “an idol.” Does it change the way you read it?

When you consider the fact that what we are seeing on our screens are potentially idols, it reveals exactly what could potentially be happening in that space between, in that “holy ground”—idol worship. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, was in no way unfamiliar with the topic of idol worship, and when he used that phrase “holy ground”, I think he knew exactly what he was saying. He knew that in the space between a screen and an individual, there was the possibility of imitation, devotion, and yes, even idol-worship. It’s very possible that he knew some children might potentially even make him into an object of their worship, despite his best intentions to point their focus higher. He saw, as we should, that the space between was holy ground, and perhaps he knew, as we should, that there were, and still are, many false gods competing in that arena, desperate for our devotion, and yes, even our worship. So the next time you pick up your phone, keep your sandals on, because although the space where you are standing might be holy ground, the “god” speaking to you might not be who you think.

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