Review of Shea Tuttle’s Exactly as You Are

Exactly as You Are

Fred Rogers was an overweight, shy, lonely, and often sick child who seemed to attract bullies. At home he felt safe and comfortable, enjoying his puppets and piano, which became a means of expressing feelings of sadness and loneliness, but school was another matter.

Early in her new book Exactly the Way You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers (Eerdmans, 2019), Shea Tuttle makes the point that Fred never forgot those bullies. “ ‘I resented the pain. I resented those kids for not seeing beyond my fatness or my shyness,’ he told audiences sixty years later, marveling at how well he still remembered that day” (11). Her book shows how he transformed experiences such as this into an internationally beloved children’s television program that in multiple ways told millions of children during its 33-year run that they are loved just as they are.

Shea Tuttle was one of those children, and she brings her love of and fascination with Mister Rogers, her role as the mother of two children in grade school, and her theological training (M.Div., Candler School of Theology, Emory University) to her exploration of his life and faith.

Tuttle makes clear that there were many positive formative factors in Rogers’s life, including loving parents, a vibrant church, and a passion for music. His parents were leaders in their town of LaTrobe, Pennsylvania, which gave him a model of what a neighborhood could be. His father was an industrialist who respected and valued his employees. Both parents were people whose faith was expressed in serving their community and helping those in need. The local Presbyterian church was central in their family life, and Tuttle shows how its liturgy formed Rogers’s understanding of a disciplined life and the importance of a stable routine for children’s development. She also emphasizes the importance of music in his formation: “Very early on, music began to carry a meaning in his life that his other important hobbies—his puppet play and photography, hosting friends and helping in the community—couldn’t touch. When he was bullied at age eight, he “explored his grief at the piano” (31) and as a homesick college student he found solace in the “ancient tradition of expressing raw emotion through music” (33). It’s no wonder that music became such an integral part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

After highlighting aspects of Rogers’s growing-up years that shaped his character and sense of vocation, Tuttle focuses on how he became Mister Rogers and continued to develop Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as long as it was in production. Chief among his mentors were Dr. William Orr, a professor at Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), and Margaret McFarland, an acclaimed expert on child development.

Tuttle says the core of Bill Orr’s theology “began with the biblical assertion that God’s creation, including humanity, is good (Gen. 1:31). Upon that foundation Orr laid the belief that we are therefore lovable.” She continues, “Put another way, if we are lovable and acceptable because we are God’s, then our neighbor, who is equally God’s, is also lovable and acceptable. And we are called into the work of that loving and accepting” (59).

Orr’s example spoke as strongly to Rogers as his academic teaching did. Tuttle relates Rogers’ comment that “when you see someone go out to lunch on a winter’s day and come back without his overcoat because he had given it to a person who was cold, you have a growing understanding of ‘living theologically.’ When we asked Dr. Orr about the coat, he said, ‘Oh, I have one other at home,’ and that was all he said about it” (56).

Just as Dr. Orr, through his example and teaching, influenced Rogers’s concept of neighborliness, so Dr. Margaret McFarland helped form his philosophy of child development and children’s programming. “Anything human is mentionable,” she taught, “and anything mentionable is manageable.” Tuttle explains that Rogers, absorbing this lesson, “worked to mention his feelings rather than deny them. He knew that, acknowledged or not, revealed or not, his feelings would find their ways to expression. And he wrote a song [“The Truth Will Make Me Free”] about that belief for the Neighborhood. The song ends with these lines:

I’m happy, learning
Exactly how I feel inside of me.
I’m learning to know the truth,
I’m learning to tell the truth.
Discovering the truth will make me free (149).  

It’s safe to say that many viewers weren’t aware of the biblical foundation for Rogers’s love of neighbor and the other the theological principles that informed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. That was by design. Although he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was reticent to talk explicitly about his faith. Tuttle relates a conversation between Terry Gross and Fred Rogers when Fresh Air was still a local show. Gross said, “Obviously you’re very religious, but . . . it’s not a denominational program, and I’m sure that’s intentional on your part.”

Fred replied, “It’s far from denominational and far from overtly religious. The last thing in the world that I would want to do would be something that’s exclusive. I would hate to think that a child would feel excluded from the Neighborhood by something that I said or did” (78).

Rogers often quoted this line from his favorite book, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye” (126). That notion permeated the life-lessons Rogers shared daily with children through his television show. This bedrock wisdom was applicable to regard for neighbor—be cautious about assuming what is essential in other people.

Tuttle’s biography reflects that same kind of regard of her subject. While there is no doubt that she did thorough, impeccable research and thought deeply and creatively about Fred’s life and faith, her approach to the material is humble and respectful. In an interview on the podcast Things Not Seen, she said, “I can’t figure him out, even after spending a whole lot of time working on his writings or listening to people talk about him or watching the show. Part of what draws me to him is that he is unusual and complicated. I want to figure him out so I keep looking. I think that was part of his power, and that remains part of his power.” (1)

Part of the power of Exactly as You Are is that it offers deep insight into the life and faith of Fred Rogers while not pretending to know all about him. At a time when politicians and pundits and ordinary people with a social media platform routinely make definitive statements about the motives of others, Tuttle succeeds in honoring both his complexity and his core message that each of us should be loved exactly as we are.  

(1) “The Magnetic Strangeness of Fred Rogers: Shea Tuttle, Things Not Seen podcast #1923 (40:30-41:20)  https://www.thingsnotseenradio.com/shows/1923-tuttle

*******

This review was originally published in the Advent 2019 issue–the last print edition– of Englewood Review of Books.    It is available online at https://englewoodreview.org/shea-tuttle-exactly-as-you-are-feature-review/ 

Celebrating Incarnation

sshr-cover

Yesterday Englewood Review of Books published my review of   Somethin’ Special:  A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection  (Neworld Media, 2018).   I’ve also created a video of one of the tracks on the album  “There’s Still My Joy.”

Very few pop Christmas albums help us to celebrate incarnation, the central affirmation of Christianity, but I find in Somethin’ Special:  A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection many songs that point in that direction and offer a most moving encouragement to reclaim that connection.  This new full-length holiday CD released in early November presents the new, the traditional, and the disquietingly ordinary and says “Look in these stories and in these places. God is right before your eyes.”

Stookey, one third of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, took on a solo career as singer/guitarist /songwriter in the early 70s after the group began a seven-year leave of absence from each other.  Since reuniting and performing with Peter and Mary until her death in 2009, he has written songs for 21 solo albums and continues to perform solo and with Peter Yarrow in concerts around the country.  His songs are not just folk, but eclectic in content and style, and many of them speak of the Divine in metaphorical terms, central of which is Love with a capital L.

“A recollection can be a distant memory – suddenly recalled – or in this instance, a gathering of childhood stories, unique to the holidays,” Stookey states in his liner notes.  “Some are highly personal, some are musical remembrances of Christmases in concert with Peter, Paul and Mary, but most of the songs reflect an evolving appreciation of the expression and the reason for the holiday: the birth of Christ.”  Truly, he seems to be re-collecting carols, his own compositions (old and new), and others into a new appreciation of meaning of Christmas and the larger holiday season.

Many people want to divide life into the secular and the sacred.  It’s a convenient tactic of church folk who protest any mention of social justice in their congregations.  “You’re getting too political, pastor. Stick to spiritual things.” This notion gets press every December when some Christians step up on soap boxes about putting Christ back in to Christmas.  Similarly the secular notion of Santa Claus usually ignores its lineage to Saint Nicholas, who was born to wealthy parents in the third century in what is now Turkey.  His Christian devotion led him to spend his whole inheritance on attention to the poor and defenseless, particularly as a protector of children. His generosity and compassion led to the custom of gift-giving during the holidays.

With this recording Stookey is suggesting compatibility.  Why not have both Santa Claus and nativity scenes?   There’s a theological reason for having both Santa and Jesus in our year-end celebrations.  After all, some scholars say the root of the word religion means to bind together or to connect–a meaning that is ironically obscured in our current cultural, political, and religious divide–and Christmas, more than any other part of the liturgical year, affirms the connection of heaven and earth, divine and human, spirit and matter.

The incarnation is the ultimate reason for rejoining that which has been broken asunder by misguided religiosity.  This baby Jesus grew up to be a carpenter and a friend of the marginalized–including prostitutes, tax collectors, women, and those hated Samaritans. He healed the sick, played with children, and hung out with fisher folk. He concerned himself with practical parts of living–meals, friends, health, community, respect for others, shelter, cooperation, love, and bread and wine.  Are these things not sacred?

Somethin’ Special celebrates the binding together of what our culture wants to divide into the secular and the sacred. Three of the songs about childhood are Stookey’s own compositions. In “For Christmas” a department store Santa Claus gains a new life after talking with the last child on Christmas Eve.  In “Christmas Dinner” an orphan boy of the streets and a woman old enough to be his grandmother share “the happiest Christmas” in town. “Somethin’ Special,” the title song, is a recollection from Stookey’s own childhood when his creative parents gave him “the gift of patience, the gift of faith.”  To this listener these reveal the sacred value of love and connection without mention of the baby Jesus.

In Stookey’s treatment of traditional carols, there is new appreciation of the sensory and the material as well as a bit of reframing.  The sound of uilleann pipes that open “In the Bleak Midwinter” take us to the cold desolation of Scottish moors and make us wonder about the song’s metaphorical message for times such as these.  Stookey adds lines to “Away in a Manger”:  “Across a great desert three wise men they came / Seeking a king though they knew not his name / A heavenly light, bright shining and blest / Had led to the stable where Jesus did rest.”  How often have I been too literal minded to see these visitors from the East as representative of those who know not Jesus’ name but are drawn to this sacred baby born in the most earthy of places, an animal stall? Another new verse shows forth the sacredness of the most ordinary acts in a household–comforting children, praying, and keeping watch over a cradle.  Who can know the results of these faithful actions?

“Still My Joy”–written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Matthew Charles Rollings– is the sparking gem of the album, holding in tension joy and grief.  I think of the treble range of a piano as silver and the sound of a cello as gold.  It is keyboardist Michael McInnis’ genius to bring the two together. The piano is bright and hopeful and underlines the “still my JOY” and the cello is the gravitas, the honest facing of the inevitable losses that come the longer we live.  It is the gold of wisdom standing in creative tension with the joy that makes the joy credible. Stookey sings the song with such emotional range, grace, and vulnerability that it becomes an invitation for listeners to enter its safe space to feel and hold together both grief and joy. What a gift!

Richard Rohr writes, “I believe our inability to recognize and love God in what is right in front of us has made us separate religion from our actual lives.”   Stookey’s album encourages us to recognize God in what is right in front of us.   Without saying so, it is about incarnation, the scandalous notion that in God came in a baby born in a stable and continues to dwell among us mere mortals.

God with us indeed!

That Attracting & Sustaining Divine Love: A Review of Evolving Humanity & Biblical Wisdom

0514181059

Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley

My review of Marie Noonan Sabin’s Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom: Reading Scripture Through the Lens of Teilhard de Chardin [Liturgical Press Academic: 2018] is up on the Englewood Review of Books:

Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Jesuit priest (1881-1955), wrote about evolutionary science, spirituality, and the expansion of human consciousness.  Although the Vatican suppressed his writings during his lifetime, today his vision continues to be appreciated by scientists, religious scholars, and spiritual seekers.  In Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom Marie Noonan Sabin brings Teilhard’s vision into conversation with scripture texts related to wisdom. With an interdisciplinary background in literature and theology, Sabin uses her interpretative skills in intellectually challenging ways that will fascinate some readers with knowledge of academic biblical studies but may mystify those without such a background. Though prior knowledge of Teilhard’s complicated thought would increase appreciation of Sabin’s work, her clarity and conversational style could well inspire Teilhard beginners to delve deeper into his thought. Continue reading

Slow Reading

Reading for th Common Good

In college I took a non-credit speed reading course so I could read assignments faster. The idea was to move my hand or an index card down the center of the page to learn to avoid unnecessary eye movements to the left and right in order to take in larger chunks of print.  Either I didn’t understand the process, or it just didn’t work. The main benefit was the illusion that I had read Moby Dick and Don Quixote, when in fact my comprehension and retention were close to zero.  As a writer, I’ve learned to skim sources at a fast clip, but skimming is a finding technique that lodges little or nothing in the memory.  Now with the Internet and social media, I’m looking at more words than ever, but this “skill” is just a high tech version of speed reading and skimming.

Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good:  How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, has challenged me to slow down. Smith is the editor of the Englewood Review of Books and a member of the Englewood Christian Church community in urban Indianapolis.  When that congregation was faced with the temptation to move to the suburbs, it decided to stay put and work in its community.  To that end, it embarked on reading as a way to discern and prepare for action. It opened a bookstore and started its online and print review to encourage other congregations to read broadly in order to act faithfully.  The congregation became involved in actions that require learning– for example, economic development, alternative energy, caring for the marginalized. Smith explains, “Without learning, our action tends to be reaction . . . .”

In his chapter specifically on Slow Reading,  Smith puts it in the context of other “Slow” movements:  Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Money, Slow Parenting.  He says, “What these movements have in common is not just the means of acting slowly and attentively.  They also share a common end:  the cultivation of local community.”  Smith praises Isabel Hofmeyr’s Gandhi’s Printing Press:  Experiments in Slow Reading in which she describes how this practice transformed a South African community of expatriate Indians in the early twentieth century.  He also draws on the history of lectio divina, the monastic practice of slowly reading, meditating, praying, and reflecting on scripture, in order to underline the power of slow reading.  The final stage of this process is contemplation “in which we begin to imagine how the text is to be lived out within our everyday life.”

Smith invites congregations to read as an intentional, communal activity that is more transformative if it is done slowly–through reading for comprehension followed by conversation prompted by the questions that the text asks of readers.   The process also involves “reading the world” which means reading to understand the social, economic, historic, ecological, and political dynamics that affect the area in which the congregation works, whether that be local, national, or global. Smith says “reading in communion” helps churches discern God’s work in the world, provided the reading is wide in scope—not just scripture, but books on poverty, sociology, economics, and even fiction and poetry, both of which allow us to see the world and our relationships in fresh ways.

My interest in this book stems from two longings.  The first is that more congregations would see doing justice as part of their call to ministry in today’s complex and divided world.  This book presents a way to understand the motivations and practicalities of that call. The second longing is more personal–to get rid of any remnants of that speed reading course that still lead me to think I’ve learned something when, in truth, I haven’t.

What books have you read slowly lately?  What difference did it make?