What do Mr. Rogers, Johnny Cash, and Queen Elizabeth have in common? Aside from their fame, they seem like a disparate group. But all are the subjects of new biographies that focus on their shared Christian faith.
The theatrical release in 2018 of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, an acclaimed documentary about the beloved children’s television star, Fred Rogers, and the release this Thanksgiving of the dramatic version of his life, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks, should draw attention to Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers by Shea Tuttle (Eerdmans, out now). Tuttle (Can I Get a Witness?) traces Rogers’s life from boyhood as a shy and sickly child to the creation and 33-year run of his groundbreaking children’s television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers—who died in 2003—was ordained in the Presbyterian church and believed he had a mission to minister to children and families through his show, Tuttle writes. “This role was essential to Fred’s complex identity, though he didn’t often foreground it publicly. Faith was a major part of who he was….Without using the overt language of faith on the air, Mister Rogers relentlessly preached his gospel: you are loved just the way you are.” PW’s review called Exactly as You Are “delightful” and praised Shea’s balanced approach for “[avoiding] hagiography by showing some of her subject’s shortcomings, such as his perfectionism and persistent avoidance of conflict.”
Exactly as You Are is part of the Eerdmans Library of Religious Biography, which was inaugurated in the mid-1980s and now includes 27 volumes on a wide range of famous people. David Bratt, executive editor at Eerdmans, says the series “was modeled on the old Little, Brown biography series, but with a focus specifically on the role of religion in subjects’ lives.”
Also recently released in the series are biographies of Billy Graham, Franklin Roosevelt, Kathryn Kuhlman, and George Whitefield. Biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sojourner Truth, Winston Churchill, and Charles Lindbergh are forthcoming.
“I think authors are discovering the power and fun of writing history through biography,” says Bratt. “And religious biography lets readers know the author is going to get close to the soul of the subject.”
England’s longest-reigning monarch rarely talks about her religious beliefs but, writes Dudley Delffs in The Faith of Queen Elizabeth (Zondervan, Dec.), the Queen credits her Christian faith as a grounding force. Delffs—who calls himself “a lifelong Anglophile and descendant of King James I”—writes, “More than the product of polite deference to historical tradition, the Queen’s faith transcends her inherited responsibility and the theology of the Anglican Church….Such an authentic faith could not be merely academic, political, or social but is undoubtedly personal, visceral, and deeply intimate….the thread stitching person and personage, duty and desire, together.”
Although Zondervan published The Faith of Dolly Parton in 2018, the books are not part of a series, says Carolyn McCready, Zondervan executive editor. The press publishes such biographies because “so many people in public view have a personal faith that doesn’t always get much attention, and yet their faith stories are central to who they are and what we know about them. Readers can find great inspiration and ideas for growth for their own lives.”
One famous person who spoke openly about his faith is the subject of Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon by Greg Laurie with Marshall Terrill (Salem, out now). Laurie, a pastor and the author of Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon, writes that Cash was “a conflicted man, struggling with drugs and the law and a lot more most people don’t know about.” To uncover the intimate details of Cash’s life and faith Laurie interviewed his family and friends:
Actor John Schneider (The Dukes of Hazard) told Laurie, “I lived with Johnny Cash for a year, and if somebody as rough-around-the-edges as Johnny could say that Jesus was his Savior, there had to be something to it.” Even with people who were atheists, said record producer Rick Rubin, “his belief in what he believed was so strong that what you believed didn’t matter so much because you were in the presence of someone who really believed.”
In the book, Cash called himself “the biggest sinner of them all… But my faith in God has always been a solid rock that I’ve stood on, no matter where I was or what I was doing. I was a bad boy at times, but God was always there for me, and I knew that.”