When one is asked to cite her or his favorite theologian, J. D. Salinger isn’t likely to be in the running. He might not even make the top ten. My personal introduction to Salinger, however, took place in a theological context. While in a Cambridge (Massachusetts) bookshop with a grad school buddy, I pointed out Mircea Eliade’s classic The Sacred and the Profane, insisting that my friend read it. Never to be outdone, Dave pointed at Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and said if I bought and read it he would do the same with Eliade. The Catcher in the Rye had not been part of my high school curriculum, so I was curious what all the fuss was about. I took him up on his dare. I’m not sure Dave ever read Eliade, but I read Salinger. My first impression was, “I don’t get it.”
Now my daughter’s school does require The Catcher in the Rye, and I’ve always tried (not always successfully) to keep up with her required reading. It gives us something to talk about – I’ve read several great books I’d otherwise have missed by this exercise. So I picked up the Catcher and plowed through. Salinger, I’m sure, requires no introduction. What is noteworthy, however, is that Holden Caulfield, while avowing himself an atheist, does make subtle but pointed comments about religion. (One of the occupational hazards of being a religionist is a constantly humming radar looking for any god-talk that might otherwise blend into the haze.) Holden, in chapter 14, points out the idiotic behavior of the disciples while Jesus was alive. He admits to thinking Jesus is okay, but his favorite character is the demon-possessed man who lives among the tombs. “I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard,” he says.
There is true religion in this statement. The “lunatic” running about in the tombs, rejected by society and even as far from God as you can get (demon possessed), is an image of humanity. Living a life of desperate alienation, the man in the tombs appeals to angst-ridden teenagers and displaced adults alike. He is likeable because he is like us. Holden scores bonus points on that observation!
With Salinger’s recent death, a renewed interest has sprung up about his novels – books that have changed the literary landscape. I read Catcher with more inherent appreciation than I did Franny and Zooey, but I’ve grown up a little since then. As an adult I can better appreciate the honest appraisals of Holden Caulfield.
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