by Fr. David L. Bozeman
I don’t suppose you want to hear about how great Salinger was or how instrumental Catcher was in shaping me as young person in the modern world. Maybe he was great. Maybe it was instrumental. Maybe not. Who can say? I didn’t care for The Catcher in the Rye the first time I read it. Holden Caulfield was obnoxious. And reckless. Nobody is that reckless. They couldn’t stand to be. Perhaps some people are that obnoxious so maybe Salinger had something there. No, it wasn’t Catcher that got me, but Franny and Zooey – those surprising short stories for any Orthodox who recognize the “Jesus Prayer” and The Way of the Pilgrim. Yes, Zooey, half of which takes place around a bathtub, did it for me. Salinger knew words. He knew characters. They could talk real good. They weren’t phonies. And who wants to read about phonies anyway?
So, I tried The Catcher in the Rye again, years later, after Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction and Nine Stories with the crushingly good “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” I had gotten to know Salinger by reading Salinger. And isn’t that the way of it? We can hate ideas. We can hate the idea of an obnoxious, rebellious, reckless young man kicking his way around New York City for a weekend. We can be offended by him. We can even be jealous of him in some ways and his apparent disregard for doing the right thing. And then we meet him. We get to know him. And he remains the same but we can’t hate him as an idea any longer because we know him. We may learn compassion. We may even start to love him.
So what do we do with it all when we are pressed upon by some sort of inclination to “deal” with these stories as Christians? What do we do with Holden as a character or his immoral antics? What do we do with every “goddamn” he utters or the way Zooey calls his mother “fatty” or calls her constantly by her first name? What are we to do as Orthodox Christians? Is there any redeeming factor to this kind of story? Should we even be looking for one? This is always the question for us: how do we live in the world and yet not be of the world?
I take a clue from Zooey himself as he talks to his sister Franny after she finds herself incapacitated by living with the “world” and all of its troubles and phoniness. She has retreated onto her mother’s couch where she silently repeats the Jesus Prayer hoping for some relief, for some escape. And Zooey says to her:
The Jesus Prayer has one aim and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back…you’re misusing the prayer, you’re using it to ask for a world full of dolls and saints and no Professor Tuppers (Franny and Zooey, 170-171).
As Christians, we are never called to escape, to set up a “little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage.” Rather we are called to be a light in the darkness. How often do we prefer our own little ghetto where we only see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear? We try to sanitize our way through life. I don’t believe that is very helpful to us or the world. Our calling rather, is to baptize and offer transcendence, to fulfill that which is lacking.
And it begins by rooting out our own phoniness. You can live your whole life as a phony if you want to. You can settle into it, get used to it. You can live with a heart of stone. It’s possible. It’s easy. But it won’t save you. It isn’t the narrow way. And I think that is what Salinger and so many other “recognized” writers were concerned with. They may not have had the answer, but they could sure ask the question.
And so I read Salinger. I read The Catcher in the Rye and all the others. I recognize the disgust that he was disgusted with. I see the phonies that he saw. And it speaks to me. And I am challenged once again to respond to the same phoniness, to the disgust, to the evil of the world as a Christian; to, as Hemingway famously said, “write one true sentence.” And if I can offer one true sentence in response, if I can make my whole life one true sentence, then maybe others will see that good work and glorify God in heaven.