Could Holden Caulfield really be a Christian?
Yup, Holden Caulfield.
Rhum-swigging, cigarette-smoking, potty-mouthed, hooker-calling Holden Caulfield. Everyone’s favorite protagonist from the 1950’s cult classic “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger. Yes, he is “some kind of an atheist”, too, in case you didn’t know. So why on earth would I think that he is a Christian (more than he lets on), and that he might even understand it better than most of us do?
Plenty of reasons, in fact. Here are three of them:
1) He understands the central role of Jesus in the Bible. In his own words:
I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down.
Two things struck me about this paragraph. One, that Holden respected Jesus enough to refer to Him as “Him” (H capitalized) and not simply “him” or “that guy” and two, that Holden understood that apart from Jesus, nothing else matters in the Bible. You can hem and haw and mull and dissect your way through the Bible all you want but what it comes down to, really, is who Jesus is and what He did for us on the cross.
Again, you can be an expert in the Bible and know all these names and dates and situations but without a real grasp of who Jesus is, then it’s pointless.
As Israel Houghton so succinctly put in song: Jesus at the center of it all.
2) He understands the nature of Jesus. Holden Caulfield knows about grace. Take this passage, for instance:
I remember I asked old Childs (Old Childs was a schoolmate of Holden who read the Bible all the time) if he thought Judas, the one that betrayed Jesus and all, went to Hell after he committed suicide. Childs said certainly. That’s exactly where I disagreed with him.
I said I’d bet a thousand bucks that Jesus never sent old Judas to Hell. I still would, too, if I had a thousand bucks. I think any one of the Disciples would’ve sent him to Hell and all—and fast, too—but I’ll bet anything Jesus didn’t do it.
Now, that’s a pretty strong understanding of the loving nature and grace of Jesus Christ, something that law-driven religious folk tend to forget sometimes.
3) He hates hypocrisy. It’s no secret that Holden is allergic to anything phony but take a look at this excerpt where he expresses a particular dislike for religious hypocrisy:
(While watching a Christmas show in Radio City):
All these angels start coming out of the boxes and everywhere, guys carrying crucifixes and stuff all over the place, and the whole bunch of them—thousands of them—singing “Come All Ye Faithful” like mad.
It’s supposed to be religious as hell, I know, and very pretty ad all, but I can’t see anything religious or pretty, for God’s sake, about a bunch of actors carrying crucifixes all over the stage. When they were all finished and started going out the boxes again, you could tell they could hardly wait to get a cigarette or something.
I said old Jesus probably would’ve puked if He could see it—all those fancy costumes and all.
Ok, I’m sure Jesus wouldn’t have puked or anything but the idea is glaringly clear—-when Jesus came down on earth and died for us, He also freed us from all religious traditions, idols and laws. He left us with one greatest commandment —- “to love”. Anything apart from that is pointless, extraneous and comes dangerously close to being a—-show.
Now there are tons of other things that imply Holden’s authentic understanding of Christianity than he lets on such as his immense love for children, his soft spot for the underdogs and his distaste for anything worldly but I believe that the three we have listed are the most telling for now.
You might say, but what about all his other characteristics that you mentioned earlier? Like his love for alcohol, the swearing, the hooker, the cigarette-smoking and him ending up in a mental hospital? What about all that? Well, I tell you this: That’s exactly the point.
Holden Caulfield is probably the unlikeliest character in the world to teach us about Jesus Christ. But because of these imperfections, he did.
Because you see, the one realization that resonated with me strongly as I closed the book in my hands is this:
That you can learn more about Jesus Christ from an alcohol-drinking, cigarette-smoking, by-the-minute-swearing guy who is sincere about loving Him than from a clean-living, Bible-quoting, church-going guy who only pretends to know Him.
Jesus doesn’t care about outward appearances. He doesn’t care how many novenas you pray or how perfect your church attendance is or how much money you donate to charity and all those other things we can sometimes get too caught up in.
It is what’s in your heart that He’s interested in.
That’s the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
Please, let us never forget that.
(And….Just in case you haven’t read the book, Holden Caulfield doesn’t get it on with the prostitute. He just wanted to talk to her. Holden kills me. He really does.)