The three glories

A Christmas goal: Becoming missionaries in the rye

Issue: "The tolerance police," Dec. 19, 1998

Earlier this year, on my 48th birthday, I read a novel partly written the year I was born, one I had liked a lot at age 15 and had not looked at since: J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, set in a December from which Christ seems to be absent. The book, its central figure (deeply alienated prep school student Holden Caulfield), and its reclusive author have had a cult following for decades. Mark Chapman had a copy when he shot John Lennon. In the movie Conspiracy Theory, the semi-hinged character played by Mel Gibson must buy up every copy he sees. The book even made the Modern Library's list of the hundred best novels of the century. I was never a Salinger cultist, but when I was 15 and worshipping the teenager's trinity of me, myself, and I, Holden Caulfield's half-crazy emphasis on living his erratic feelings from moment to moment, along with his utter contempt for the "phony" people and social structures surrounding him, were enormously appealing to me. Looking back a third of a century later at my reading of the book, it amazes me that I did not realize how badly off Holden was. But that should not surprise me, because I did not realize how badly off I was, sunk into atheism and disdain. Nor did I truly understand how much Holden, who wanted to be a catcher in the rye-he imagined himself standing by a cliff and keeping kids playing in a rye field nearby from falling off-needed a catcher himself. In 1965 I did glean from the book Holden's emptiness. I remember reading the pessimistic parts of Ecclesiastes in some kind of world literature class-"I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind"-and observing that Holden had learned in a few years what it took the writer of Ecclesiastes a lifetime to realize. (Of course I did not perceive the distinction in Ecclesiastes between things done "under the sun" and things done through Christ.) The Holden Caulfield/Ecclesiastes cry of "Meaningless! Meaningless!" resounded in my brain and many more during the 1960s. It underlay that decade's upheavals, with students and others attempting to find fulfillment in political and sexual demonstrations that turned destructive. My own search for meaning led me into the Communist Party in 1972; when I visited the Soviet Union that year I focused less on misery than on the neon signs over Moscow at night that proclaimed Slava Lenina, Glory to Lenin. I could be a catcher in the rye, wielding not only a sickle but a hammer. There I might have stayed, a hardcore Marxist, but God over the next few years changed me. I used to think that my sinful worship of Communism in the early 1970s was completely worthless, but now I realize that God not only wipes away every tear but also straightens wrong turnings. Although there is nothing good in Communism, God used it to at least make me lift my eyes beyond myself, so that in 1976 I was ready, in Christ's timing, to have them elevated heavenwards. Some WORLD readers may be familiar with the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, who became famous for proclaiming ethical stages through which he thought people should move: from following the law to "social duty" and perhaps to "autonomous ethical thinking," wherein a person makes up his own principles. Kohlberg argued that such ethical autonomy should be the goal of human existence-even though in this stage humans are in some ways the most selfish, virtually inventing a world, totally apart from God. I'd propose instead of Kohlberg's six or seven stages just three. First comes the glory stage, the I'm-the-center-of-the-world thinking within which we attempt to glorify ourselves. Next comes the glory, glory stage, when we strive to promote not only ourselves but a collective entity as well: perhaps a nation, perhaps a business, perhaps Communism. Our goal, however, should be to move by grace to the highest stage, where we act to bring glory, glory, glory to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (And in the course of glorifying God we may bring honor to ourselves and to our nation or business.) Progress through these stages is not easy, and the motives of even those God has claimed remain mixed. But what Holden Caulfield needed was not a vision of himself as the catcher in the rye, but a glimpse of the God's-eye view. Then Holden would know that he and the rest of us can be missionaries in the rye, filled with awe as Christmas approaches that God became flesh to take on the sins of all who believe in him. Christ is the catcher.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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