Holden Caulfield Explains the Gospel Reading for the
Third Sunday in Advent*
So I was telling Mr. Grover, this man at the camp I went to last summer, that the greatest person in the Bible had to be old John the Baptist. He got all upset, of course, "Well, how can you say that, Holden? I mean, obviously, son, the greatest man in the Bible is Jesus Christ. The Savior. God in the flesh."
"Well, I mean, isn't that what John the Baptist thought too? Nobody else really saw that; nobody else really seemed to understand. But, whatdaya know, this crazy wild-eyed bum . . . . "
"Well, I wouldn't call St. John the Baptist a bum, Holden."
"No, I guess not. But I wouldn't call him Saint John the Baptist either. I mean, how do you think he'd like that? Out there in the wilderness, wearing camel-skins, eating bugs and wild honey, telling the whole goddamn world that they are going to hell in a bread basket if they don't change their ways."
"Mr. Caulfield, please. Your language? After all, we're talking about the Bible."
"You're right, Mr. Grover. I'm sorry as hell. It's just this crazy bad habit I picked up from my brothers, especially my brother Kenneth, the one I was talking to you about."
Oh God. Now I'd gone and done it. Mr. Grover looked at me all serious and sympathetic all of a sudden. I swear, there is nothing more creepy than when a minister gives you that serious and sympathetic look. Jesus, I hate it when they do that. But then I thought, he's a minister, they trained him to that back in minister school. It's not really his fault. So, that really depressed me even more. And, wouldn't you know it, I started feeling sorry for him. Me feeling sorry for old sad-assed Mr. Grover. I mean, to tell you the truth, he's not even a real minister yet. Just somebody they send out from the minister school to work at camp. He's not really old either, but he sure as hell acts like it sometimes.
"You were saying, Holden? Something about John the Baptist? I'd like to hear why you like him so much?"
That just kills me. You mention your dead brother and the concerned adults of the world who were ready to crucify you a minute before will pretty much let you get away with anything. Sailor's language. Crazy ideas. Even not thinking that Jesus is the greatest guy in the Bible.
"Well, what I meant to say was something like this, Mr. Grover. If you really want to know. . . ."
He nodded oh-so-understandingly. Sometimes he reminded me a helluva lot of this crappy doctor my parents used to send me to.
"Why I think John the Baptist is so great, is that, first of all, more than anyone else and before anyone else, he knew who Jesus was. He knew who Jesus had to be. I mean, not just because he was his cousin. But he KNEW. More than anyone, he realized that Every goddamn thing in the world was a mess. Nothing was really the way it was supposed to be. You might as well just live in the desert like a crazy bum . . . . "
Mr. Grover coughed. With him it was always ahem or amen. Always adding something to whatever anybody else was saying if you know what I mean.
"Well, if the world is that bad, he might as well just live in the desert like a guy wearing camel skins and eating bugs. I mean, that could be kind of depressing don't you think?"
"I don't know, Holden. What do you think?"
"Well, I think maybe John was depressed but in a different way than everyone else. He was depressed for everybody, and he felt sorry for them. If he was angry at them, if he was giving 'em hell, I think he was angry at himself too. Like, what's the point of going on? Sort of hopeless, I guess."
"You think John was depressed, Holden?"
No I think he was constipated, but he didn't have ex-lax, the miracle of modern science, to get him moving again. I didn't say that, but I sure as hell wanted to. Sometimes adults should just listen to themselves for a minute. I swear they should.
"Yes. No. I don't know. He was different. He didn't fit in. He didn't think things were OK just because other people thought they were. But then, and this is what I'm trying to say, he realized something. Yes, everything is a mess. But it can be better. But it all depends on me. If I don't help them, if I don't catch them, warn them, they won't make it. So . . . no matter how crazy he looked, how inappropriate (like old Mrs. Adams used to say in English), he just kept telling them--it will be different, it can be different, but you gotta change, you really gotta change.
My ass, I wanted to say. But I didn't.
"I mean, obviously, Jesus . . . . well, he was the Savior and all. But John, he was just a poor slob [Mr. Grover coughed again] who figured out that he needed to help Jesus, in fact, that old Jesus was going to need all the help he could get if anything was going to change."
"Well actually, Holden, since Jesus was God, he didn't really need John's help. He only allowed him to help. In fact, John said that he wasn't even worthy to tie the sandals of Jesus."
"Excuse my French, Mr. Grover, but I wasn't talking about anybody's damn sandals, Jesus' or anyone else. And I'll bet that if Jesus were here right now, he would say that he sure as hell needed John's help not to mention yours and mine. I mean just look around. Or maybe you don't understand about needing someone."
He was silent for a minute. Sometimes I wish I didn't say such crazy stuff.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Grover. I get carried away. I always have. It's my worst quality, everybody says so. I just can't seem to talk about things without getting all crazy. Then my nose starts bleeding and I have to lie down and when I get up I usually can't even remember what I was so upset about."
"That's alright, Holden.
He got all quiet again. Made me nervous if you want to know the truth.
"You know Holden, I think . . . maybe . . . maybe you're right. I never thought about it like that. Maybe Jesus really did need John."
"Really? No kiddin'? Well, that's I was thinking anyway. And that's why I like John the Baptist so much. That. And, of course, the way he died."
Mr. Grover frowned. "The way he died?"
"You've heard the story haven't you, Mr. Grover?"
"Of course, I've heard the story. But I wouldn't say that I . . . like it."
"That's because you don't understand about death yet, Mr. Grover."
I'm not sure if I really meant that, or knew what I was saying, but it just farted out and it was too late to get it back.
"What did you say, Holden?"
"Well, it's like this, Mr. Grover. You know about my brother Kenneth and all. And, well, there's a lot I could say about him and a lot more I could say about him dying when he did and the way he did. But the one thing more than anything I know, is that death is horrible. You can be young, old, alone, surrounded by your family--but it's still dying, and it's still horrible. Most people think John died a horrible death because he got his head cut off by some godawful people. I don't think that was what made it horrible. Heck, John was so crazy, that probably made more sense than dying of old age or falling off a horse or something."
Sometimes I even wonder where I get this stuff.
"What made it awful was not that he was losing his head but that he was losing his hope. All that hope he had built up, not just for himself but for everyone else, all the work he had done to help Jesus out, and then he's sitting in a dirty prison wondering if maybe it was all some big mistake."
"A mistake? Whether what was a mistake, Holden?"
"Everything. Really, come on, you see what I'm saying, don't you, Mr. Grover? The camel skin, the weird food, sleeping in the desert. But more than that, and worse than that, maybe Jesus was his biggest mistake. Maybe trying to help him was just stupid. The biggest dumbass thing a big dumbass could ever do. And all the time he thinking he was really making things better for all those people. Well maybe he was making things worse. And probably other stuff. That girl he liked. I know the Bible doesn't say that, but I'll bet old John the Baptist had a girl back home that he really liked. And she didn't want to live in the wilderness. And his brother. He probably had a brother. Now he's never going to see his brother again."
Just then my goddamned voice starting cracking like it does when I get excited. I swear I'm a moron sometimes.
"His brother? John the Baptist's brother? Holden?"
"Maybe it was all a mistake. All that love. All that hope. Hope can be a helluva lot of work, Mr. Grover, if you haven't already noticed. It can be exhausting. It's just so sad to think of John sitting there and wondering whether he had been wrong all along. That all that hope was for nothing. It's not fair. I hate that Jesus let that happen. That he lets things like that happen all the time. I swear, if I were Jesus, I wouldn't let things like that happen to people like John the Baptist. I mean, all he wanted to do was help. He was a good brother."
Mr. Grover just sat there. For a minute I thought he was sleeping because his eyes were closed.
"He did help him, Holden. A lot. . . . But you're right. It's not fair."
Funny thing, I could swear old Mr. Grover was sniffing a little and even starting to cry. I had no idea he felt that way about John the Baptist too.
*Holden Caulfield is the narrator/protagonist of J. D. Salinger's classic American novel, The Catcher in the Rye. This meditation imagines him several years earlier, around age 12 or 13, about a year after the death by drowning of his brother Kenneth (called Allie in Catcher). Kenneth's death is the subject of the never-published story, "The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls" (which was leaked on the internet in 2013, shortly after the death of my own brother Noel). In that short story, Holden writes a letter home from summer camp in which he talks about a Mr. Grover who works there. He also tells his brothers how much he likes the Book of Corinthians.