JD Salinger anniversary: Success is phony – failure is Christlike (The Catcher in the Rye)

For Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, success is phony, those who make it their goal and purpose are phony, and those who try to make it your goal and purpose are phony.

Discussion around Salinger’s anniversary this weekend reminded me of this passage from God without God, which celebrates not success but failure as the truly Christlike virtue.

One final factor remains in the human experience of nagging guilt and low self-esteem: not the committing of sin, but the failure to do sufficient good.

Once again Jesus and the cross are our redemption, for Jesus also failed. The cross in particular represents spectacular public failure.

Jesus began his public ministry in the synagogue– a reformer within the established tradition – but he failed in this attempt at internal reform. He was driven out of the synagogue in Nazareth, and he took instead to preaching in private homes and public spaces. Eventually he identified the established religious order as an enemy, making him a revolutionary rather than a reformer. Public support for his radical agenda was at its politically most significant on Palm Sunday, when he was welcomed into Jerusalem by the crowds. Just five days later he was dead, executed by the cooperation of the political and religious authorities. His mission had failed.

If our human god was an achiever of any kind – a Ghandi or a Mandela, a warrior or a king, a rags to riches entrepreneur or Cinderella – every one of us would be judged to be a failure in comparison. But our human god is not an achiever. Our human god is a spectacular failure: a failed reformer, and a failed revolutionary. To be truly and literally Christlike is not to succeed, but to fail spectacularly.

To have your heart in the wrong place is to sin, and there is forgiveness. To have your heart in the right place and to succeed is good – though the way is strewn with temptations, to pride and self-importance and self-righteousness. To have your heart in the right place and to fail spectacularly is to be truly, literally, Christlike: it is a vision of human divinity, a paradoxical human perfection, to which we can all aspire.

To fail as a parent, to fail as a spouse, to fail in a career or a ministry or a charity, to fail as a reformer or a leader or a mediator, to fail as a teacher or a carer or a social worker, to fail as an artist or an academic or a church volunteer: all of these achieve true Christlikeness, if only the heart is in the right place.

On the day that marks his definitive failure, the day of the crucifixion, Jesus is betrayed, denied and abandoned by his closest followers. If the existence of a church organised in his name today – in various forms two billion strong – is to be regarded as any kind of success, it was achieved not by Jesus himself but by the ordinary human beings who took it on and made it work in the days and weeks and months and years and centuries following. For the rest of us, to have failed spectacularly, but to have inspired just one other person in the effort – perhaps without even knowing it – is enough.

And the final guilty fear is that we could have done more of the less spectacular good: fed more of the hungry, tended more of the sick, as Jesus commends in the parable of the final judgement. And once again Jesus is our example, for sometimes even he would walk away. In the very first chapter of Saint Mark, they lay out the sick in the streets for him, but he has already gone into the hills alone to pray. They call him back, to attend to the sick, but he refuses, and presses on to the next town instead. Sometimes we have other responsibilities, sometimes we just need to be alone; our finite, failing Jesus is our example, our salvation, and our God.

Full text with footnotes here

Salinger died 27 January 2010 aged 91

More on the Salinger anniversary here


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