Holden Caulfield and the Idiot Disciples

It’s been a while since I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye. To be honest, of Salinger’s books, it’s on the bottom of the list. (What can I say–I’m in love with the Glass family.) But there’s something about Holden’s attitude toward religion that I’ve never forgotten.

J.D. Salinger and Theology

I’m aware that Salinger’s other books have “nods” toward theology, if not overtly so like in Catcher or maybe the Franny novella. I’m surprised I wasn’t as aware of this back in my obsessed-with-Salinger days. (Every night I slept curled up next to a copy of Nine Stories.) Now I’m curious about the theological, or at least the philosophical, voice(s) inspiring Salinger’s books.

But, until then, I want to spend a moment with Holden Caulfield, particularly in a section in chapter 14 of his narrative. Holden tells us:

Finally, though, I got undressed and got in bed. I felt like praying, or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. (p. 99)

I wish I would have re-discovered this book last semester in my Prayer class. I think that passage would find its way into a paper.

In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible.

Holden Caulfield and the Idiot Disciples

And this is where I really want to go with Holden’s analysis: to his view of the Bible, specifically of the Disciples of Jesus. I think Holden is giving a voice a lot of angsty Christian young adults with this passage, whether Salinger was aware of it at the time. He goes on:

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.

My New Testament instructor taught us that in each of the Gospels, the Disciples show varying degrees of “getting it.” In Luke and John, they seem to understand what Jesus is saying. But in Matthew, and most of all Mark, the Disciples are, in Dr. Rick Beaton’s words, “dumb as boards.”

So when you read through the Gospels, especially Mark, and if you have any ounce of irreverence in you, you can’t help but agree with Holden. The Disciples really don’t get it. They’re pretty useless. And it’s pretty surprising that Jesus spent all his energy with them.

My favorite example of the Disciples’ stupidity is in Mark 8, right after Jesus fed the 4,000. And I mean literally right after they fed the people, Jesus and the Twelve got on a boat, and this happened:

Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” (Mark 8:14-16, NRSV)

And the Disciples, filled with anything but wisdom, assumed that Jesus was making some obscure reference to the lack of bread in the boat. Not, “Hey, guys, I’m using this as an opportunity to teach you a lesson about life.” But rather, the Disciples yet again think that their present circumstances are all that matter. They have forgotten already: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink. … Is not life more than food …?”

Holden Caulfield and the Random Twelve

I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples. If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard.

Good God I love that–so, so funny. Holden goes on to talk about a guy at school, Arthur Childs, who he’d get in arguments with about this distaste for the Disciples.

[Childs] kept telling me if I didn’t like the Disciples, then I didn’t like Jesus and all. He said that because Jesus picked the Disciples, you were supposed to like them. I said I knew He picked them, but that He picked them at random. I said He didn’t have time to go around analyzing everybody.

I think Holden is giving us a chance to consider Jesus’ choosing of the Twelve. I read in Gerhard Lohfink’s book Jesus and Community that Jesus picked these Disciples to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Lohfink explains that the institution of the Twelve at this point (when there were only two and a half tribes still existing) was meant to symbolize “the complete restoration of the twelve-tribe people [which] was expected for the eschatological time of salvation” (p. 10). Jesus started this process of restoration when he named the Twelve as his disciples.

But Holden’s statement doesn’t make us question why twelve–but why these guys? Why “idiot” Disciples instead of the learned Pharisees? Why not choose a group of men who might actually get it, who wouldn’t forget about the loaves and fishes when Jesus says “the yeast of the Pharisees”?


I think books like Catcher in the Rye give us opportunities to ask questions of theology (or Scripture, particularly) that we might not otherwise think to ask. One thing I love about fiction is the chance it gives me to see life in another person’s perspective. I will never have a chance to grow up in the 1940’s like Holden. But by reading his narrative, I can experience a bit of that life. I can see things through his perspective and start to ask the same questions of God that Holden asks.

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

5 thoughts on “Holden Caulfield and the Idiot Disciples

  1. “Dumb as boards” and “that poor bastard” make me laugh, and also think.

    I wonder what it was like for Jesus to have chosen Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector, about as polar opposite on the political spectrum as possible. And I wonder what their campfire chat was like.

    It gives me great comfort to see that Jesus picked twelve boards through whom to rescue the entire planet. If that’s the case, there must be more to the secret sauce than just the wisdom of the messengers.

    1. I wonder what it was like for Jesus to have chosen Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector, about as polar opposite on the political spectrum as possible. And I wonder what their campfire chat was like.

      That reminds me of another thing my New Testament instructor brought to light–Peter denied Christ three times, and he still was the Rock on which the Church was built. Now I feel better about my own doubts and frustrations. :)

  2. I look forward to reading your reflections on Franny and Zooey! The glass family are eaily my favorite of Salinger’s creations. Coming back to his thoughts on the demon possessed man in the tombs after reading the rest of the book is interesting. I think his experience kind of mirrors the possessed man’s own experience into a modern day setting– creating a sort of uniting of culutral outcasts across the ages. Not to say that all cultural outcasts are demon-possessed, but i feel some of the greatest damage done to the demon possessed man and Holden are results of cultural exclusion.

    1. Awesome observation, Daniel! If you feel like you could write this blog post — please do! (Just email me!!) I haven’t read all of Catcher in years (of course, now I really need to). I’m sure there’s so much more you can learn about theology from it. :)

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