Jewish (on his father’s side) author J. D. Salinger has just died at 91 years of age. For many decades he had been a recluse, the “hermit crab of American letters1,” according to TIME magazine, the “Garbo of letters2” in the New York Times obit. “Famous,” the Times continues, “for not wanting to be famous.”

What Salinger is even more famous for is, of course, his 1951coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye, which struck a chord with rebellious youth. Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist, was not not comfortable in this world. Nor were Salinger’s other characters, such as the Glass family. The Times article observed, “That the Glasses (and, by implication, their creator) were not at home in the world was the whole point, [journalist Janet] Malcolm wrote, and it said as much about the world as about the kind of people who failed to get along there.”

A statement released by Salinger’s literary agents reads in part, “Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it.”…

Jewish (on his father’s side) author J. D. Salinger has just died at 91 years of age. For many decades he had been a recluse, the “hermit crab of American letters1,” according to TIME magazine, the “Garbo of letters2” in the New York Times obit. “Famous,” the Times  continues, “for not wanting to be famous.”

What Salinger is even more famous for is, of course, his 1951coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye, which struck a chord with rebellious youth. Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist, was not comfortable in this world. Nor were Salinger’s other characters, such as the Glass family. The Times article observed, “That the Glasses (and, by implication, their creator) were not at home in the world was the whole point, [journalist Janet] Malcolm wrote, and it said as much about the world as about the kind of people who failed to get along there.”

A statement released by Salinger’s literary agents reads in part, “Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it.”

Readers may well ponder exactly what it means to be “in this world but not of it.” In one sense, that characterization probably fits most teenagers at some point, and it undoubtedly fits many adults as well. “Misfits,” “square pegs in round holes,” “Freaks in Love” according to an Elton John song—not very flattering labels, which is why when filtered through fiction like The Catcher in the Rye, the outcast suddenly becomes desirable and “cool” to many. “Misfits” are loners; fiction can bring us alongside someone like us so that we are no longer alone. Some may flaunt their Holden Caulfield-ness while others are hardly aware of it, like Thoreau’s mass of humanity that spend their lives in “quiet desperation.” Still others suppress it and live lives of pretense.

Curiously, there is a passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus prays to God the Father and says, “They”—referring to Jesus’ followers—“are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” Salinger, perhaps, was recalling this passage in his quote. And, perhaps, Jesus and those who followed and still follow him are in fact square pegs in the round hole of this life. When someone feels “out of place,” they can respond in several ways. There is the way of retreat and withdrawal. There is the way of attempting to celebrate it. But there is also a third way.

I don’t know if British author C. S. Lewis of Narnia fame ever read The Catcher in the Rye, but he had a lot to say about literature, both secular and sacred. He once said something to this effect: We get hungry, and there is food. It would be odd if we had such cravings with nothing to fulfill them. We get thirsty, and there is drink. We have other desires, with other things that answer to them. And, he noted, we have a desire for something that this world cannot supply; since the “Fall of Mankind” recounted in Genesis chapter 3, with the ensuing alienation of humanity from one another, from God, from ourselves, from the environment—since that time, we are all out of place here. Therefore, he said, and this was his main point, there must be something beyond this world that does meet these deep-seated cravings. This is the third way: to transcend this world to a place where we are no longer Holden Caulfields but become what we were always intended to be, which comes through faith in Jesus.

Salinger handled being not of this world by retreating into a shell. Others reached out to God, found Jesus, and were liberated for another world, “a place prepared for them.”

Have you ever felt “not of this world”? Leave a comment at this article to tell us about it.

End Notes:

  1. “hermit crab of American letters,” according to TIME magazine
  2. “Garbo of letters” in the New York Times obit