“God Is My Hobby” Or, Salinger, Osteen, and Bonhoeffer Walk Into a Bar

osteenMy Franny and Zooey gleanings have been numerous. One fantastic paragraph comes in the middle of a conversation between Zooey and his mother Mrs. Glass with regards to his younger sister Franny. Mrs. Glass is worried over the apparent spiritual meltdown Franny’s having consisting of mumbling, crying, and losing appetite and sleep. After much badgering and antagonism, Zooey sets himself to enlighten his mother as to the problem with his sister and it’s connection to a little book she’s been carrying around with her. It’s a little book about the Jesus Prayer and the contemplative spiritual practice surrounding it, involving repeating the prayer “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me” over and over until it becomes a part of your heart, your breath, your very being.

The brilliant part comes in Zooey’s final response in this exchange:

Mrs. Glass took a deep drag on her cigarette, watching him, then crossed her legs
and asked, demanded, “Is that what Franny’s supposed to be doing? I mean is that what
she’s doing and all?”

“So I gather. Don’t ask me, ask her.”

There was a short pause, and a dubious one. Then Mrs. Glass abruptly and rather
pluckily asked, “How long do you have to do it?”

Zooey’s face lit up with pleasure. He turned to her. “How long?” he said. “Oh, not
long. Till the painters want to get in your room. Then a procession of saints and
bodhisattvas march in, carrying bowls of chicken broth. The Hall Johnson Choir starts up
in the background, and the cameras move in on a nice old gentleman in a loincloth
standing against a background of mountains and blue skies and white clouds, and a look
of peace comes over everybody’s—”

“All right, just stop that,” Mrs. Glass said.

“Well, Jesus. I’m only trying to help. Mercy. I don’t want you to go away with the impression that there’re any—you know—any incon-veniences involved in the religious life. I mean a lot of people don’t take it up just because they think it’s going to involve a certain amount of nasty application and perseverance—you know what I mean.” It was clear that the speaker, with patent relish, was now reaching the high point of his address. He wagged his orange stick solemnly at his mother. “As soon as we get out of the chapel here, I hope you’ll accept from me a little volume I’ve always admired. I believe it touches on some of the fine points we’ve discussed this morning. ‘God Is My Hobby.’ By Dr. Homer Vincent Claude Pierson, Jr. In this little book, I think you’ll find, Dr. Pierson tells us very clearly how when he was twenty-one years of age he started putting aside a little time each day—two minutes in the morning and two minutes at night, if I remember correctly—and at the end of the first year, just by these little informal visits with God, he increased his annual income seventy-four per cent. I believe I have an extra copy, and if you’ll be good enough—”

In the context of the broader story there’s much more going on. Still, in one paragraph, Zooey Glass’ amusingly damning little conceit about “God Is My Hobby” gets you a far better snapshot portrait of so much wrong with contemporary, American religion than any lengthy jeremiad about the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism of the Gospel of Osteenism. Here you have it in nuce: the self-satisfied, oh-so-comfortable, non-transformative commercialism of it all. And this was written in 1955, pre-TBN in all of its gold-throne glory.

I am not sure I have “gospel” application here. I wish I could even say “See, even thoughtful unbelievers see through this, so who do you think you’re fooling? Who are you drawing in by lowering the asking price on the gospel for cut-rate prices?” Because while it’s true that thoughtful  non-believers will see through it, that’s not the problem here, now is it?

I suppose it’s another excuse to exhort preachers once again to heed the words of Bonhoeffer on cheap and costly grace.

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I suppose what I’m saying is that if Osteen, Bonhoeffer walked into a bar, I know which one would have Zooey’s, or rather, Salinger’s attention.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 thoughts on ““God Is My Hobby” Or, Salinger, Osteen, and Bonhoeffer Walk Into a Bar

  1. I’ll make another reccommendation for something that might not already be on your list: John Updike’s “Rabbit” series.

    It was written in a unique way – four novels and a novella, each written a decade after the last and the characters aging a decade with each. You see American society change from the late 50s to the turn of the millennium and the characters change with it, or in some cases they don’t change. I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it. One caveat though: if weird and graphic (though not pornographic) sex is a dealbreaker, you might not enjoy it.

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