Lewis H. Lapham believes...a look at Lapham's Quarterly and its Religion issue
by Peter Menkin
This article is neither criticism nor answer, but report and commentary. In its way, the writer hopes to do a little bit of introduction about Lapham’s Quarterly, a most interesting and highbrow quarterly magazine. In its way, the writer hopes to do a little bit of introduction about the distinguished American editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, Lewis H. Lapham. Mostly, the work here is helpful in talking about what is a Christian, on this Easter Day, asking at the very beginning need one be a member of a Church, a Baptized individual, or even other than self-defined and contained as a culturally introduced member of the faith who is formed by need and self-definition: for that is our editor in question, the well-known Lewis H. Lapham who describes himself in his introductory essay to the issue on Religion, dated Winter 2010 of the magazine quarterly and labeled “Preamble.”
A catchy and short teaser on the website where this so well done and very excellent bit of writing and more so also memoire of intelligent thought, not to over-gild the description too much, goes:
“God, gods, and the people who love them populate our issue on religion—from ancient oracles to modern scientists still full of questions.”
Fortunately, for this writer, who remains full of wonder and questions on these matters of God, Christianity and Faith, my Easter judgment is that Lewis H.Lapham is really a Christian. Recently, in an attempt to engage Mr. Lapham by phone in the foundation office where he can sometimes be found these days, the very brief conversation ended with an answer to my request for some words about religion and even an interview, were given the serious reply, I’m not interested in Religion. Now, the capitalization of the word “religion,” is mine, but it was said in a way that belied any silliness regarding the subject, yet seemed a little odd since he’d dedicated an entire issue of his quarterly to the topics: Albert Einstein, de Tocqueville, The Law (Algeria, 1377), Flannery O’Connor Presents a Prophet, Let not the Demons dance, God Hides His Face (1942 Warsaw), Clad in Gold of Spotless White (1905, United States of America) and so many others, many of which are available on the web site of the quarterly here.
Let us agree, Mr. Lapham has made an American statement about Religion in his Preamble. I think you will agree. Let us agree, Mr. Lapham has made an American statement about his own sense of Christianity that introduces a kind of freedom from organized religion and Baptism itself that seems part of a new world hopefulness. Granted, most of us will think his self-ordained faith not connect so well to God’s methods since it is individual and without seeming community of fellow Christians.
But this writer who is Christian by most definitions, even by the kind of wish Mr. Lapham offers the faith, thinks the maker of this kind of idea which is ascribed to Mr. Lapham needs to be brought into the fold more closely for fellowship. Let us extend a hand to those who are not part of a Church, admit God works in strange ways, and that his ways are not our ways.
Let us be more than hopeful, let us not be some kind of Universalist, but let those of us who are a part of organized Christianity continue in the work of being a light to the world and to others in our world. Hence, let us in this article of commentary and report believe. Not to be glib about things, or let Mr. Lapham know we indulge his faith, but for the sake of our own souls and our own faith in Jesus Christ and our own Christian Church. That is really what makes what I read of this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly and even the goodness of its publication prevail.
Not to confuse the reader, the Preamble also has this title: Mandates of Heaven: by Lewis H. Lapham . A quote begins the essay and sets its tone: What preoccupies us, then, is not God as a fact of nature, but as a fabrication useful for a God-fearing society. God himself becomes not a power but an image. —Daniel J. Boorstin .
What interested me more about this 75 year old emeritus Editor of Harper’s magazine, the USA’s longest, continually published magazine of letters, is this Facebook quote: Tracy Herz Lewis Lapham has a place in my mind--perhaps even my heart--forever. What a legacy he has left with his work. What a true gentleman. But I continue to be curious about this: He studied under C.S. Lewis in the 1950s at Oxford. I would very much like to know more about this part of his life and his impressions.
The answer to Tracy Herz’s interesting question, is really what is Mr. Lapham’s work and this quotation helps set in ones mind a clear answer he gave to the subject: "I know of no task more difficult, but it is the joint venture entered into by writer and reader- the writer's labor turned to the wheel of the reader's imagination- that produces the freedoms of mind from which a society gathers its common stores of energy and hope."
I have left out something from the list of articles in the issue on Religion, and here it is in entirety…Resurrection, (1623, London):John Donne
Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery,
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,I joy, that in these straits I see my west;
For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Ham, or Shem.We think that paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”
Let us focus more on Mr. Lapham’s Preamble and his statement of Faith through Christianity. He explains, I came to my early acquaintance with the Bible in company with my first readings of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Bulfinch’s Mythology, but as an unbaptized child raised in a family unaffiliated with the teachings of a church, I missed the explanation as to why the stories about Moses and Jesus were to be taken as true while those about Apollo and Rumpelstiltskin were not.
In describing his college years at Yale, he writes that the classroom was mostly Apostate. But he does explain quite fully that its prime religious character was Christian. Let us entertain ourselves for a moment with a long, entertaining quote from his introduction to the quarterly about Religion:
Four years at Yale College in the 1950s rendered the question moot. It wasn’t that I’d missed the explanation; there was no explanation to miss, at least not one accessible by means other than the proverbial leap of faith. Then as now, the college was heavily invested in the proceeds of the Protestant Reformation, the testimony of God’s will being done present in the stonework of Harkness Tower and the cautionary ringing of its bells, as well as in the readings from scripture in Battell Chapel and the petitionings of Providence prior to the Harvard game. The college had been established in 1701 to bring a great light unto the gentiles in the Connecticut wilderness, the mission still extant 250 years later in the assigned study of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons and John Donne’s verse. Nowhere in the texts did I see anything other than words on paper—very beautiful words but not the living presence to which they alluded in rhyme royal and iambic pentameter. I attributed the failure to the weakness of my imagination and my poor performance at both the pole vault and the long jump.
In a few letters via email to Mr. Lapham at his Lapham’s Quarterly address, this writer tried to interest Mr. Lapham in answering a series of questions about Religion, with the kind of honesty that implied, here, you are not so interested in Religion for your personal life, but call youself Christian, anyway. So let me lead you a little, criticize you a little, and while provoking you with what are hoped to be probing and interesting questions to you, help our readers find out more about your own faith beliefs. This is a quote from one of those emails from me at my home in Mill Valley where I work to Mr. Lapham’s office in New York City, where I believe it is that city where he finds his home:
I was thinking today again about the illuminated nature of The Bible, and wondered two things: Is this the work of man inspired and directed by God, or is it the inspired work of man for mankind without the God element? Also, can great literature, wonderful writing itself, come to writers without some kind of divine inspiration to guide or aid it in its creation? Is there work that you consider so inspired as to be Divine with the capital D, or without? Will you tell us something of this kind of work with words that explains genius? Even Religious Genius, as Saint Paul is said to have held and evidenced in his work and his writing.
In your life as a man of letters, and a man who is an observer of the world’s practices, have you ever seen evidence or heard someone tell you that there is a greater force, a God, a higher power, working with human kind? I am sure having read some of your writing and listened to an interview or two on Religion you’ve given, you’ve had more than doubts alone. The question asks, did you enter into the Spirit, or did you have times and moments of Faith in Christ or interest in religion that went beyond the worldly? You said in one interview or article that you rarely went to Church, even as a child since your parents were not interested in Religion as a practice and what you did Observe in the Religious life was weddings and funerals. When it comes to weddings, can you see how the joining of man and woman in Christ is also like the Church’s bond of Faith in Christ, as Christ being the head of the Church? Was this evidenced in weddings to you, and if not this, what was evidenced in the Christian marriage ceremony?
So many times the promise of everlasting life is part of some Communion are also getting on in years think of when they think of death. It comes to all of us, do you not agree? What are your thoughts on death, and has end of life come to mind for you from time to time?
He did not respond to my questions, written prior to the writing of this piece by me, and also he did suggest I go another route, responding on February 4, 2011:
The 2010 winter issue of Lapham's Quarterly (Volume III, Number I) addresses the topic of Religion. You might want to look at it.
I couldn’t have been more delighted and later he said I could quote at length from time to time in this article from his Preamble:
So this is one choice, for it gives one a taste of the kind of cynicism a journalist, regardless of caliber, seems to employ for reasons that I think the attitude arrives in the journalist’s life as a result of so many disappointing and difficult evils of the world. I know this is certainly not Christian hope. He does not engage in Christian hope. He engages in a kind of worldliness which one would think the norm for the kind of work he does, but surprisingly, now turned on faith and matters related to Christ and I think even his Church as not matter of habit but by vision and perspective of the world, and heaven, too:
The fact of God’s life apparently as unverifiable as the proof of his death, I reached the conclusion suggested by the French philosopher Michel Onfray that “God is neither dead nor dying because he is not mortal”—the story about the blessed Virgin in the manger with the three Magi therefore made of the same cloud-capped stuff as the story about Goldilocks in the forest with the three bears. Onfray observes that “a fiction does not die, an illusion never passes away,” situating Yahweh, together with Ulysses, Allah, Lancelot of the Lake, and Gitche Manitou, among the immortals sustained on the life-support systems of poetry and the high approval ratings awarded to magicians pulling rabbits out of hats.
Haven’t we all learned a great deal from Doubting Thomas. There is much to offer in Mr. Lapham’s essay. That is, if one can get over shock, distaste, or even anger regarding his stance. This writer did, for knowing that this did not show a kind of hate, but evidence of an inquiring mind that the man who owned it did not consider atheist in main but Christian at heart. I almost asked on reading this section, What comes here now?
One theme of the writer and editor Lewis H. Lapham has been the public good. And so many Religion Writers today look on faith and matters of various Church and Church people as they play out the public good, implying and always looking for that hypocrisy which the press loves to pillory Religion and Clergy. Is not Roman Catholic acts of child molesting a wonderful story for the press in general, and an excellent example of the hypocritical way that Religion in our modern world fails and even harms the personal and public good. Let’s look at Mr. Lapham’s wonderful definition of Religion in our 21st Century serving the public good, if at all:
Religion hadn’t lost its capacity to bestow, again according to Breckman, “the consoling message of cosmic meaning and personal redemption,” to comfort countless numbers of its adherents afraid of death and acquainted with grief, to illuminate the masterpieces of Chartres Cathedral and the Mass in B Minor, to introduce Gerard Manley Hopkins to the power and glory of “chestnut-falls and finches’ wings,” to restore in Leo Tolstoy “the joy of being,” but it had been relieved of its character as a public menace. Henceforth religion was to be understood as a private good, available in cloaks of many colors; it no longer had anything to do with the day-to-day operations of a world subject to the laws of physics and the rule of reason.
At 75, our subject of this kind of commentary and report on Mr. Lapham’s Preamble to his Religion issue begins to turn to more of a memoire and even more a kind of dialogue with faith. We find again something about the man as writer in his style and approach, and we find again some illuminations of our modern 21st Century faith issues, even those of the 20th Century as Mr. Lapham gives us a kind of personable look in his reportorial manner of observations and a long life lived:
Not that I encountered, at least not in New York or Washington or Los Angeles, large numbers of people leading lives in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount. Poolside in Beverly Hills the name of the Lord seldom came up in conversation unless it was being taken in vain. “The hunger and thirst for righteousness” was notably absent from both the character and policy of the Nixon administration. Neither the poor nor the meek were inheriting estates in Westchester County. None of the Las Vegas hotels listed prompt medical attention as one of the finer amenities available to guests disposing of their right hands and plucking out their right eyes.
The wanderings away from the road to Damascus I took to be confirmations of the secular narrative bound up in the diploma from Yale, further proofs during the decade of the 1970s that although the Christian pieties remained securely in place on the pediment of the Supreme Court, on the table with the coffee at White House prayer breakfasts, acknowledged in absentia at Hollywood weddings, the spiritual infrastructure was beginning to show signs of disrepair—if not at the Iowa State Fair, certainly at the cineplex in downtown Des Moines. My travels seldom took me anywhere except to California or Europe, but if sometimes in an airport bar I ran across a third-generation Baptist, I avoided the embarrassment of a conversation about the Second Coming in much the same way that I’d learned to withhold comment when asked by an author for an opinion of his unintelligibly avant-garde off-Broadway play.
I still believe that there is a kind of viewpoint shown here that demonstrates a sense of disappointment, to say the least, about our world in the 20th Century, and even this the 21st. Is such Pessimism with its capital P necessary, and is it a characteristic of despair and a kind of brooding that also for years characterized Harper’s magazine from time to time under Mr.Lapham’s editorship. This writer enjoyed the magazine for many years, mostly because it is as so many have said a fine literary magazine. This writer was glad to be associated with Mr. Lapham in even a modest capacity and that magazine as a Contributing Editor so many years ago during a very dry and difficult period of in his own life. But there is a kind of freedom in being an Emeritus Editor and having your own creation again in retirement years, if these are Mr. Lapham’s retirement years. For Mr. Lapham is a kind of mystique unto himself, but more than mystique, he is real and it is his writing that shows the kind of genuiness that he hails and holds, despite the disappointment his work thematic develops in his own statement of being a Christian—in an essay of worldview that today we’d call an editor’s way of transparency of viewpoint:
More than one essay in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly regards the secularization of the old religious festivals as a fait accompli. The toxic levels of fear and superstition lowering the air quality in the news and entertainment media—in the nominally nondenominational sectors of cyberspace as well as those under ecclesiastical obligation—suggest otherwise. If large provinces of meaning have been lost to the mandate of the three wrathful monotheisms, so also the master narrative of mid-twentieth-century American social science has depleted its resources of relevance and romance.
As this article turns towards its ending, another quotation from Lapham’s Quarterly website, the proverbial “About Us.”
Each issue of Lapham’s Quarterly adopts and explores a single theme. Our first four issues were dedicated, respectively, to War, Money, Nature, and Education, each created with an aim to help readers find historical threads from Homer to Queen Elizabeth I to George Patton, from Aesop to Edith Wharton to Joan Didion. New essays from writers such as Stanley Fish, Fritz Stern, and Andrew Delbanco then knotted each theme together. A typical issue features an introductory Preamble from Editor Lewis H. Lapham; approximately 100 “Voices in Time” — that is, appropriately themed selections drawn from the annals and archives of the past — and newly commissioned commentary and criticism from today’s preeminent scholars and writers. Myriad photographs, paintings, charts, graphs, and maps round out each issue’s 224 pages... continue
As a kind of ending, and I say a “kind of ending” to this commentary and report, I note once again a magazine under Mr. Lapham’s hand is coming to a national recognition through award. Now nominated for an American National Magazine award: We could not be more pleased to announce that Lapham's Quarterly has been nominated for its first ever National Magazine Award for our 2010 issues "Religion," "Arts & Letters," and "The City."
LQ is nominated alongside The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry, and The Sun in the category "literary, political, and professional magazines." For the complete listing of finalists, and an extended list of those nominated, click here.
This writer is disappointed Mr. Lapham would not be interviewed for this commentary and report. Here is the last question on a list of questions not replied to and turned down by the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly because Religion does not interest him:
If we can do a two part interview, I’ll go to half hour sessions of about 5 or 6 questions each. I know you like to write long, and suspect you have a lot to say on the subject. Lewis Lapham talks about God, Man and Faith. Also, is there an afterlife. I want to know about heaven, too, for after all mortality is a theme of yours and at your age, like mine, too, it is inevitable to have…that life ends in death.
I’ll try not to nail you with, Is there a Cross, and is that Cross found in the individual lives of men? Can faith be driven by cynicism, and where springs faith if not in belief of Christ? What is the most attractive thing about Church and the worship service when attending Communion? Some thoughts and starting points for thinking about an interview were addressed in this email letter.
This article originally appeared Easter 2011, Church of England Newspaper, London.