Lewis Lapham on religion

Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s magazine and current editor of his eponymous publication Lapham’s Quarterly, is – without a doubt – one of the greatest prose stylists today. (Another writer who immediately comes to mind is Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart.) I linger on his sentences, marveling at the craft and content. Each issue of Lapham’s Quarterly adopts and explores a single theme. For a taste of Lapham’s writing, consider the amusing, albeit irreverent, beginning of his essay, “Mandates of Heaven,” in the Winter 2010 issue dedicated to “Religion”:

This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly doesn’t trade in divine revelation, engage in theological dispute, or doubt the existence of God. What is of interest are the ways in which religious belief gives birth to historical event, makes law and prayer and politics, accounts for the death of an army or the life of a saint. Questions about the nature or substance of deity, whether it divides into three parts or seven, speaks Latin to the Romans, in tongues when traveling in Kentucky, I’ve learned over the last sixty-odd years to leave to sources more reliably informed. My grasp of metaphysics is as imperfect as my knowledge of Aramaic. I came to my early acquaintance with the Bible in company with my first readings of Grimm’s Fairy Talesand 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.

With further humor, Lapham recounts his days as a student at Yale University in the 1950s. There is not a frivolous or casual sentence here.

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.

I brought the same qualities into the apostate lecture halls where it was announced that God was dead. The time and cause of death were variously given in sophomore and senior surveys of western civilization—disemboweled by Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence, assassinated in eighteenth-century Paris by agents of the French Enlightenment, lost at sea in 1835 while on a voyage with Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, garroted by Friedrich Nietzsche on a Swiss Alp in the autumn of 1882, disappeared into the nuclear cloud ascending from Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The assisting coroners attached to one or another of the history faculties submitted densely footnoted autopsy reports, but none of the lab work brought forth a thumbprint of the deceased.

The well-chosen verbs describing the various causes of God’s death create a staccato rhythm, while unfolding the secular narrative of the Westall in a single sentence. That’s brilliant! In the passage below, Lapham provides evidence for his claim, “The history of [Christian] belief had been indelibly sequenced into the strands of my metaphysical DNA, dictating my turns of mind and choices of word, superintending my sense of right and wrong, accounting for my fears of women and the stock market.”

The whole fabric of the American creation is woven with threads of Christian thought. The language and sanction of the Bible informs the texts of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The law of the land rests on the premise that crimes are sins, acts of a disobedient free will unbeholden to the early toilet training of the Ten Commandments. The inscription on the Liberty Bell borrows from Leviticus 25 the instruction given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”—all the inhabitants understood to be limited (in Philadelphia in 1776 as in Sinai in the thirteenth century BC) to those whom God had chosen as his own—no Negroes or Moabites among them. The country’s codes of moral and social conduct presuppose no known connection between the birdsong of the spirit and the dungheap of the flesh. Any citizen who stands for public office is first expected to pledge allegiance to the Lord of hosts in whom the country trusts to back its currency. Cures for the soul prescribe salutary doses of suffering and guilt. The dominant trait in the national character is the longing for transcendence and the belief in what isn’t there—the promise of the sweet hereafter that sells subprime mortgages in Florida and corporate skyboxes in heaven.

Mediocre or poor writers are always vague, never specific enough. Lapham has a talent for selecting particular details of history that illustrate the big picture (e.g., the inscription on the Liberty Bell). Notice, too, how he wears his learning lightly and resists academic obfuscation, crafting lovely phrases like “the birdsong of the spirit and the dungheap of the flesh.” Above all else, Lapham succeeds in practicing the greatest lesson I took with me from journalism school: images should drive ideas.


One thought on “Lewis Lapham on religion

  1. Great post. Images should drive ideas – like Conrad’s “make them see.” Here’s a question. When dealing in theological of philosophical abstraction, do YOU provide the image, or is it sometimes appropriate to leave the idea unillustrated and let the reader create his or her own mental images?

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