Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2010: Religion

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review, Religion]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[L.Q. cover, art, and banner all from L.Q. Winter 2010: Religion.]

To my surprise I enjoyed this issue, though I wouldn’t normally read about religion other than what I’m assaulted with daily from the Middle East (pun intended).

Mr. Lapham clarifies the theme in the first two sentences of his Preamble:

“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.” (p. 13)


I liked that the various extracts posed unanswered questions for me to think about, whether religious, irreligious, atheistic, or agnostic.

Oh, ‘they’ tell you to have FAITH.  All you have to do is trust.  I have faith in the present with appropriate attention to the past and future.  Blind faith, submission, or the great beyond will have to find another adherent.

Speaking of faith, lo and behold!  (Cue the Hallelujah chorus here.)  The three sections of the Religion issue’s Voices in Time are:

Declarations of Faith
Acts of Faith
Crises of Faith


As an aside the graphic this issue (preceding the Preamble) is by Doug Chayka.  Of note in his depiction of world religious sites is Mt. Tai, Shandong, China, with its South Gate to Heaven.  This and Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie are worthy items for those with room on their bucket list:

Lewis Lapham’s Preamble is titled Mandates Of Heaven.  (There you go.  Mandates from a higher power.  Do you not have a mind with which to think and reason?)

He always starts with a quote, this time from Daniel Boorstin.  He might have used one from a recent 2015 LQ Preamble:

“Say, it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me”

He mostly discusses the role of religion in America from the 1950s onward.  First there is the watering-down, “…what Warren Breckman names as “a master narrative” of mid-twentieth-century American social science, the one that reduces God from a power to an image and makes secularization “virtually synonymous with modernization.” (p. 14)

“Religion hadn’t lost its capacity to bestow, again according to Breckman, “the consoling message of cosmic meaning and personal redemption,”” “…but it had been relieved of its character as a public menace.” (p. 15)

Breckman has a lengthy essay near the end of the issue discussing the secular vs. the religious.  Religion will not be ignored.


Religion isn’t entirely a lost cause as “The license to dance to the music of the 1960s sexual revolution,…” “…didn’t negate the 1952 Supreme Court majority opinion that the Americans “are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”  (See Zorach v. Clauson here and here.)

Lapham is not without his digs at his favorite whipping boys, e.g. all things government and media:

““The hunger and thirst for righteousness” was notably absent from both the character and policy of the Nixon administration.” (p. 16)

With the American inability to stay singularly focused on its principles the tide turned yet again toward religion.  (Do we Americans suffer from a collective ADHD or are we merely True Believers ala Eric Hoffer?)

[After 9/11/2001] “Bush construed the American purpose as surrogate for the will of the Lord. “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to man.” “Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance … but by the hand of a just and faithful God.”” (p. 17)

[And] “…President Barack Obama, elected to the White House in his persona as a Messiah come not to govern the country but to redeem it.” (p. 17)

I get the impression Mr. Lapham is religious in the ‘five senses/here and now’ aspect:

“…I take it as a task of the twenty-first century to come forward with the fabrication of an image of the divine more closely allied with the strands in the double helix and the structure of the cell,…” (p. 18)

“…God is the greatest of man’s inventions, and we are an inventive people, shaping the tools that in turn shape us, and we have at hand the technology to tell a new story congruent with the picture of the earth as seen from space instead of the one drawn on the maps available to the prophets wandering the roads of the early Roman Empire.” (p. 18)

He concludes with likening the latest religious fervor to be “…in the secular disguise of environmentalism.”  Food for thought.


So as not to jump directly or deeply into religion I suppose, the first excerpt in Declarations of Faith is from the Atheist Manifesto by Michael Onfray.

“Is God dead or not?” … “God is neither dead nor dying, because he is not mortal.” … “The last god will expire with the last man.  And with him fear, terror, anguish–those devices designed to create divinities.” (Pp. 21 & 22)

Priceless.  To be fair and balanced next is Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount from which we get the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.

Philip Roth’s piece is good, as is that of Emile Zola, Flannery O’Connor, Walt Whitman,, even Karl Marx.

Mary McCartney’s sends the nuns into a tizzy because the young religious school girl has ‘lost her faith’.

James Baldwin is introspective:

“And if one despairs–as who has not?–of human love, God’s love alone is left.  But God–and I felt this even then, so long ago on that tremendous floor, unwillingly–is white.  And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?  Why?” (p. 175)


There are five extended essays in the Further Remarks section at the end.

Church And State in America by Elisabeth Sifton discusses the separation, or not, thereof.  I think she is biased a bit.  “…public discourse in America continues to be rancorous and trifling, despite President Obama’s contrary example.” (p. 187)  Really?!

The Courtesy Of God by Garret Keizer is eloquent.

“Except by the sea (but never far from a port), it is in urban centers where I feel God most powerfully, in the bustling secular that I glimpse heaven.  The New England countryside where I live is full of the majesty of creation, yes, but its spiritual life often feels too Druidical for my tastes; chthonic powers and wind whistling in the hollow trees, Wiccan high priestesses stuffing their turkeys with wacky tobacco.”  (p. 190)

“I know a novelist who tried for a while to write pseudonymously.  The stories were all that mattered, he said.  “People need an author,” his publisher finally told him.  If what we call the secular is the courtesy of God, religion is God’s concession to those of us who need an author.”  (p. 190)

The Original Sin by Francine Prose discusses the suffering and subjugation of women since Eve was the temptress with the apple.  Have we men feared the spawn of our rib since the beginning of time?  Hmm.

Secular Revival by Warren Breckman, discussed in the Preamble, talks about the to and fro of religion to secularism to religion again.

Finally in Freedom By Necessity by Terry Eagleton he discusses Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in the chapter The Grand Inquisitor:

“Man yearns for nothing more than to surrender his frightful liberty to some benign ruler, who will care for his bodily needs and relieve him of the spiritual suffering known as the will to choose.” (p. 218)  Priceless.


Side quotes are liberally distributed throughout the issue:

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” –Voltaire, 1764 (p. 14)

“The Church says that the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in the shadow than in the Church.” –Ferdinand Magellan, c. 1510 (p. 27)

“To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the need for thought.” –Henri Poincare’, 1903 (p. 29)

“The gods are on the side of the stronger.” –Tacitus, c. 109 (p. 92)

“God created man and, finding him not sufficiently alone, gave him a companion to make him feel his solitude more keenly.” –Paul Valery, c. 1942 (p. 202)


“A religious war is like killing someone over who has the better imaginary friend.” –Larry Beinhart, 2008 (p. 206)

“Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.” –Robert Frost, 1962 (p. 218)

I’m afraid my meager so-called ‘reviews’ of Lapham’s Quarterly can never do it justice. Each issue is only 221 pages including sidebars and beautiful artwork but I feel a good analysis of these fine extracts deserves half that much again.  I keep trimming my content but there is still too much chaff, not enough wheat.  Admittedly the company one keeps in this fine reading makes one want to expound, express, and wax pseudo-eloquent, but such is not to be.

This is a superb issue.  I recommend it.

Keep reading.  (This means YOU.)

[The by-now-standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered with very high quality paper throughout, richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, exactly 221 pages up to the Sources index at the back.
2. For more details see my previous-posts link or my Goodreads site for earlier reviews of the 25 issues I’ve read so far.  I have 5 archive issues remaining to have read them all once.]

P.S.  Don’t forget that the beautiful and newly formatted L.Q. website offers many portions of each issue for free.  (Free!  FREE!!  FREE!!!)  Those of you who want to ‘own knowledge’ might consider subscribing and buying back issues while they can still be obtained.

P.P.S.  If you read this entire piece leave an indication that you did so, whether you liked it or not.  Give it a ‘like’ or leave a comment to the contrary.  I’m curious as to how many really READ a post.  Thank you.


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