The Bible in Australia: A cultural history by Meredith Lake

The Bible in Australia: A cultural history concludes, “And while the church’s own record has been very mixed, and at times patently destructive, the Bible, variously interpreted, continues to appear in startling ways – as a source of inspiration, power and practical wisdom.”

If you are looking for a great read and you enjoy history you should read The Bible in Australia: A cultural history, by Meredith Lake (NewSouth Publishing). It is a history of Australia using the Bible as the thread to interpret and view the good, bad and ugly parts of our nation. It is well crafted, albeit densely written – 7% of the book is composed of references and annotations.

The Bible in Australia has recently won prestigious awards – the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the NSW Premier’s History Awards in 2019 and the 2020 Adelaide Festival for Literature Nonfiction Award.

A few historical highlights/ lowlights:

    * retelling of coloniser atrocities against Aboriginal people, as well as the saving power of how translation of the Bible into Indigenous languages has helped preserve some language and culture

    * retelling of Jesus’ story and the powerful impact that his words and actions have on both Christian and non-Christian people, particularly on artistic people

    * the rise and fall of institutional Christianity with the message that powerful positive change is still alive, and consideration of what role Australian people might play in this

    * the numerous examples of “ordinary heroes” in the book

Questions for Meredith:

What surprised you about the Bible in Australia’s history?

Many things! Did you know that some convicts arrived in Australia with biblical tattoos? Or that in the 1890s depression, the Bible was assumed reading for socialists? Or that the first full bible in an Indigenous Australian language wasn’t published until 2007? I learned so much, researching this book – including that the story of the Bible here is much, much bigger than the story of the church.

 You refer to a number of “everyday heroes”. Who are some of your favourites?

‘Everyday heroes’ isn’t my phrase, but it’s true that the Bible has been encountered and interpreted by all kinds of people in Australian history. Some are well known – like prime minister Alfred Deakin, bootmaker R M Williams, novelist Tim Winton. But my book also tells the stories of people like Burramuttagal woman Boorong, probably the first Indigenous Australian to have a substantial encounter with the Bible; Chu A Luk, a Chinese evangelist on the goldfields; and Bessie Lee, who campaigned for votes for women. And many, many others!

What would be your suggestion to keep the Bible alive as a “source of inspiration, power and practical wisdom”?

Well, so far Australians have found the Bible inspiring in all kinds of ways – as a text to argue with, a text to dwell on, and, for some, a text to bend their lives to. I can’t guess what the future of the Bible in Australia will be, especially as the landscape of faith continues to shift and change. But I think it will be influenced by more than religion. How do people now spend their free time? What does the digital revolution mean for the way we read? Everything from secularisation to the rise of Pentecostalism to changing technology will affect how people encounter the Bible – and what they do with the Bible in society.

Review and interview questions by Craig Lawn

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