Book Review: The Bible in Australia: a cultural history

[See my review below this background information]

By Meredith Lake, ABC RN Soul Search presenter and academic.

Meredith Lake collected the Australian History prize for her book The Bible in Australia in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards last month. Lake said when public debate about the national history curriculum was in full swing she decided to write the book as an antidote to the so-called culture wars. She said the phrase “Bible basher” had been coined in Australia and her research revealed Australians still held passionate and varied opinions about the Bible.

“[There exists] the idea of Australia as a somehow Christian nation adrift from its Judeo-Christian moorings, a nation whose freedoms may be somehow under threat. On the other hand, the idea of a Godless or secular nation in which religious belief has been at best weird and is best now put behind us [also prevails],” she said.

Woman with short brown hair stands at podium indoors speaking.

The ceremony at Parliament House was hosted by ABC presenter Annabel Crabb. The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards were launched in 2008 by then prime minister Kevin Rudd as the nation’s richest literary prize for fiction and non-fiction.

They no longer claim the “richest” title after the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award was raised to $150,000 but they do offer the largest prize pool, with $600,000 distributed in six categories. Winners receive $80,000 and finalists receive $5,000 each, all tax free.

Full list of awards

Australian History:
Meredith Lake for The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History (NewSouth Books)

Fiction:
Gail Jones for The Death of Noah Glass (Text Publishing)

Young Adult Fiction:
Michael Gerard Bauer for The Things That Will Not Stand (Scholastic Australia)

Children’s Literature:
Emily Rodda for His Name Was Walter (HarperCollins Australia)

Poetry:
Judith Beveridge for Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo Publishing)

Non-Fiction:
Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni for Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964 (Monash University Publishing)

Review

This is a big sweep of the history of Australia and the influence of the Bible on that history and the developing and changing culture experienced by European settlers, indigenous residents, missionaries and in more recent times the new citizens from all parts of the world. The Bible was a staple text of colonial Australian life.

But the influence of the Bible on Australian culture goes back hundreds of years before European settlement and this is a fascinating piece of research that includes St Augustine and Portuguese and Dutch traders. By the time of Cook the Bible had been available in English for 250 years and was ubiquitous. It circulated widely as a whole volume or separate books and was in the hands of settlers and convicts and slowly also the indigenous inhabitants. But it was not a smooth pathway of acceptance. It was a contested document right from the start of European settlement, with settlers, convicts and aborigines. Yet it was clearly locked into popular culture and the basis for many decisions, laws and practices. In a European imperial guise it was wrapped in colonial thought and culture. For indigenous it was a new mind set, one that challenged much of their world view. The ‘civilizing’ view of missionaries played out in many different and conflicting ways. They made reading, hearing and learning from the scriptures a part of the rhythm of mission life.

At the same time it became a focus for challenging the encroachment of colonial thought on the original inhabitants. Many efforts to include a rewriting of the Bible in local languages were the subject of enormous battles within the churches and amongst aboriginal communities. But for colonial governments the role of missionaries was to ‘civilize’ and make the aborigines compliant to the new overlords. One great challenge in translations was to agree on a name for God and in several cases ‘boss’ was the substitute.

The legal notion of terra nullius was a crucial cultural product of the bibles European history. people who knew the Bible, believed it, were among those who harmed aboriginal people or profited from frontier violence. There were humanitarians making some noise about the treatment of aborigines but they stopped short of saying colonialism should end.

Lake does a great job of covering the whole territory that includes how the ‘word’ was spread, the growth of publishing houses, the massive influence of the Bible Society, frontier work in a huge country, the way a devotional attachment to the Bible was seen as a means to a good society, the Bibles influence upon the development of banks, schools, hospitals and much more. But it never produced an agreed model for a good society.

Inevitably the text was re-examined as new scholarship in the form of scientific knowledge made its impact on the developing nation, as it did elsewhere. By the late 19th century many works began to appear critiquing the Bible and by 1869 Jesus was being credibly portrayed as a man rather than a God by none less the evangelical Chief Justice of South Australia. New ideas flourished and spread, but only for a couple of decades. By the 1920s 96% of the population was identifying as Christian and dissent was minimal. Once again new views evolved with the development of critical thinking groups, feminist critics and gradually the Bible became one of many books that informed ethical and good practice. At the same time temperance and moral reform movements were influential until mid-20th century.

From the moment the first Australian parliament met, scripture and prayer were locked into politics. The constitution ‘humbly relied on the mercy of God’. The White Australia was indirectly influenced by interpretations of scripture. religion pervaded political parties and influenced policies. Two world wars had a great influence on future perspectives where faiths were shaken. Nevertheless the commemoration ceremonies captured the scriptures as integral to ceremonies for generations. The country continues to erect ‘religious’ memorials with biblical quotes. ANZAC day has become the new religion for Australians.

So much more could be told here, but that would spoil it for the reader.

At 439 pages this is a big read, but an easy one, full of interesting characters and anecdotes from our history. This is a book that all seekers after the truth about our Australian biblical heritage will find fascinating and enjoyable.

Paul Inglis, November 2019

oOo

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