NewSouth Publishers, 439 pp. ISBN: 9781742235714, p/bk, AUS$39.99
Meredith Lake’s latest book, The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History (2018), is extraordinary.
Lake’s authority as an historian, her skills as a writer and her subject matter expertise are all on full display in this work which tracks the impact of the Bible in Australia from the arrival of the First Fleet through to the present day.
The book’s opening paragraphs assure readers that the “Bible’s changing place in Australian culture, over the few hundred years since it was first hauled across the water and on to a Sydney beach, offers a rich and surprising history” (p. 2) and “invites us to reconsider some competing myths. One is that Australia, since the convicts, has been a doggedly secular society and culture. Another is that Australia is (or was, or should be) a straightforwardly Christian nation” (p. 3). This invitation is immediately compelling and Lake holds tightly to her enormous task to demonstrate how the Bible serves “as a source of inspiration, power and practical wisdom”, until the last page of her book (p. 369).
The undertaking of compressing such a vast, complex and contested history into a single volume has been deftly handled by Lake who has produced a clear and elegant story in four parts: Colonial Foundations; The Great Age of the Bible; Bible and Nation; and A Secular Australia? Each part is, in turn, divided into chapters which feature vignettes that examine an event or theme. I would suggest reading the book from cover to cover but it is possible to read sections randomly and out of order. An excellent index enables this second approach while a very good select bibliography and endnotes allow for the easy follow up of points of special interest.
No history is ever complete, yet this work is immensely satisfying. Lake includes all of the major debates surrounding this sacred text in Australia, as well as personal stories and events of national pride and terrible shame. From the logical arguments through to impassioned pleas made about the Bible over centuries, Lake shows how this “library of composite texts” (p. 5) has influenced, and continues to influence, the lives of all Australians in more ways than we might imagine. The voices of many of these Australians — the early Indigenous evangelists, women demanding their suffrage, unionists fighting for equality, parliamentarians sorting out the separation of church and state together with the devout, the cynical and the ambivalent, the authentic preachers and the charlatans — are all able to be heard within this book. There is much here that we might readily endorse and much that might horrify us but we have in our grip a tool that facilitates our understanding of why some events unfolded (or were allowed to unfold) in the way they did.
One of the many wonderful surprises in this book are the anecdotes, between the stories of encouragement and progress and the damning critiques of mistakes made, that are very funny. It is difficult not to laugh when reading of the fierce rivalry between Melbourne’s major daily papers, of the 1860s, the Age and the Argus. The arrival of news from abroad would routinely “send colonial journalists into a spin” (p. 147). But the men of the Argus had a plan. A correspondent would take a whale boat out to meet the steamer, bringing stories from Britain, before it entered Port Phillip Bay and once “back at the pier, a waiting buggy would drive him at break-neck speed to the nearby telegraph station so he could transmit the main points back to Melbourne” (p. 148). As there was only one telegraph wire available at the time, to thwart any similar plans by the Age, the savvy journalist would give the telegraph operator a copy of the Bible before heading out to meet the clipper to tie up the line: once those in the office of the Argus started receiving the Word of God they were on standby for word from Europe (p. 148). So, as some argued that the Bible was central to the building of a civil society, for others it was just a neat device in maintaining a commercial advantage over a competitor.
In the hands of a lesser scholar, this book could have been completely botched. Biases revealed, gaps glaring, mistakes made. Lake has, however, delivered a work of such scale and quality that it will sit easily alongside the compelling works of researchers who have taken on equally ambitious projects such as Andrew Pettegree’s, on the worship of information, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (2014) and Frank Trentmann’s, on the worship of stuff, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-first (2016).
“From the outset, the Bible was associated with the colonising projects of transporting convicts, appropriating Aboriginal land, and forming settler societies” (p. 7). The Bible continues to be associated with much of what we have done and what we do. Complete with its baggage and its potential, for Christians and non-Christians, this Book of Books is an undeniable part of our history and is set to be part of our future. Even if we are not interested in examining the Bible we should be interested in examining its impact.
The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History will surely dominate the short lists of every major literary award over the coming months and will certainly come to be regarded as one of the most important Australian history books of the year.
Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, April 2018
Available from all the best bookstores and the NewSouth Books website.