Meredith Lake, The Bible in Australia: A cultural history, updated edition

NewSouth Books, 2020, 518 pp. ISBN: 9781742237213, p/bk, AUS$32.99

Meredith Lake’s The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History is now available in a second edition. When I first reviewed Lake’s epic work in 2018, I suggested that ‘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’.

Well, two years later The Bible in Australia has taken out every major prize including the Nonfiction Award Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature (2020), NSW Premier’s History Award: Australian History Prize (2019), Prime Minister’s Australian History Prize (2019), Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Australia Book Prize (2019) and Australian Christian Book of the Year (2018).

I should, perhaps, have specified all the history prizes, but I stand by my prediction for literary awards. Lake’s writing is beautiful. Indeed, this is an extraordinary history – of rigorous research and elegant expression – that is vital for all Australians in its offering of crucial context for so much of what we take for granted.

This new edition, with a delightful new cover, includes a summary of some of what has happened since the work first appeared in print. In particular, how ‘potent new images have clustered around the Bible. … It turns out that even a historian of religion can underestimate the Bible as a text in motion in contemporary society’ (p.x). For example, when Lake took out the Prime Minister’s Australian History Prize last year, there was a great deal of very generous support for the author on a well-deserved win. There was, too, a rush of awful comments on social media platforms that conflated the book with what Lake describes as ‘very palpable anxieties’ (p.xvi). Some of the negative commentary, which is reproduced in the preface, is difficult to read even years later. It does, however, emphasise the point of the book: that there is enormous value, for believers and non-believers, in understanding the role of the Bible in a complex, but shared, history.

If you have not already done so, clear a little space on your bookshelves for The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History.


Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, November 2020


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