The Bible in Australia – a new book by 2017 ADM Senior Research Fellow Dr Meredith Lake – is fast becoming an iconic reference point in the Australian cultural landscape – not only among the church but in far wider circles. Meredith shares about the experience of launching her book and the public conversations it is opening up …
It is a rare delight, even for writers, to see a finished book launched into the world. I recently had that joy at Gleebooks, near Sydney University. With lights down and microphones up, the ABC’s Andrew West and I discussed the surprising story of the Bible in Australia – from convict days, to feminist movements, to Indigenous land-rights campaigns. A crowd of friends, colleagues and strangers added their questions to the conversation: What does multiculturalism mean for the fabric of Christianity in Australia? Is there such a thing as ‘Australian values’ and how has the Bible influenced their shape? Where is the Bible being misused in our culture today? It was thrilling and terrifying to have to answer on the spot. The launch felt like an exam crossed with a huge celebration!
My book took more than three years to write. In the final 12 months, an ADM Senior Research Fellowship provided the space, community and resources to finally bring its vast cast of characters to light – from tattooed convicts to trades unionists; wowsers to writers. It’s a great relief to be finished it. But as 2017 Visiting Fellow Alissa Wilkinson liked to point out, you should only write books on themes you’re prepared to keep talking about. The publication of The Bible in Australia marked the end of my fellowship project, but the beginning of my venture into public conversation.
Already, the release of the book has prompted fresh discussion about the Bible in Australia. It has been reviewed in several places, from Christian blogs, to the Dictionary of Sydney, to the prestigious Australian Book Review. In the Weekend Australian review, Roy Williams highlighted some of the specific Bible passages that Australians have used in influential ways. Proverbs 14:34 – ‘Righteousness exalteth a nation’ – was a favourite of Christian moral reformers. Acts 17:26 – ‘[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth’ – has been a crucial verse for Indigenous Christians claiming equality and justice.
Because of the book, I’ve also had several opportunities to speak on radio, including ABC Sydney and Adelaide, Radio National, 2ser, Hope 103.2 and Vision 20Twenty. I’ve been able to record a podcast with CPX and make a short video with Eternity News. A piece I wrote for The Conversation about why declining biblical literacy might matter today had more than 7,700 readers, at last count, and provoked a tsunami of more than 500 comments!.
‘Going public’ on this scale has been a new experience. It has required rather different skills to researching and writing a book of history. As such, I’m especially thankful for the personal and professional development which ADM fostered.
The 2016 Visiting Fellow, Elizabeth Oldfield, gave great advice on how to win the trust of different audiences, and build positive relationships with editors and producers. Kara Martin’s project design course has helped me keep sight of the bigger picture and bolstered my spiritual resources for a more intense kind of public activity.
Other wonderfully generous people I’ve met through ADM have helped to amplify the Bible’s surprising story in this country. I encountered Scott Stephens, Editor of the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website, at an Engage event last year and attended his mentoring dinner during ADM’s School of Theology, Culture & Public Engagement (STCPE) in January. Partly as a result, he published a book extract as 'Under our Skin'. Scott and I are also planning a public discussion on The Bible in Australia at Avid Reader in Brisbane on 27 July. While in Queensland, I’ll also be giving a public lecture on ‘Grappling with the Good Book’, hosted by the Anglican Church of Noosa. The driving force behind that event is one of ADM’s Summer Fellows, Jo Kadlecek, whom I also met at STCPE.
It is impossible to know where the public conversation about the Bible in Australia will lead in the next few years. But I hope my book will cause readers to reconsider the relevance of the Bible and the ways it’s been used here. I hope it will help equip the community, in all its diversity, to envision the common good and how to work towards it together.