Does the Bible Have a Place in Australian Culture?

Does the Bible have a place in Australian culture? ADM Senior Research Fellow Dr Meredith Lake gives us a taste of this conversation before she speaks at a sold-out panel discussion at the Sydney Writer’s Festival later this month.

ADM Senior Research Fellow, Dr Meredith Lake

ADM Senior Research Fellow, Dr Meredith Lake

Can you tell us more about the session you are involved in at the Sydney Writer’s Festival?
Well, the session is called ‘The Good Book? The Bible and Australian culture today’. It brings together a poet, a political biographer and an historian to have a think out loud about the Bible and its relationship to contemporary life, society, arts and culture. The Bible is obviously subject to quite a bit of public interrogation at the moment, especially in relation to politics and ethics. What, if anything, does it still have to offer, as society debates everything from SRE to multiculturalism and climate change? 

Why do you think it’s important that these conversations are carried out in the public sphere?
The novelist Patrick White once said, “I believe most people have a religious faith but are afraid that by admitting it, they will forfeit their right to be considered intellectuals.” I’m not sure if most Australians today still do have faith in a religious sense – the results of the recent census will be revealing. But, on a basic level, I hope our panel will demonstrate that there is something big to think about here. Being interested in the Bible, its interpretation and all its complex interactions with society, is not an intellectual cop-out or a hobby for the narrow-minded. It’s deep, engaging, challenging and important, whatever faith or non-faith a person might bring to it. 

Beyond that, these kinds of conversations seem pretty urgent at the moment. Our society is facing a whole range of challenges, from issues of social inclusion, to economic justice, to the sustainability of our interaction with the environment. At the same time, it seems hopelessly divided. The public discussion of Christianity doesn’t always help, either. Too often it’s just another front in the contemporary culture wars: stale, predictable, and polarised. But if we can find ways to cut across all that, and to bring the richness and wisdom of the Christian tradition to a genuinely gracious and respectful conversation about the common good, I think that it will help Australians rise to the challenges of the times.  

Your ADM fellowship project involves telling true stories about the impact of the Bible in Australia in the form of a full-length book, due to be published by UNSW Press next Easter. How is your work on the book going?
If I was a rock climber, you could say I’m 90 per cent up the cliff face now. The last 10 per cent is an overhang, jutting out over my head. I need to scramble along it quickly, upside down, then reach over the lip and haul myself to the finish line! I should have the full draft done by the end of June – all 100,000 words. I’m really looking forward to that moment, but I expect a bit of pain in the meantime!

Could you give a brief outline of the themes in your book?
In a sentence, my book is about the surprising story of the Bible in Australia, from convict days to Federation, to the Mabo land rights campaign. There are a lot of twists and turns. Because the Bible arrived with European colonists during the height of the Enlightenment, it has been contested from the outset. I would say that in itself, that contest has been a dynamic influence in shaping Australian society and culture. In researching the book, I’ve been especially interested in groups beyond the clergy, and even beyond regular churchgoers. I tell some of their stories too, of course – especially in areas where they’ve made a lasting imprint on wider society, such as charity and education. But there are also great stories about convicts who sported biblical tattoos, Indigenous Australians who read the Bible to challenge their dispossession, and creative types who’ve made use of the Bible in songs, paintings and novels. It’s a much bigger story than the story of the Australian churches. It makes a case for the extensive and intricate influence of the Bible in numerous parts of our culture and society.