Sydney: NewSouth Books, 2018

Meredith Lake has produced an intriguing and wonderfully-written work on a most significant subject. Her thesis is that the Bible is under Australian skin – quite literally in that many of the original convicts had religious tattoos. More startling was the fact that a Prayer Book was found preserved in a shark caught off the penal settlement of Norfolk Island in 1792. This work abounds with similar such captivating stories.

The description of missionary encounters with indigenous Australians is fascinating. Translation work laboured under extreme difficulties, not the least being that there were about 250 local languages spoken across Australia in 1788. Whatever their naivety and their paternalism, the Christians were without a doubt the greatest defenders of the first Australians.

The story is traced through into the modern era, and is a mine of information. Federation  in 1901 was almost a religious event, and as late as 1960 Robert Menzies, as the Prime Minister opened Bible House in Canberra with the claim that the Bible was the text that defined the Australian people. Meredith sees the 1950s and ’60s as the turning point, but the nation shifted because the Church had already shifted.  

This leads to the main weakness in the work. There are rather too many open-ended comments, such as ‘the Bible is a fluid thing, ever-changing.’ Then there is the claim that Christianity is ‘internally diverse, in its interpretation and theology’. The nineteenth century was known as ‘the great age of the Bible’, but increasingly it became the age when the Bible’s authority was undermined. The cultural Bible cannot be maintained when the theological Bible is discarded. Strangely enough, Meredith says of the churches involved in the National Church Life Survey, that, with regard to the Bible, that ‘virtually all accept it as God’s word.’ Rather obviously, that was not so, and so while the Bible is still proclaimed in some circles, in many other faith communities, it is explained away.

The Bible in Australia

A Cultural History

Meredith Lake | NewSouth Books

Available at Reformers Bookshop