Meredith Lake’s big story of the big book

Although she does not tell this specific story, it is the kind of scenario that Lake elucidates in her superb account of the impact of the Bible on Australia as well as, to a lesser extent, the impact of Australia on the Bible.

The Bible in Australia is an endlessly fascinating book, told with a rich understanding of the strange ways of the human family. Lake brings a generosity of both mind and spirit to this vast story.

She skilfully avoids becoming the prisoner of those who are themselves imprisoned by the Bible. The Bible can be used to create two kinds of jails. One is the sort of gormless fundamentalism that substitutes the book for God, such that the Bible is used to justify all sorts of anger, control and authoritarianism. The second jail is the one that disparages the Bible as a load of claptrap with very little basis in fact.

These groups have more in common than they would care to admit; they are both closed to the exquisite subtlety of a book that evolved over centuries as humans have attempted to describe what is beyond words. Neither of them is open to developing the skill required to understand this shifting and beguiling text. They both want to reduce it to a strange little artefact that you can keep in your pocket.

Happily, Lake has the openness and broad-ranging sympathy that her task requires. She is able to see many sides of the same issue. This is especially true of her thorough and searching exploration of the role of the Bible in Indigenous Australia. The Bible came with the first fleet. Actually, it was here before that. Lake implies a delightful comparison between the copy of the Bible James Cook brought with him on the Endeavour and the Endeavour Journal he took home. Improbable stories were moving in two directions.

But when Richard Johnson, the youngish minister on the first fleet, arrived in 1788, he brought with him 100 full Bibles, 400 New Testaments and various other publications. Needless to say, this curious cargo was part of the impact of Europe on Indigenous people. Lake carefully spells out the manner in which the Book of Genesis was used to underpin the unjust belief in terra nullius, the idea that the Australian continent belonged to no one and was ripe for the picking because the original inhabitants had not followed the injunction to take stewardship of the earth and “improve” it. Once again, the word used to describe the situation was “wilderness”.

There are umpteen sides to this story. Lake charts the ways in which Indigenous communities took hold of the Bible and used it against the colonists. It provided “a platform criticising the worst of settler behaviour and nurture a vision for a more humane interaction”. As time has gone by, the Bible has often served to sharpen calls for justice.

Lake also explores the challenge of translation. It is not surprising, given the heritage of Luther’s German Bible of 1522, which made the text available to ordinary readers, that Lutheran pastors were prominent in this endeavour.

The book follows, for example, the story of two extraordinary characters, Biraban and Threlkeld, and their painstaking documentation of the Awabakal language in the 1830s. They found it difficult to translate the word “God”, partly because many settlers used it profanely. Likewise, they deliberated over the concept of “belief” opting eventually for an expression meaning “to know, to perceive by the ear”.

In this process of sifting, Australia was making a powerful impact on biblical interpretation. Furthermore, when the time came to try to restore languages that had been destroyed, these early biblical translations were significant.

Lake leaves few stones unturned. She investigates the place of the Bible in the Anzac story, noting the absence of Christian symbolism from many war memorials and the way in which Bible verses (such as “greater love hath no man”) were “used publicly in ways that relegated theology to the background”. War drove some people to the Bible and others away from it.

Lake also looks at the folksy relationship of many Australians to the Bible and various ocker version such as The Day the Grog Ran Out and Other Stories from the Big Book. One enterprising interpreter presented the creation story in the words “out of the blue, God knocked up the whole band lot”.

Lake deals with not one but three Bibles. The first is the globalising Bible, a text that was an accessory of the empire as much as any military uniform. The second is the cultural Bible, a text whose impetus towards justice and orderly living has been appreciated as a moral code. The third is the theological Bible, a work that has energised the faith of millions and, as the saying goes, comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

Sometimes these groups overlapped. The book notes that between 1830 and 1890, at least 2 million sermons were preached in Australia to a large proportion of the population. One wonders what all those words achieved.

Since convict days, scripture has found expression in tattoos. I taught a student who, soon after leaving school, had the words “do not let your hearts be troubled” tattooed on his hip, including the reference to John 14:1. I wondered what difference that reference made. He could have found a similar quote from the Dalai Lama or many other authorities. But the Bible was to have a permanent place at his side, more than if it rested on a brass altar stand.

Meredith Lake loves this kind of complexity and shares her enthusiasm with irresistible panache. The Bible in Australia is a major contribution to social history. It amply demonstrates that the long search for meaning needs to be neither heavy nor dull.

Michael McGirr is the dean of faith at St Kevin’s College in Melbourne.

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