It’s Australia’s history as you’ll never read in high school

The Bra Boys, Mabo and the good book

A new book is offering an alternative history of Australia with the Bible as its central character.

Historian and author Meredith Lake’s book, The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, is released in April. She says when she began the process of looking at how the Bible had been important in Australia’s history, she was very quickly hooked.

“Once I started to think about the Bible and what Australians have thought about it, how they’ve acted on it, how they’ve fought over it, argued with it and about it, I uncovered a really rich seam of stories that have great explanatory power. It really helped me make sense of the society I’m living in,” Lake told Eternity.

“People who’ve taken the Bible as God’s word have changed Australia. And the influence of the Bible in the hands of people who aren’t straightforwardly Christian is also fascinating.”

Even the Bra Boys, a gang based on surf culture notorious for its role in the Cronulla race riots in 2005, have a Bible verse, “My brother’s keeper” (from Genesis 4:9) tattooed on their chests.

“The Bible is everywhere, in very surprising places,” says Lake. “And people make all kinds of interesting interpretations of it.”

“Is Mabo an example of Indigenous people applying verses of Scripture to their context?” – Meredith Lake

Lake tells me the story of Father Dave Passi, one of the original plaintiffs in the historic Mabo court case that recognised native title as part of Australian common law.

“Passi was an ordained Anglican priest from the Torres Strait. He saw Jesus as the fulfilment of the traditional spirituality of his people. And he fought for the recognition of land rights in the Mabo case, on the basis of the Old Testament verse in Proverbs 22:28 – ‘Don’t move a boundary stone which your ancestors have set up.’

“That was their whole argument, really: this is our land, it belongs to our families, we can tell you which clans have which pieces of land, and that was not extinguished by the British. And that argument, which resonated with Father Passi’s understanding of the Old Testament, was what overturned Terra Nullius [the assumption that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had no concept of land ownership before the arrival of British colonisers in 1788.] I just think … really? Is Mabo an example of Indigenous people applying verses of Scripture to their context? To some extent, yes it is. But you’ll never learn that in high school.

“Instead of editing that part of history out, we just need to get to know the stories.” – Meredith Lake

“This book is an alternative history of the big things in our nation’s life: whether it’s Mabo, the Anzacs, women’s right to vote – whatever it might be, there’s an angle on all of those things where people have taken Scripture and tried to link it to the questions of their times. And they’ve had extraordinary results.”

Lake argues that an understanding of the Bible “is crucial to understanding the way those arguments were made”. Yet, she says, biblical literacy is at an all-time low.

“Instead of editing that part of history out, we just need to get to know the stories.”

Lake says her book isn’t a history of churches; nor is it a history of Christian social movements.

“People who’ve taken the Bible as God’s word have changed Australia.” – Meredith Lake

Rather, she has attempted to place the Bible at the centre and look at people’s interpretations of it to “get quite a different perspective of what kind of society Australians have been building.”

“And also,” says Lake, “what are the options for building a good society now?”

In an age when Christians are a declining proportion of society, Lake says the Bible still offers a reservoir of thought, reflection and wisdom that’s worth staying in touch with – both within the pages of the book itself, and in the lives and actions of people influenced by its words.

“I think it would be foolish to shut ourselves off from a tradition that is as rich and as diverse as the biblical one. It’s not the only thing we should draw on – but it is one resource that we would do well to be attentive to in the face of the big challenges that continue to face our society.”

The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History is published by NewSouth Books and will be available in all good bookstores from April.

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The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History

Meredith Lake

Available from Koorong

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