The art of respectful religious conversation
Meredith Lake’s ABC radio program picks up where her book left off
In the cavernous ABC centre in Ultimo, Sydney, Meredith Lake has found her dream job.
For this historian, who spent four years holed up writing her award-winning book The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, trading in the solitary world of an author for her new role as presenter on ABC Radio National’s Soul Search program has been “great fun” and “incredibly stimulating”.
It’s also been tiring, she admits, as over the past seven months she’s had to adjust to relentless media deadlines and taken a crash course in radio production. “I’m an L-plate broadcaster,” she says, humbly, sipping coffee in the ABC foyer between walls adorned by the faces of hallowed media personalities.
“What I really hoped and wanted was for a much more careful, nuanced, generous conversation about what we believe, why we believe it and what that might mean for how we do our common life well.” – Meredith Lake
While Lake hasn’t yet been recognised on the street, she certainly isn’t a stranger to accolades. The Bible in Australia won 2018 Australian Christian Book of the Year and it has also recently been shortlisted for the prestigious NSW Premier’s History Awards, with the Australian History Prize to be announced on August 30.
And while Lake’s first episode of Soul Search launched only in January this year, she already comes across as a radio native. It’s a role that perfectly marries her skills in research and writing with her likeable, down-to-earth personality and her uncanny intelligence, which enables her to throw informed questions.
Despite this, Lake stresses she has excellent support from an experienced team, and that she still goes around asking ABC personalities for their “top tips” on putting a radio show together.
The piece of advice that she’s taken most to heart came from Caroline Jones, one of Lake’s “predecessors”, who presented RN’s The Search for Meaning program.
“I’d asked her a simple one-line question and she sent back this huge email about how do you listen to somebody, how do you be present … A quality of listening is actually more important than [the questions] you’re asking, and so I’ve been … trying to grow as a listener.”
Lake qualifies that she’s not attempting to “replace” Jones or even Rachael Kohn, who retired in December 2018 after delivering The Spirit of Things program for more than two decades – the timeslot in which Soul Search now sits.
“Mine’s the show about how does that work for you; tell me how you tick, how you see the world and let’s sit with that together and listen; it’s about listening well to each other.” – Meredith Lake
In describing her program, Lake says: “It’s curious about a similar kind of thing – what does faith or even spirituality more broadly look like in someone’s lived experience. It’s not the show where you argue out the finer points of theology. It’s not the show where you drill into the religious aspects of the news cycle. Mine’s the show about how does that work for you; tell me how you tick, how you see the world and let’s sit with that together and listen; it’s about listening well to each other.”
For Lake, this is a continuation of the “long-range public conversation” sparked by her latest book.
“By the time I got to the end of my book The Bible in Australia, what I really hoped and wanted was for a much more careful, nuanced, generous conversation about what we believe, why we believe it and what that might mean for how we do our common life well …
“In a way, the show is just an extension of that, or an opportunity to go and do that, not just among Christians, or between Christians and secularists, but across the whole gamut of religious and spiritual life.”
Lake is forthcoming when describing her own spiritual formation, a question she often directs to guests on her program. She grew up with Christian parents who read her the Bible at bedtime, taught her Bible memory verses at the dinner table and took her to Sunday school. However, as she’s gone on in her Christian faith, Lake says grace rather than “right knowledge” has become increasingly important to her.
“It’s about neighbourliness … about genuine ‘alongsideness’ with others. It’s not about working out how similar or different you are to me in the first instance.” – Meredith Lake
“That’s actually what enables me to listen to people who might have a really different take on Jesus to the one I have or who come from a tradition of spirituality that conceptualises the human, the nature of reality in fundamentally different ways …
“It’s about neighbourliness I guess, about genuine ‘alongsideness’ with others. It’s not about working out how similar or different you are to me in the first instance; it’s about dwelling with another person as a human, as someone, from my point of view, who is made in God’s image and who, in that, can reveal something about God to me.”
According to Lake, listening in this way is “a spiritual task” that “comes directly out of a Christian posture of love for neighbour.”
“It’s not about going into the studio with a set of correct ideas, so much as going into the studio with a posture of love towards the person on the other side of the desk. That’s what it looks like for me to do the job in light of a Christian spirituality.”
She adds: “I think whatever work we do, that’s part of what we’re about as Christians.”
“I leave a lot to the listener. It’s not for me to arbitrate on other people’s spiritual lives.” – Meredith Lake
This generosity has certainly been reciprocated by her guests. Lake explains: “I feel like virtually every guest has given me a gift of one kind or another, just because people do talk to you about the things that are at the bedrock of their lives – and that’s a privilege.”
She gives an example: “I interviewed a woman who is an expert on Islamophobia right after the Christchurch massacre, and for her to come in within days of that crime and talk to me about Islamophobia in Australia – what her community reports, what her experience has been, how devastating it was, how personally attacked she and other members of her community felt – that’s an incredibly vulnerable thing to do … I’ve been humbled by the courage of a guest like that to share in those kinds of situations.”
Lake is also hoping that this “posture of generosity” extends to the Soul Search audience.
“I leave a lot to the listener. It’s not for me to arbitrate on other people’s spiritual lives. Part of the point of the show is to bring to the surface these very deeply held things in order to give the listener the opportunity firstly to hear, then to understand and then to do with that what they like. I hope the response is to move towards one another in neighbourliness, rather than to keep characterising people as ‘X’ or ‘Y’ by putting them in this box or that box.”
“We’re not called to be right. Christians are asked to love God and love their neighbour …” – Meredith Lake
Beyond radio-land, this same challenge to create a space for respectful dialogue faces the contemporary Australian church. Lake says there is a need to move beyond our “narrow” definition of Christianity that is “much too bound up with some kind of culture war”.
“One of the things I learned writing my book is that religious diversity is the Australian norm, it’s not new. Indigenous Australia is obviously very diverse but even among white British Bible-reading colonists there was huge religious diversity …
“There is a good reason to get over any vestige of a kind of entitlement or establishment mindset. There’s a lot more to living out the faith than jumping on whatever hot-button issue is dominating the media cycle. We’re not called to be right. Christians are asked to love God and love their neighbour, and that’s an endless and creative and positive task. I don’t see why we can’t just keep getting on with that in different ways.
“To take pluralism seriously, even within the church, means listening to the voices of Indigenous Australians, it means listening to the voices of people from non-white British Christian backgrounds as leading voices.
“To be comfortable with diversity is the only way, and that requires a humility on the part of those perhaps who have traditionally had the loudest megaphone or the most familiar church culture.”
Lake points out that embracing diversity doesn’t equate to letting go of our Christian faith.
“I’ve learned a huge amount from people from other [spiritual and religious] traditions but the figure of Jesus for me is where it comes back to. When Jesus says in [the Gospel of ] John, ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full’,” she says choking back tears, “that’s probably the most sacred thing for me … There’s a generosity to the love of Christ that I think is something that’s worth dwelling deeply with.”
As Lake waits for the announcement of the NSW Premier’s History Awards, she’s not focused on acclaim but is most excited about the conversations generated by her book and now continued through Soul Search. (Although she reveals she was “absolutely shocked and delighted” that the book was nominated, especially in a category with such prestigious historians).
“I’m as surprised as anybody that the book was so warmly received, not only by a Christian readership but by a wider one,” she says.
“I think what it signals to me is that I’m not the only person who wants to talk about [the life of faith]. There’s actually heaps of people who want to talk about this, and there are many ways to do it … the book is just one.”