Letter to an unbelieving nation
Why do you keep talking about the good book you have no faith in?
To say Australia has pushed the Christian faith to the margins is to speak too soon. There’s a tug-of-war on, but the Bible is still commanding centre stage. It is the only book that you find in the news most days, read aloud every week around the country, and featured in public events.
If we just consider a few examples of cultural ephemera from the past month or so, this becomes obvious. Rugby-playing Christian Israel Folau answers a comment on social media with a reference (however blunt and insensitive) to biblical teaching, and the internet explodes. Major Australian corporations were forced to take a stance in response to his public biblical utterances. Our national airline was up in arms.
All biblical sentiments, all true, all part of Aussie DNA.
Meanwhile, the cricket drama over ball tampering was inciting a range of Bible-shaped responses. “They need to genuinely repent”; “The punishment should fit the crime”; “It’s time to forgive”; “Those who haven’t sinned can cast the first stone.” All biblical sentiments, all true, all part of Aussie DNA.
Anzac Day has just passed, echoing with the words of the Bible, notably the passage from John’s Gospel about a person displaying no greater love than when she lays down her life for her friend. It is no surprise, since Christian ministers shaped the original Anzac services and they have remained relatively unchanged for the past century.
In her incredible new book, The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, Meredith Lake points out that “lest we forget” is originally a phrase from the Bible, too – from Moses’ warning to the Israelites that they mustn’t forget they were once slaves in Egypt before God rescued them (check out Deuteronomy 6:12).
And this month, in Australia and across the world, Christianity will again come into public view for several billion people as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle marry in an Anglican ceremony which is predominantly drawn from the Bible.
Viewers will hear that the Christian idea of marriage is a reflection of Jesus’ love for his followers (“the church”), something that, in my view, was not at all communicated during the “debates” about same-sex marriage in Australia last year.
Less fairytale romance than god-like faithfulness.
Assuming that the Archbishop of Canterbury follows church order, he will say to the couple these words: “They shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the church.”
Those unfamiliar with the Christian faith may struggle to comprehend this, but it will mark a public commitment by the couple to emulate the love of Jesus for humanity in the way they carry out their marriage. That means, as we were reminded on Anzac Day, laying down their lives, sacrificing themselves, other-person-centred love. Less fairytale romance than god-like faithfulness. I wish them well.
This moment will probably be one of the most public expressions of Christianity on a global scale that we will see this year. Without making a monarchist comment here, I am highlighting the fact that until these “Christian bones” are exhumed from the culture, the Bible will still be centre stage.
So if you have centre stage, what do you do with it?
If society is increasingly professing unbelief, it is still doing so with an unprofessed faith.
I feel that an important part of the task for Christians is well described by Patrick White, our most eminent 20th-century novelist: “To give professed unbelievers glimpses of their own unprofessed faith.” I’m not sure what White meant by this, but I’d like to appropriate it for 21st-century Australians.
If society is increasingly professing unbelief, it is still doing so with an unprofessed faith. Faith in sacrifice, faith in forgiveness, faith in unconditional love. These things still matter to Australians, but they may not be high in the consciousness. And they have been disconnected from their source – the teachings of the Bible. Part of the task of Christian witness today must be to light up these “paleo-Christian” parts of the Aussie brain, giving the brain-owner a chance to see what is really going on.
If the strong, warm light of understanding is shone on much of our deeply ingrained culture, we can bring Jesus out of the shadows, first as a fuzzy outline but then, with more effort and input, in glorious colour.
Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.