Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Bible Down Under: new release!

From convicts to Anzacs, Aboriginal activists to writers and artists, all kinds of Australians have made use of the Bible. In debating it, rejecting it, reinterpreting it and even believing it they have made the Bible part of the fabric of Australian culture and society .
This book sketches the often surprising story of the Bible and its influence in Australia - not the usual fare in high school history classes! It suggests the relevance of the Bible to so much of what young Australians care about - from the environment to indigenous reconciliation to creative expression.
There's a much longer book in the pipeline (look out for it next year), but this short work is for students, their teachers and anyone else who is curious now.
Published in Australia by the Bible Society, you can pre-order The Bible Down Under here now.
A digital edition will soon be available in the US and internationally via the Bible Literacy Project.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Voting for creation: an open letter to my local MP

Dear Anthony,

I’m writing as a resident of your electorate. I’ve been receiving quite a lot of mail from you, so thought I’d reply and let you know what I care about. It seems to me that a great deal is at stake in this election - not only for the inner west of Sydney, or for Australia, but for the world and its population.
I’m particularly concerned about the state of the planet. So much damage has already been done to our common home. What kind of world will my two young kids grow old in? What about the global poor, other species, or future generations? Those who have done least to cause the problem bear its heaviest consequences. Apart from the obvious environmental aspects of the issue, climate change involves profound social injustice.
I would love to see an Australian government take swift and strong action on climate change. For instance: scientists say that nearly all known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, unburned, if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to two degrees. We need to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050 at the latest, to avoid even more dangerous climate change.
And yet Australia is not taking bold steps in this direction.

*Heads in the sand*
Instead of limiting fossil fuel extraction, state and federal governments (of both stripes) continue to approve mine developments at an extraordinary rate.
Instead of penalising big polluters, the federal government pays them to stay in the game. I am horrified that the Australian government spends at least 12 billion annually in subsidising the production and consumption of fossil fuels. Roughly, that's the equivalent of $65 million in handouts to big polluters just from the tax payers of Grayndler!
Imagine if that money was directed towards positive alternatives. Imagine if was spent on education, or indigenous health, or the care of the aged. We could support numerous victims of family violence for that kind of money. We could resettle a lot of refugees in our neighbourhood. We could do a lot of good to the poor through increased overseas aid. Wouldn’t that be better for Australia?
As a follower of Jesus, I seek to love God and love my neighbours in everything – including how I vote. I’d love to see a government that works for a just society and a clean future. I urge you and your party to move quickly towards these ideals, for the benefit of all creation.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Meredith Lake

P.S. This is why Christians care about climate change.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Australian Religious Thought*

(Monash University Press, 2016. Buy it here.)
So many popular myths about Australian intellectual life are utterly undermined by this intelligent new book from Professor Wayne Hudson. I read it this week - and recommend that others do too!

Myth 1: Australia is an intellectual desert
We all know how this one goes - Australia is a bit of an intellectual wasteland, far away from anywhere that matters, with a chronic brain drain to overseas. It's a place where even the Prime Minster can win points by saying he’s not a ‘tech-head’. (Such a contrast  Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, going viral with an impromptu explanation of quantum computing!) 

This book points to the extraordinary extent and diversity of Australian intellectual life – not least in the area that might be termed ‘religious’. It takes in an enormous amount but as Hudson says, it offers still ‘partial vistas on a vast theme’. The brain drain might be real, but Australia has a fascinating and substantial intellectual history. And it will be very difficult, after Hudson, to suggest that religious thought was anything less than a significant and dynamic part of it.

Myth 2: Australian religious life and thought is more or less derivative
Christianity, in particular, is readily caricatured as an inflexible import - even an intrusion - from Britain or, more recently, from the United States – an import that hasn’t really taken root or developed authentic forms in Australia. It is easy enough to imagine, with Peter Carey in Oscar and Lucinda, the stories of the gospels lying across a harsh landscape ‘like sheets of newspaper on a polished floor.’ Or, in the thick of the US primaries, contemplating our own federal election, to assume that certain voices in the political sphere more or less replicate the American Religious Right.
Professor Hudson helps us to a far more nuanced view. He shows how Australian religious thought is marked by fluid and reciprocal movements of people, texts, ideas. He discusses sacral perspectives related to religious traditions other than Christian ones. He also draws attention to the ways such thought has been intimately concerned with land, with place, with country even.

Land and the sacred 
This was one of the most interesting themes of the book to me, and it gets a really stimulating treatment. For example, there is a section on the place of land in Australian contextual theologies, including indigenous theologies. There are also fresh discussions of 'sacral naturalisms', environmental philosophy, and historical narratives of place - all as examples of what Hudson calls ‘post-secular consciousness'. By this, he means that ‘sensibility that accepts secularity in relevant domains, but evidences an openness to what is beyond a strictly secular horizon’ (pp.197-8).

Hudson covers a lot of ground, but he is right to emphasise that the potential field of Australian religious thought is still greater. This is certainly true in terms of the land theme. To mention a few examples which could easily come within the scope of Hudson's analysis: 
John Dunmore Lang, arguably the most prominent Protestant in nineteenth century Australia. Hudson discusses his thought in terms of republicanism. JD Lang also had an idea of Australia as a wilderness to be transformed, a promised land to be enjoyed. His theology included a providential view of the formation of the earth, with implications for how its resources might be used – a view I would argue that, in secularised forms, has been quite influential in Australia.

Or perhaps:

The utopian strain in turn of the century thinking about major developments in scientific efficiency – the possibilities of large scale irrigation, for example. Such thinking was infused with an extraordinary religious idealism. Engineers talked about reviving the lost Garden of Eden; Alfred Deakin spoke about irrigation in biblical terms so often that a contemporary political cartoonist depicted him as Moses striking the rock and making water flow in the desert wilderness! [Punch, 3 June 1886]

Or differently again:
Dave Passi from Mer in the Torres Strait, a law man and ordained Anglican minister, one of the original plaintiffs in the Mabo case. Like Djiniyini Gondarra, whom Hudson discusses, Father Passi is another very significant example of an intellectual rethinking Christianity for their indigenous community – though it seems to me that only a few academics, apart from anthropologist Nonie Sharp, have really grappled with his thought in a sustained way.

Religious Thought in Australia is a wide-ranging book that highlights issues that I think really matter. After all, we live in the midst of unprecedented climate change – at a time when the devastating prospect of warming above two degrees is quickly becoming a certainty. In my view, the rich history of Australian religious thought in relation to the land is something we need to explore more thoroughly - to understand much better - if we are going to effectively re-orient ourselves, our communities and our cultures to wider creation.

Some might think it a long leap from an academic book of Australian intellectual history to the global problem of dangerous climate change – but then, the cover of the book carries Arthur Boyd’s Mining Town: Casting the money lenders from the temple! This book is definitely valuable in drawing out the continuities and complexities of religious and secular thought in Australia. It thoroughly unsettles the old binaries between the religious and the secular -– binaries we need to discard if we are to make an holistic response to the challenge of our times.

Arthur Boyd c.1946 The Mining Town: Casting the money lenders from the temple. National Gallery of Australia.
* Speech by ML made at the Sydney launch, Gleebooks, 22 April 2016.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Some observations on Cook's bible

The title page to Cook's bible. Thanks to the State Library of NSW (pic by ML)

It was great to have the opportunity to have a look at Cook’s bible – the one that accompanied him on the Endeavour. Getting up close and personal with such material remains of the past is one of the things I love about doing history. Thanks, NSW State Librarians!

I noticed a few things, which perhaps you will also find interesting:
  • It was printed at Oxford in 1765
  • Unsurprisingly, it is in the King James translation
  • It includes the books called Apocrypha, separately between the Old and New Testaments

  • Also, Cook's bible has lots of illustrations, mainly of biblical scenes and characters. Notably, though, two etchings underscore a very particularly Protestant version of English history: one depicting King Charles the Martyr and another, the 1605 powder plot!

  • Each page includes printed notes in the margin, of mainly three kinds – cross references to related other passages, references to the church calendar, and a date, noting when the events described were thought to have taken place. Genesis chapter 1, for example, was dated at 4004BC, according to the chronology developed by Archbishop Ussher in the seventeenth century.   

  • It was difficult to detect signs of any particular patterns of use. There were no personal annotations in the margins, no passages that had been clearly marked. The discolouration to the pages only varied a little – and perhaps that’s just because of paper quality? (It is almost certainly reading too much into it, to suggest that Cook didn’t read Romans or Galatians very much - the pages are still pretty white – but opened sections of 2 Corinthians and Hebrews more often - as they are really yellowing!)

  • There are marks that could have been the result of fingering in just a couple of places – and only one which seems clear to me. It is alongside Mark chapter 10 verse 41, i.e. a passage which warns against lording it over people and teaches instead that greatness is found in serving others. Perhaps Cook, a commanding officer, found these verses helpful as a leader of men in the close quarters of the Endeavour.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Captain Cook's bible

Cook is interesting, too, because he all but brought the bible to Australia himself - and I don’t just mean as a generic representative of a culturally and confessionally Christian imperial power. Cook had a hard copy bible with him on the Endeavour – a huge and hardy tome weighing just under four kilograms! It’s still around – preserved in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales.

It is hard to know exactly what use Cook made of the bible, during his voyage, and still harder to know what he thought or believed about it. According to his widow Elizabeth, Cook’s bible ‘accompanied him in his three voyages, and was constantly used by him in Reading the Lesson when performing divine Service according to the use of the Church of England, on board his ships, as no chaplains were appointed to the expeditions under his command.’

Cook spent a total of 18 Sundays alongside the east coast of Australia. Did he ‘read the lesson’ 18 times? His own journal makes no mention of the practice, during that part of the voyage, and in fact records only one service in total – during a layover in Tahiti. But one of Cook’s ‘passengers’, the young Joseph Banks, records Cook leading a service at least one other time – so we know Cook held divine service without noting it down. It is at least possible he read aloud from it while alongside Australia.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Captain Cook and false beginnings

The very name ‘Captain Cook’ conjures up a whole host of competing narratives about the history of Australia – from narratives of ‘discovery’ and ‘foundation’ to narratives of injustice and dispossession. These narratives highlight, in turn, some of the very serious difficulties associated with beginnings and the ways they are given meaning.

My story doesn’t begin with the ‘first fleet’ - and it doesn’t begin with Cook, either. But Cook nevertheless features in the opening chapter (at least as I’m drafting it at the moment!) - in part because his voyage up the east coast of the continent, during the middle months of 1770, highlights some of the near-misses in the history of the bible’s relationship to Australia.

Specifically, Cook’s first Endeavour voyage shows how close the bible had come to Australia from Asia: when he got to the island of Savu, near Timor, he found a community of local Christians with copies of the Bible in their local language. The translation had been arranged by the Dutch traders then entrenched at Batavia – modern day Jakarta - and spread among the inhabitants along with the use of 'letters and writing.' (You can read Cook's comments on it here).

By 1770, then, the bible had spread from its place of writing in the middle east and Asia minor, to within a few days sail of Australia. If history had been different, perhaps it would have been eventually introduced to this continent from our near northern neighbours?

Friday, March 13, 2015

In the beginning … ?

Where does the history of the bible in Australia begin? And what is at stake in the question? 

One of the many things I learned as an arts undergraduate (way back then!) was to be wary of origins - of essentialist quests for pure and exact beginnings - and of the teleological narratives implied and assumed by them. As such, I’m painfully aware that the whole idea of sketching a ‘history of the bible in Australia’ is plagued with difficulties (impossibilities?) from the get-go.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to slug anyone with a theoretical sledgehammer. (If you’d like to be on the receiving end of a distinctly Marxist kind of slug, though, try Roland Boer’s impressive Last Stop Before Antarctica: The Bible and Postcolonialism in Australia!) But it’s equally true that I’m not setting out to smooth out an endlessly messy and fragmented past. My goal is not to forge a crisp, clean, triumphant narrative!

And so: I’ve decided not to start my book with the arrival of the English fleet in 1788, with the disembarking of the first minister, Richard Johnson, or the unloading of the many bibles and other religious publications he brought with him. I think I'll start with some mistaken ideas and near misses – with some stories about how the bible nearly but didn’t get introduced to Australia.

Image: First page of Genesis from the bible of James Cook, 1765. Note the margin notes, which date the creation of the world at 4004 BC according to the chronology developed by the seventeenth century Archbishop Ussher. Such notes were commonly included in bibles printed by Oxford Unviersity at this time.
Source: Cook bible @ Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Photo by ML.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Research! Ideas!

As I've started to rummage around the scholarly literature bearing on the topic of the Bible in Australia, my own questions have started to flow thick and fast. I've started to get a feel for the kinds of things I'd like to know - and also for the kinds of things that, from the existing secondary literature, aren't so easy to find out. That is, I've begun to see what not there, in the scholarship, as well as what is.

There's no way I'll be able to do much more than dip my toe in the water with this present project, with the limited time and resources at my disposal. But if there's anyone out there who'se looking for a research essay topic / honour thesis project for 2015, there are wonderfully intriguing questions to pursue / gaps to fill / journeys to begin in exploring the bible and its history in Australia. Here's my half-formed wish-list, as it stands today, in case you're in need of some inspiration!

1. Most immediately, I'm dying to know more about the bible and its actual circulation and distribution in Australia.

There are numerous dimensions to this that could do with research, but perhaps the most fun topic for a student to take up is colportage. For a long time, bible societies in Australia and elsewhere hired 'bible colporteurs' who were like travelling merchants, taking bibles door to door for cheap sale to people (often in rural and remote areas). They went by foot, boat, horse, bicycle, car and eventually even plane. The aireal colporteurs in central and northern Australia were known as 'flying biblemen'!

2. I have also been inspired by Timothy Larsen's 'The Bible and the Victorians' to consider how some of Australia's more vocal agnostics, freethinkers and atheists have made use of the bible in putting forward their views.

At the Mitchell Library last week, I read numerous pamphlets written in Melbourne during the last third of the C19th by Henry Keylock Rusden, a clergyman's son, who was about as anti-Christianity as Dawkins in our own time, and yet preoccupied with issues to do with the authority and interpretation of scripture! There are no doubt others like him, if anyone out there is inclined to go looking.
3. And then I have whole host of questions around each of my particular chapter themes (huge in themselves) - like the bible and Australian politics.

To give just one example of the kind of reserch that would be beneficial in this particular field, - how (and how much) has the bible has cropped up in parliamentary debates on such issues as the regulation of alcohol, the age of consent, sunday trading laws, the treatment of asylum seekers, the grounds for divorce, age pensions and other social service benefits, definitions of the family / marriage... even things like federation, white Australia, multiculturalism? There are focussed studies of the bible's place in US political discourse (I also read one, over the summer, on the bible's place in the rhetoric of late C19th Canadian nationalism) - but there seems to be a real dearth of comparable studies here.

So: any takers? If you're doing primary research on any aspect of the bible and its history in Australia I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The bible in Australia: a new project

Speaking of religious books, my new project for 2015 is a history of that most religious book, the Bible, and its role in Australian culture and society. Has it fared any better than Carthy’s prayer book? How might we understand its transmission and influence over the last two hundred and fifty years?

The details of the project are still being worked out, but it has obvious potential to open up new conversations about the Australian experience.
  • How and with what consequences has the bible been transmitted?
  • How far does its influence extend beyond the community of believers?
  • What kind of impact has it had on individuals, communities and cultures?

There are lots of questions to ask at this preliminary stage - but perhaps most basically of all is that of the bible itself. What is it? What would a history of the bible in Australia actually be about?
After all, ‘the bible’ is hardly a stable subject for historical inquiry! As John Riches proclaimed in his little Oxford introduction, ‘there is no such thing as ‘The Bible’ - but rather a number of bibles which differ both in content and form. There's the bible as a material object, as a text to be read, as a form of words or phrases to be heard or uttered, as a set of ideas to be considered, or even as a story to be lived! Even beyond this, and the history of its transmission and translation, there are myriad theological and hermeneutical considerations – How does the bible speak, or act, in relation to individuals and communities? In what sense, if any, can we talk about the bible as playing a role? as an historical agent? 

Even to a plain Australian historian, ‘the bible’ appears a many-splendored thing, encountered and received in a great variety of ways, something with a diversity of histories. I'm looking forward to exploring them!

Pic credit:
The Gospel of Johnku (St John) in Tjukurpa Palya. Picture: Adam Knott Source: TheAustralian:

Monday, December 29, 2014

The shark and the prayer book

On a breezy Tuesday in May 1792, the ship Gorgon was somewhere near the equator. It had recently rounded the Cape of Good Hope, en route from the Norfolk Island penal settlement, home to England. On board, Lieutenant Ralph Clark, a veteran of the first fleet and perhaps its most candid diarist, joined other crew members to examine the results of the morning’s fishing.

Two sharks lay on the deck, their bellies cut open. Clark doesn’t say who reached a hand in, but incredibly, from one fish, they pulled ‘a Prayer Book, Quite fresh, not a leaf of it defaced.’ Turning the find over, they saw the book had been inscribed with the name of a convict, ‘Francis Carthy, cast for death in the Year 1786 and Repreaved the Same day at four oClock in the afternoon.’

Like Jonah, Carthy’s Prayer Book had somehow been committed to the deep and swallowed whole by a great fish of the sea. There are a few possibilities for precisely how that came about. Clark did didn't know it, but Carthy had been convicted of highweay robbery and transported on the Scarborough five years previously. He made it as far as the Cape, where his name appears in victualling lists. But there’s no mention of him after that, no record of him reaching Sydney. Carthy went missing, presumably overboard, lost at sea. So: Did he go down clutching a prayer book, which the shark later found and swallowed?? Or did the volume somehow come into someone else's possession in the colony, and get carried back that way more recently???]

On actually finding the book, Clark's assumption was that some godless prisoner must have tossed it, quite recently, into the sea.  ‘As the book Seemed Quite fresh,' he surmised, 'Some Ship must be near us now going out to Botany Bay.’ When it comes to religious indifference in Australia, it has always been easy to blame the convicts!

The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark 1787-1792 (Sydney, Australian Documents Library in Association with The Library of Australian History, 1981) entry for Tuesday 1 May 1792
Stephen Gapps, ‘A strange history of shark stomachs’, Signals (Magazine of the Australian Maritime Museum) no.93 (Dec 2010) pp.5-6