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The Bible for secularists

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 24 January 2014

Greg Clarke is the publishers' representative in Australia for the biggest publishing blockbuster of all time, so his latest book The Great Bible Swindle could be seen as just another media release.

But if it was, he wouldn't deserve to hold his position as CEO of the Bible Society Australia, and on the basis of this book that's the last thing you could say about him.

"Bible basher" is a term used to describe someone who pushes Christianity, not really the Bible, at you. How do you describe someone who pushes the Bible at you, but not necessarily Christianity?


Whatever the description, pushing the Bible without bashing it, is what Clarke does in a hard cover pamphlet of 231 modest pages which in effect is a guide to biblical relevance for atheists, agnostics and secularists.

As a publisher I frequently receive pieces claiming that Australia is not a "Christian" nation. I'm sure I've even published some of them.

After reading Clarke's book that is an untenable claim, and those that make it are indulging in cultural patricide.

Drawing on his training in literature Clarke shows how the Bible is so interwoven into our culture that without it you can't understand much serious classical literature, or even the lightweight puffery of many contemporary television series.

This resonates with me as I well-remember having to undergo a remedial classics class as part of my English honours degree in the 70s along with all my classmates. While the course covered everything from Plato to Macchiavelli, what shocked me the most was the lack of biblical knowledge of my contemporaries.

If I was born 600 years ago, then instead of publishing a website like On Line Opinion, I would have been working out ways to translate the Bible into my own language and print it. From Gutenberg on that was the pinnacle of publishing, and political radicalism.


Indeed, when I bought a Kindle, the Bible was the first book that I downloaded on to it, in homage to those early pioneers of dissent and the printed word.

And, as Clarke points out, the Bible is at the forefront of the invention of English. Shakespeare, the first, and the greatest writer of English, who came as close to inventing the language as Dante Alighieri came to inventing Italian, bequeathed 100 new words to us.

The Bible's bequest is 257 "brand new words" making Shakespeare what Clarke calls "the silver medallist".

"Argument", "excellent", "puberty" and "novel" are amongst these Biblical bequests.

And so many of the phrases that we use come straight from the King James version of the Bible. Without understanding the context in which these phrases arise, we can't properly understand what they mean.

If it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, does it mean that when it comes to eternal life, the rich need not apply?

And in language context is everything. While words have a meaning of their own, this is always modified and modulated by the words and ideas in which they are wrapped and surrounded.

So, when the University of Queensland English Department insisted that their honours students study the bible, it was an acknowledgement, even 36 years ago when church attendance was much higher, that a whole box of tools for understanding the language was lacking.

And while language might be the first step of biblical influence, it extends far beyond that into our world view.

Clarke examines some key philosophical concepts, such as human equality, and shows that they are grounded in the Bible, starting with the Garden of Eden, contrasting this with societies without a Christian pedigree, where equality is not seen as a moral given at all.

He also explores its role in fostering the rise of universities, the development of science, and lists some of the great modern intellects who welcome it as a foundational document.

He also corrects some naïve views of what the Bible is. While fundamentalist Christians and atheists alike want to view it as the inerrant word of God – one group as a means of supporting it, and the other as a means of tearing it down under its own internal contradictions – Clarke describes it as "God's Dewey Decimal System".

By this he means that the Bible is a library of other books, and just as you wouldn't expect books in a real library to cohere with each other, neither should you expect those in the Bible.

What the Bible is, is a collection of books worth reading.

This would appear to be something that has escaped militant atheists like Richard Dawkins who use quotes from some of the books in the bible to confound modern audiences because they conflict with the values those audiences have been brought up on, which are drawn from other (generally later) books in the Bible.

Clarke's small pamphlet is an important work, particularly as we debate the Australian Curriculum.

It strikes me as bizarre that we mandate knowledge of Indigenous beliefs and customs in all subject areas, when these beliefs and customs have virtually no relevance to contemporary Australian life, yet we completely ignore the Bible and Christian beliefs and customs, which have huge relevance.

As church attendance dwindles, it becomes even more important that this knowledge and understanding is transmitted.

Otherwise we will become cultural orphans, strangers in our own linguistic landscape, unable to converse in depth with virtually all our cultural forebears.

Clarke's central message is that you don't have to be a Christian for the bible to matter, it is a matter of literacy, not religion.

I say amen to that.

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This is a review of The Great Bible Swindle by Greg Clarke.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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