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The Bible is a mainstay of Western life

By Greg Clarke - posted Friday, 24 March 2017

When former prime minister John Howard described his chances of returning to Liberal leadership as like "Lazarus with a triple bypass", how many Australians had any idea what he was talking about?

Bible literacy is low in Australia, and if cultural forces have their way, it is destined for further decline.

The controversy over the Bible Society's "Keeping It Light" video campaign was certainly about ­marriage equality but also about whether the Bible has anything worthwhile to contribute to the discussion. For many Australians, it is as dead as Lazarus was before Jesus stepped in.


Social media last week was peppered with comments such as "why care about that old book?", "it's all fairytales" or, more constructively, "the Bible's teachings are evil". Sometimes these opinions are offered by people who quite clearly have never set eyes on chapter and verse, let alone given the Bible due attention as a significant text of Western tradition and culture.

The use of the Bible in public discourse is a very contested matter. And it should be, because its teachings are anything but anodyne. The Bible presents specific, if complex and debatable, perspectives on human nature, the quest for justice, the struggles of domestic life, sexuality and social obligations - along with plenty of tips on how to do business, whether to pay tax, and the qualities required in a leader.

I would argue for the value of some biblical input in most public discourse.

But this is not a new idea. We already have "Good Samaritan" laws, drawing on one of Jesus' most famous parables. Geoffrey Robertson QC identified it as one of the keys to the historical development of international human rights. And we adopt biblical inflections in questions of policy and law all the time, when we talk of "rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" or "innocent until proven guilty".

The Bible's influence is everywhere already, even if it is often unrecognised.

And yet it is possible to take a somewhat neutral approach to how the Bible is deployed. The Bible Society has been negotiating this balancing act for more than 200 years, a kind of Switzerland among the churches and in the public square.


We have worked well across different denominations, from Roman Catholics to Presbyterians to Seventh Day Adventists. If the Bible is front and centre in your church life, we can work with you. We have hosted discussions on the nature of the Eucharist, the relevance of Old Testament food laws, or the treatment of refugees, all without landing one particular view, other than this: the Bible is the place to start and end your thinking, and people will come to different conclusions.

The summary position of old for Bible Societies was to present the Word, "without note or comment". Originally, this connoted something like "without footnotes that might annoy the royal family", but as a principle it has had lasting value. It has meant that Bible Societies have often sat close to the seats of political and ecclesial power; whoever the ruler of the day, the Bible will be close to them, simultaneously supporting and critiquing their every move. Governors-general are sworn in on it, for example.

When Victorian parliamentarians arrive for work, they glide across a beautiful mosaic floor of the vestibule that holds in place Proverbs 11:14, "Where no Counsel is the People Fall; but in the Multitude of Counsellors there is Safety." Or Queenslanders ascend the steps to the Legislative Assembly Chamber, to encounter Psalm 127:1 in the decorative glass windows: "Except the Lord build the house, they labour but in vain that build it. / Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Greg Clarke is Chief Executive of Bible Society Australia and Co-founder of the Centre for Public Christianity.

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All articles by Greg Clarke

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