Book Review: The Great Bible Swindle

September 01, 2004

Book Review: The Great Bible Swindle

In The Great Bible Swindle, CEO of Bible Society Australia and former CASE Director Greg Clarke scratches a long-standing itch. The itch developed when, studying English literature at university, he became aware of how few of his fellow students understood the biblical allusions and references in the works they were studying. These students had a gaping hole in their education: they had no knowledge of the Bible. And to make matters worse, they didn’t even know what they were missing.

The scandal is this: millions of people have been denied a basic knowledge of the key text that has shaped their culture. We are being ‘protected’ from an understanding of our roots. (p13)

Clarke is not the first person to notice and decry the scandal, and he cites a number of others who have also called for more widespread teaching of this important book—and not just the religiously motivated: university professors, authors, a poet laureate, political leaders.

Refreshingly, this book is not about finger pointing (‘I’m not sure exactly who to blame’ p13). The swindle is attributed to the Bible being (inappropriately) caught up in the widespread (appropriate) questioning of authority that characterised the 20th Century (pp14ff). Clarke points out that while the Bible does claim to be authoritative (God’s word), it is also a book that ‘has had a profound and lasting impact upon areas of culture, literature, the legal system, art, science and philosophy’. And yet, incomprehensibly, it ‘is rarely taught in English lessons, or history, or legal studies… There are very few courses on understanding the Bible’ (pp17, 18).

The Great Bible Swindle sets out to address this scandal by first showing the biblically ignorant—whose ranks extend well beyond students of literature—what they are missing out on by not knowing the Bible. Once this is appreciated, it is Clarke’s hope they will be motivated to remedy the core problem and read the Bible. And in reading it, he hopes they will become better educated, come to better appreciate culture and society, and above all, come to grapple with the God and good news of the Bible.

The first of the book’s five parts reveals the extent of Bible illiteracy in our society. To prove the point, it includes a quick quiz on basic Bible knowledge, claiming that if ‘you can’t get 100 per cent in this quiz, you should feel outraged at the way you have been educated’ (p29). The next two sections offer a whirlwind survey of the Bible’s influence on:

  • culture (language, literature— ‘highbrow’ and popular—music, art and architecture, movies, and even TV);
  • civic foundations (the rise of universities and science, Western law, economic and political theory); and
  • Australia (its impact on public institutions and monuments, characters like Arthur Stace, the early colony, Indigenous Australians, and charities).

While this overview is necessarily selective (it says almost nothing, for example, about the enormous impact of the Bible on the history and development of Western music), it clearly conveys the breadth of the Bible’s reach, and indeed its ongoing reach. It is obvious from many of the examples (Tolkien, Paul Kelly, The Matrix, The Simpsons) that the Bible’s influence is not limited to the distant past.

Part 4 gives a brief account of what the Bible actually is—the kinds of literature it contains, how it was chosen and organised—and what it says (in 500 words!) (pp157-160). It also has a section on what the Bible is not, which is helpful for nipping misconceptions in the bud.

In the final section, ‘The Bible and you’, Clarke changes gear and makes it personal. Because, as he points out, it is hard to read the Bible and keep it at arm’s length:

The Bible is a dangerous book. It transforms people and societies… If you are going to read the Bible, it … is a matter of your life finding a new footing, a new balance, a new perspective because of the Bible.

I would rather that a person acknowledge the threat than they be apathetic. Atheism is preferable to apatheism. If you feel threatened by the Bible—even if you hate it—to me that is a more honest reaction to reading it than remaining unaffected. Its claims are too big to leave you cold. (p204‑205)

Particularly engaging in this section are a handful of true stories showing how the Bible has threatened and changed the perspectives of people as diverse as CS Lewis, a Papua New Guinean tribe, and Nick Cave, by making them confront the big questions of their place in the universe, and their response to its Creator.

Clarke finishes with a few helpful book and website recommendations for further reading.

The Great Bible Swindle is an excellent book to give away. Getting it (and therefore the Bible) into the hands of the ‘un-bibled’ begins to address the problem of biblical illiteracy at a grass-roots level. It’s short and easy to read, and would be suitable for high school age readers and beyond. The cost of this accessibility is that it may come across as overly chatty to people used to more academic fare, but this is merely stylistic, and the argument is relevant across education levels. Clarke does an excellent job of accommodating different attitudes to the Bible: he doesn’t assume a sympathetic reader, and openly expects that many will be antagonistic. This book will introduce people to the Bible, challenge misconceptions, persuade them of the Bible’s influence, and encourage them to engage with it.

If you are already a Christian, the book is worth reading as a crash course in ‘attractive apologetics’—the idea that apologetics is not just about defending Christianity, but showing that it (or in this case, the Bible) is appealing.1 Being well-educated is highly desirable in Australia. By understanding the importance of Bible literacy to that status, as Clarke does, Christians can recognise that they have something desirable to offer in the world’s currency, an ideal entry to conversation and Bible reading with those with little Bible knowledge.2


1 See Greg Clarke, Attractive Apologetics, Case #5, 2004, pp10-13.

2 This book may also encourage educators well trained in knowledge of the Bible to develop opportunities for using their knowledge to address the problem in a more top-down way—perhaps teaching an evening community college course, or offering tutoring in ‘the Bible in literature’ for high school or university English students! The Bible Literacy Project in the US has taken up this challenge on a large scale and produced a text book and course: The Bible and Its Influence (

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