Editor’s note: During the March 4-17 YDS travel seminar to the Holy Land, Maryann Knag ’04 M.A.R. spoke with former Dean Harold Attridge about the multiple Bible classes she teaches in Fairfield County, CT and Narragansett, RI. Attridge encouraged her to put pen to paper, resulting in the following account of how the classes began and how they grew. A resident of Darien, CT and the mother of four children and 10 grandchildren, Knag counts among her vocations “presenting John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and making outreach to victims of clergy abuse.”
It has been over eight years since I graduated from Yale Divinity School with my M.A.R.—Bible Concentrate in hand. Looking back, I am quite surprised at where these three years of learning at YDS have led me. As a former secondary teacher, I had thought the traditional classroom as a college adjunct was the next logical step. I updated my resume, lined up recommendations and references, and began contacting colleges and universities in Connecticut and New York. It turned out adjuncts are needed in theology departments but not in Bible.
While I focused on a college position, two friends at St. Thomas More Church, my Catholic parish in Darien, began pestering me to start a Bible study group. For five months my pastor delayed his consent to forming a group. So in January of ‘05 I simply began my first group in my living room with four persons. I did get a notice in the parish bulletin. By June this group had grown to 15, including some members of neighboring St. John Church. This group asked their pastor if I could teach at their church. And, thus, the first group split in two. Meanwhile, when my pastor heard that I was leading a group at St. John, he called to offer me a location at my own parish. So I left my living room.
Within the year, an elderly Bible student from the original living room group of four made the decision to move to St. Joseph’s Manor, a continuing care community in Trumbull. Her real sorrow at losing her Bible group tugged at my heartstrings. “Jeanne, if you can put up notices and gather a group, I will drive up to Trumbull from Darien on Monday afternoons”, I heard myself say. She did—and so the Trumbull group of 8 to 9 of some of the sharpest octogenarian Bible scholars around was born. They really get Hebrew poetry!
By the fall of ‘05, the Thursday morning group at St. John Church had grown to over 20 members. This church requested an evening group for working people. Thus the Wednesday evening class began. I am a native Rhode Islander. Now that our children have grown, my husband and I have begun spending summers in Narragansett. There is an adorable restored chapel there called the South Ferry Church, maintained by residents for weddings and a summer lecture program. My husband, now on the Bible group bandwagon, mused: “Wouldn’t it be great to have an interdenominational Bible group there in the summer?” The trustees consented; I joined the summer program at the South Ferry Church.
Right down the street from the South Ferry Church is St. Veronica’s Chapel, a daughter of the main Catholic parish in Narragansett. As a Catholic, I felt I ought to offer my services to my summer parish as well. I made an appointment and presented my resume to the pastor. He was delighted, even asked me to speak from the pulpit at the end of Mass to introduce my summer Bible program, but with one caveat—I must make no mention of Harvard (M.A.T.) or Yale (M.A.R.). As with so many, this wonderful Catholic pastor was unfamiliar with the ecumenical breadth of the YDS faculty and student body as well as of Bible scholarship in general. I think he knows now.
While the two nearest Episcopal churches gave enthusiastic publicity in their bulletins for the program at the South Ferry Church, only one person showed up the first week, and only two others the second. One mile down the Boston Neck Road, 32 students showed up an hour and a half later at the Catholic chapel! Imagine my surprise! When the South Ferry Episcopalians, happy to have a brand new YDS Bible teacher, heard I was doing two classes back-to-back in Narragansett, they kindly volunteered to join the Catholic group. Thus, the Narragansett Summer Bible Group was born.
Back in Darien, my own pastor began to ask for an evening group. By that time I had four groups running weekly September through May and one in the summer. That was enough for me to prepare. But a parish survey followed by a focus group revealed that the Bible group along with the music program received the most positive responses. Out of this also came a complaint that there was no evening Bible group for working people. I agreed to try it for a while to see if I could handle five groups per week. I agreed—only to find out that on the evening I was available, there was no space available at the church. Instead, group number six, the Monday evening group (at church number one, St. Thomas More) began in fall 2011 in my living room in Darien until the parish can arrange for space in the future.
What do we do?
After I provide a little geographical, historical or literary background, the members “read around”, passage by passage and discuss. They love that I have the relevant passage open to either the Hebrew or Greek critical edition to settle disputes.
I seek an even balance between faith and scholarship. We begin with group prayer. We study one book of the Bible at a time in depth. Sometimes we trace a theme through the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. After I provide a little geographical, historical or literary background, the members “read around”, passage by passage and discuss. They love that I have the relevant passage open to either the Hebrew or Greek critical edition to settle disputes.
They each come with their own Bibles from home—I love that in one group there will be several different English translations! In this way, they see that scripture wasn’t written in English and what can happen in translation. One will say, “My Bible says: ‘…in the valley of deepest darkness.’” Another will say, “Mine says: ‘…in the valley of the shadow of death.’” Then I go to the Hebrew for them, word for word. They are amazed that in the Septuagint version of “The Witch of Endor” (I Samuel 28) the forbidden medium is literally a “bellyspeaker.” Then there are the Bibles they bring! Naturally I would prefer them all to have an up-to-date study version of the NRSV or the NAB. But the importance of “Bibles from home” sometimes overrides academic issues. “Is this a good Bible?” asks a gray-haired newcomer. “It’s the one my husband gave me when we were married.” I will never forget the evening another newcomer arrived bearing a rather large, old Bible. “Is this a good translation, Maryann? It’s the one my son used in Afghanistan before he was killed.” Barely able to speak, I answered, “That’s your Bible.”
I never did get an offer of a college teaching position. Maybe every YDS student starts out with one plan and ends up somewhere else. In eight years one small Bible study group in my living room has grown to six groups in two states. The students never stop thanking me and telling me how meaningful the Bible studies are. One student enthused, “I’m getting a Yale education for free!” I was completely bowled over the night a woman said, “I have been waiting for this Bible group all my life!” I tell them, “It isn’t me. Look what we are handling, the word of God!” As the Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican II put it, “In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven lovingly meets with His children and speaks with them.” (Dei Verbum #21)