Every third Sunday of the month for the past seven months, between 15-25 friends have crammed into a little apartment in South Yarra, Melbourne, to share a home-cooked meal, a glass of wine and conversation about the Bible. They are part of the in-house Bible study series Scripture Feast, which hopes to take Catholic loungerooms by storm.
Generally, Catholics are not well versed (pun-intended) in the Bible. We know that Jesus healed lepers, the blind, and blind lepers. But from here, our Biblical knowledge becomes sketchy.
This point was the topic of conversation for two Melbournian housemates, Thérèse Nichols and Natasha Marsh, seven months ago.
“We were talking about how we wanted to go deeper in our knowledge of the Bible,” said Thérèse. “There aren’t many Catholic Bible studies in Melbourne, and we felt there was a great need for one.”
“But we wanted to move beyond the typical Bible study. We didn’t want to go to a parish hall, sit in a big recreation room and read Scripture. We wanted to have it in our home with friends over food and wine,“ she said.
What began as a conversation grew into the grassroots in-house Bible study series Scripture Feast.
The concept is simple. On one Sunday night per month, for seven months, you open your home to family and friends to discuss a book of the Bible over a home-cooked meal, drink and dessert. A guest lecturer leads the night, chosen for their prayerful knowledge of the Bible, and specific expertise on the book under discussion. The night wraps up with Q&A, a final drink and your friends doing the dishes.
Scripture Feast is an attempt to re-domesticate the Bible. It hopes to debunk the common perception that Biblical study is a strictly after-hours activity, a sort of PhD for the soul. It hopes to put the Bible back into the heart of the home where it would have first taken root, two millennia ago.
“The apostles would gather in their homes, they would gather in the ‘upper room’ and pray together,” said Thérèse. “It would have been no different to what they did when Christ walked with them. He would have been there, in their homes sharing a meal, as he taught them about the Father,” she said.
Important as it is to re-domesticate the Bible, there is also the unavoidable fact that it is not the easiest Book to interpret.
It is an ancient text, full of mystery, depth and what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls “dark passages”. The world’s 30,000-plus Christian denominations are living proof of this.
To really work, Scripture Feast needed the help of experts.
Drawn by the idea of the home-based Bible study, Scripture scholar and speaker David Schütz was first to come on board.
He gave Scripture Feast its shape, drawing up a seven-series program to cover Genesis, Psalms, Ezekiel, Matthew, Acts of the Apostles, Letter to the Philippians and Revelation over seven months. He also gave the list of scholars and speakers who could run each evening.
Invitations were sent, and each month the apartment was filled with talk, questions, laughter and prayer.
As the series worked through the Bible chronologically the “arc” of the Biblical narrative was gradually revealed: beginning with the marriage in the Garden and ending with the wedding feast of the Lamb.
As well as this, the books chosen allowed guests to look at some of the main Biblical “genres” – myth, song, poetry, history, Gospel, letter and prophecy.
Each night, the lecturers unpacked meaning, clarified misconceptions and generally put meat on the bone of the text.
Sometimes, discussions meandered into truly surprising territory. The night on the Psalms saw Deacon Joe Leach, a PhD in planetary geology, link quantum physics to the science/faith relationship before seamlessly moving on to explain the benefits of praying the Psalms on the train.
As the series continued, the interest grew. “At one point, we had a waiting list,” said Thérèse. “There were so many people who wanted to come we couldn’t fit them in our apartment.”
In fact, the lecture on the Gospel of Matthew, given by Dr Adam Cooper, lecturer at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, dubbed the ‘Christmas Special’ by Downton Abbey fans, was so successful that he was asked back a second time.
On the seventh and final instalment of Scripture Feast, David Schütz pulled out all stops, reading through the entire Book of Revelation with a slideshow of visual artworks.
It remains one of the more surreal experiences of this year, David’s dramatic voice rolling over images of horsemen, beasts with “seven heads and 10 horns” pouring calamities over the earth, while people passed around the tray of mini crème brulees.
While there were many blessings over the seven months, the positive reaction from the guest lecturers remains one of the highlights.
Speaking of how the intimate atmosphere of the home was “light years removed” from an academic lecture theatre, David said it was “a real joy to be welcomed into a home, for meal and a glass of wine, while being able to share the wonderful treasures of the Bible”.
“In good Catholic style, it combines both the Word and the meal,” he said.
As the seven-month series drew to a close, decisions had to be made about the next step.
“We didn’t want it to just be some ‘thing’ that we did, and then it’s over and you move on to the next thing,” said Thérèse.
The enthusiastic response, from both friends and guests, showed there was a need for something like this in Melbourne.
“Often as Catholics there can be a fear in opening the Bible, interpreting it and using it in our everyday life,” Thérèse said.
“A Catholic bible study series like Scripture Feast shows that is so important to make it accessible for everyone, and to deepen our knowledge and passion for the Word of God.
“As well as this, we have extraordinary priests, religious, academics, and scholars across Australia who can open up the Bible and teach us the Word of God in our homes,” she said.
At the end of the seven months, Scripture Feast participant Lucy Righetti took up the baton and announced that she would be hosting the next series.
Encouraged by Lucy’s generosity, it was decided to package the series into a model that could be easily reproduced in loungerooms across Melbourne.
A well-seasoned Scripture Feast host, Thérèse encouraged those wanting to run their own Bible Study to “be not afraid”.
“But seriously,” she continued “all you need is an open home, good food, a few friends and a speaker and then you have all the ingredients for Scripture Feast.”
At the end of the seven-month experiment, Scripture Feast is on its way to being more than a “thing”, and will hopefully make its way into Catholic lounge-rooms and kitchens all over Australia.