Portrait of a Graduate
LAURA NASRALLAH, DVM ’87
A lifelong learner who demonstrates intellectual curiosity and a passion for new ideas.
“What can you begin to master now that will be very difficult later, such as close reading of literature, work on languages, a strong math foundation? This is the time to recognize your learning life as deeply your own and a privileged place, a field or playground that you can develop with creativity and joy.”
Conventional wisdom says there are three topics that should be off limits in polite conversation: sex, politics, and religion. Laura Salah Nasrallah ’87 talks about them nearly every day as a Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.
As a historian, not a theologian, Laura’s primary goal is for her students to come away with a nuanced understanding of ancient religious texts in the context in which they were written. Sometimes she even takes students abroad to explore archaeological sites that help them re-imagine Roman civilization through that lens. While Laura clearly digs the past, she also believes scholars must understand how early Christian texts are interpreted and appropriated in contemporary religious practices, life, and popular culture.
One day, she and her students might talk about the phenomenon of purity balls in the U.S. or the building of the Museum of the Bible in D.C. Another day, they might end up discussing a presidential speech, Kanye West, or even a Facebook meme that quotes a Bible passage to support polygamy.
“Whether it’s a hip-hop song, a cartoon, or video blog, I love when my students expose me to things I’ve never heard or seen. They’re way cooler than me,” she says with a laugh.
Sometimes, though, their discoveries are quite profound. After the Newtown shootings, for example, one of Laura’s students shared a video about a blacksmith who turns guns into gardening tools. It’s a symbol of peace that harkens back the Old Testament, where both Micah and Isaiah cite weapons turned into farming equipment.
Hot-button topics invariably come up each semester, including women’s rights, race relations, and how different denominations approach LGBTQ issues; however, the debates rarely get heated. While her students come from diverse backgrounds and belief systems, they all treat each other with dignity and respect—united, Laura believes, by a fundamental understanding that some ancient texts still hold a great deal of power in our society.
In some cases that means there’s a little self-censorship that goes on. But Laura works hard to maintain a learning environment that’s both intellectually demanding and democratic.
“Sometimes the role of the teacher is to get out of the way and see the transformations and learning that happen when students bring their own experience and framework to the classroom,” she says, noting that she teaches both undergraduate and graduate students who have a wide range of professional interests, from becoming lawyers to working at NGOs or actually teaching or preaching doctrine.
Laura’s academic passion stems from her personal history, which includes living in Beirut as a small child. Her family was evacuated during the civil war in the 1970s and they moved to Atlanta. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., her parents enrolled her in a Southern Baptist private school, where they taught the Bible as completely foundational.
“From a very young age I was aware that religion could cause a lot of friction and war,” she says. “So the combination of those contexts really spurred my interest in trying to critically understand the study of religion, as well appreciate my family’s Christianity and my own identity as a Christian.”
A lifelong learner to the max, Laura became a professor so that she could remain a student forever—and she continues to be inspired by the faculty at SPSG.
“Now that I’m a teacher, I can’t believe the amount of time, energy, and patience they gave to their task,” she says. “I think particularly of Mrs. Ridenour [then Magee] who cared deeply for heart and mind, and whose intelligence and vulnerability in teaching religion I carry to this day.”
“Also, Mrs. Nekola’s high standards deeply formed me as a researcher and writer,” she continues. “She was well known among the girls for teaching a class called The American Dream. And my English teacher, Mrs. Durfee, once suggested that I could write throughout the day in my head, then put it down on paper later. That’s a near daily practice in my life now.”
Laura is currently working on a book titled “Archaeology and the Letters of Paul,” where she’s using archaeological resources to think about the recipients of those letters.
“Sometimes they agreed with him; sometimes they opposed him,” she says. “These diverse communities lived and moved within the cityscapes of Rome and the Greek East—and they struggled with economic deprivation and things like infant mortality. They also had lots of religious options, so it’s a fascinating topic.”
Laura does a great deal of writing and research in the summer, and her now 12-year-old son has joined her on trips to England, Greece, and Cyprus for conferences and meetings with collaborators. Back home, she lives with her husband and two more kids—both daughters, ages 8 and 5—in the metro area not far from Harvard.
Laura fondly recalls the openness and intimacy of the St. Paul’s School for Girls campus, and says her friendships are still like a buoy for her, even though she’s far away from her classmates.
To the SPSG girls of today, she offers this big, beautiful advice: Think broadly.
“The current educational and economic environment in the U.S. may make you want to rush to find a niche, a job, a specialty—and that’s great,” she says. “But what else feeds your life and intellect? What can you begin to master now that will be very difficult later, such as close reading of literature, work on languages, a strong math foundation? This is the time to recognize your learning life as deeply your own and a privileged place, a field or playground that you can develop with creativity and joy.”