Is it time for Bible memorization to make a comeback?

In 2018, Baeble Music released its list of the top ten karaoke songs of all time. You don’t have to particularly like any of these songs or even have been born in the era when they were hits to have some of the lyrics of every one of these songs buried in your brain somewhere. Here’s the list:

  1. Mr Brightside – The Killers
  2. You Oughta Know – Alanis Morissette
  3. I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
  4. Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey
  5. Cheerleader – OMI
  6. Wonderwall – Oasis
  7. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
  8. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Aretha Franklin
  9. Under Pressure – Queen and David Bowie
  10. Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper

Go on, admit it. You heard a strain of “Just a small town girl / Livin’ in a lonely world”, didn’t you?  What about, “If you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting”? We might not know the whole song, and we might have even misheard or misremembered the lyrics, but a couple of lines like, “Maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me/ And after all, you’re my wonderwall”, well, they really stick, don’t they?

They’re not called ear worms for nothing.

What about lines from movies? I have friends who can quote whole scenes from The Big Lebowski. And everyone knows, “I’ll have what she’s having,” from When Harry Met Sally, or “You complete me,” from Jerry Maguire, or “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” from The Godfather. It never ceases to amaze people what bits of useless dialogue they have rattling around in their brains. Jack Nicholson’s courtroom testimony in A Few Good Men or Al Pacino’s speech to the school board hearing in Scent of a Woman. Stupid gags from Ron Burgundy or Michael Scott. The esoteric musings of Dale Cooper.

What’s the use of knowing all that stuff? Is our memory just a repository for random bits of pointless data?

And yet memorization used to be a central part of learning. I’m just old enough to remember at school being forced to recite long swathes of poetry or learn multiplication tables by rote. We were forced to memorize the periodic table of elements, and (for some reason) we had to be able to recount every river that flows into the eastern seaboard of Australia from north to south, and the major town on its banks!! I hated it. But mainly because we got hit with a ruler if we got it wrong.

Things have changed a lot since then (thank goodness).

Memorization gets a bad rap these days. Mainly because we know that information learned by rote in school is soon forgotten when we have no other use for it. But also because we live in an age when impromptu expression is more highly valued than memorized screeds.

Note how today people think public prayer is more meaningful if it’s made up right there on the spot. We’re suspicious of memorized liturgies because we assume they don’t come from the heart. We prefer preachers who appear to be presenting extemporaneously than those who are either reading their notes or reciting them by rote. We don’t trust politicians who are woodenly following a teleprompter. Our love of unrehearsed speech and our skepticism about memorized information have meant that no one commits anything to memory much anymore except maybe pin numbers.

And yet, in his treatise On the Education of Children, Plutarch claimed memory was a key component in the development of students:

“Above all, the memory of children should be trained and exercised; for this is, as it were, a storehouse of learning; and it is for this reason that the mythologists have made Memory the mother of the Muses [the goddesses who oversee poetry, music, singing, dancing, comedy, etc.], thereby intimating by an allegory that there is nothing in the world like memory for creating and fostering.”

In other words, the brain is a muscle and if you want it to be strong enough to be creative and intelligent you have to exercise it. According to Plutarch, rote learning is like burpies for the brain. We might forget useless information we memorized but the process of learning it was good for us.

So how come can’t I recite those Australian rivers in geographical order any more, but if I walk into a pub and someone is singing Billy Joel’s Piano Man I know every word?

Poet and novelist Brad Leithauser has some thoughts on that. Writing for the New York Times on the memorization of poetry, he says, “The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”

Whereas the recitation of poetry once achieved this, today it’s pop music, and television and film dialogue that fills that role, conforming our hearts to the beat of its sometimes strange rhythm. This is something historian Catherine Robson bemoans. Poetry, she argues is designed to be learned rhythmically. She writes,

“If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

 

So memory is important for the development of our brains, and poetry and pop songs are easier to memorize than Greek declensions or the periodic table (believe me!). But memorization is even more important than you might realize.

In her book, Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, Catherine Robson explores how the memorization and recitation of poetry changed people from a previous era by changing the world in which they lived. It is a fascinating study of the history of rote learning and the public recitation of poetry, which was a mandatory teaching practice in England from around 1875 to the mid-1900s. Robson says that when a Victorian era child recited, “The boy stood on the burning deck…” he or she was doing more than exercising their brain. They were being made English by the words.

A case could be (indeed should be) made that memorizing portions of the Bible can make Christian people properly Christian, not because the words are somehow magical, but because we’re doing what Leithauser described – taking the words inside us, into our brains and our blood, so that “you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”

 

More than three decades ago, the Navigators released the Topical Memory System (TMS). It offered a simple system for memorizing Bible verses that help you live a new life, proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, rely on God’s resources, be a disciple, and grow in Christlikeness. The verses chosen for memorization encouraged Christians to experience victory over sin, to overcome fear and worry, enjoy boldness in witness, discover fresh depths of discipleship, move from egotism to humility.

It is interesting that by emphasizing those verses that focus on love and a change of heart, the typical canon of Scriptures presented for memorization could skew the participant toward a somewhat egocentric or individualistic reading of the Bible. In saying this I am not condemning the TMS, only pointing out that there are many sections of Scripture worthy of memorization that can also fuel a desire to pursue a life of justice, peacemaking, reconciliation, and mercy.

Memorizing Scripture shouldn’t just help us internalize the key themes of our faith or overcome personal difficulties. We need an approach to Bible memorization that helps us embrace a kingdom and missional theology, that leads us to whole-of-life discipleship, and that aids the Jesus-reflecting and activist Christian life.

 

We need to be similarly immersed in many of the great (but often forgotten or neglected) themes of Scripture. These include hospitality, reconciliation, justice, peacemaking, compassion, love of enemies, sentness, and more. As you memorize (and visualize) and learn (relationally and through practices) key verses related to these biblical themes, you are empowered to live a surprising, “questionable” life.

In my book, Surprise the World, I wrote, “The fact is that we all recognize the need to live generous, hospitable, Spirit-led, Christlike lives as missionaries to our neighborhoods. We want to live our faith out in the open for all to see.” To facilitate that I presented five missional habits for Christians to live out, but I now what to propose a sixth – Bible memorization. Together, they can equip believers to see themselves as “sent ones,” to foster a series of missional habits that shape our lives and values, and to propel us into the world confidently and filled with hope.

For that reason, I have co-authored a book with Graham Hill offering an approach to Scripture memorization for radicals and activists. As a companion to my book Surprise the World, this Bible memory approach is shaped around the five habits of highly missional people (blessing others, eating with others, listening to God, learning Christ, and being sent).

Our approach to Bible memorization uses the latest science about how the brain works, about how relationships form us, and about how habits and practices shape us. Our method moves us away from an individualistic and intellectual form of Bible memory, to one that aids us to be agents of reconciliation, prophets of justice, people of peace, and disciples who join with Jesus in his mission. Scripture memorization fuels our passion for mission and justice, and helps us pursue generous, hospitable, Spirit-led, Christlike, and missional lives.

Is it just possible that we can be made more missional by memorizing Scriptures?

 

Many cultures commit their sacred, foundational texts to memory. For centuries in China, boys were required to memorize the Dao. Today, you can find a number of websites dedicated to helping Muslims memorize the words of the Qur’an. How much more important is it for Christians who believe their texts to be the very words of God to do the same?

My hope is that instead of being easily able to draw to mind lyrics like, “Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her,” you’ll take biblical verses inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and know them at a deeper, bodily level.

 

This is an edited version of the introduction to Hide This in Your Heart, Michael Frost and Graham Joseph Hill, Navpress, 2020. https://www.amazon.com/Hide-This-Your-Heart-Memorizing/dp/1641582049 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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3 thoughts on “Is it time for Bible memorization to make a comeback?

  1. As so many read the Scripture badly – how else do we understand where the church is at – I just wish people would do some reading/study that would challenge their thinking as to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

    Memorisation can be dangerous if it is misunderstood. And I am far more concerned about bad biblical understanding when memorised than thoroughly pagan thinking.

    May people take the time to so serious study and reading as step one.

  2. I agree Michael… cause I am of the age and grew up in the tradition where memorising scripture was valued. So often scripture comes back to me when I need it, and if I am lucky its reference also. The metaphor is having it in your brains and lood is a good one. Over the years, my understanding of what it means has changed, but the scripture remains the same.

  3. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more despite posts in the greater battle. -Philip Yancey

    The New Testament gives two strong examples “Take this cup from me” -Jesus, Paul begged God to cure the “thorn in my flesh”.

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