Wednesday, July 23, 2008

reading and memorizing the Bible

As I peruse the Boar's Head Tavern I notice discussion of reading and memorizing Scripture or what devotional/quiet time stuff is done. Mine is sporadic. The whole concept of whether or not Protestants have their own Romish sacramentology is an intriguing topic I may yet return to but here I am concerned with the more mundane questions of how a person reads the Bible or gets through it.

Never done a "get through the whole Bible in a year" plan. Never interested me. Never interested me to formally get through the entire Bible cover to cover. The Bible was never written to be read in that way so I don't see any need to read it that way. The Bible was not written to be memorized by chapter and verse in the way we moderns tend to think of it. The author of Hebrews is content to say "somewhere it is written" without naming chapter and verse or author but he knows the text he is citing.

Not that I'm not a Protestant but I grew up in church settings where knowing chapter and verse and remembering atomized bits of Scripture as proof texts or points for reflection seemed, not exactly the norm, but tempting. There was always some punk kid who would go up and share his memory verse before the Sunday school set and after naming the reference that the kids' ministry leader would not necessarily recognize off the top of his head proudly say "Jesus wept". Eventually that kids' ministry leader knew that verse backwards and forwards ... maybe even bothered to learn it in Greek.

When I was in high school I worked at vegetable canneries ... and worked in vegetable canneries through much of college. Lacking the SPanish skills needed to converse with most of my co-workers, and having utterly spent any conversational opportunities with the Watchtower society old lady I had easily settled into a custom where during my short breaks and lunch break I would read the New Testament. Started in Matthew, read up through Jude, and skipped Revelation. My reason for skipping Revelation was that I didn't feel like any benefit came from reading it because of so many competing ideas about what this or that passage meant, whether or not this or that was the Mark of the Beast, whether the Beast was the European Union or Syria or whatever the latest fads in freakish dispensationalism held at the time. Hey, I was Pentecostal for sure and even a dispensationalist/futurist at the time but I didn't feel up to read Revelation so I stopped at Jude. I did mention much earlier in this blog that I once began rewriting a song I wrote years ago because I had shifted my views on eschatology. I am SO not kidding when I said that then or now.

But setting that aside as an aside, I read through the New Testament more or less dozens of times in my high school and college years. Full scale immersion in a book is a better way to remember it than focused memorization in my experience. You can be so busy memorizing you don't think about what the text means. We don't memorize things like songs because we have some instrumentalist/utilitarian goal in mind. We memorize songs because we love those songs. We play them over and over again until it's part of who we are, until without really thinking about it we can pull up a phrase or a line. Scripture is supposed to be like that, that you can just pull up something from Ecclesiastes or the Psalms at the mention of a phrase. It doesn't prove you're holy or anything ... but it is the sort of love for Scripture that I hope any Christian can have. It's not knowing what John 7:1-5 is in terms of verses, it's more like (I hope) that you know where to find it if you need to review it and you remember where it is in the gospel narrative and what Jesus said and did.

An informal yardstick for me is if as soon as someone mentions a biblical text and they use it out of contet you start being cautious that is a negative yardstick for how to tell you've been immersed in Scripture (i.e. noticing when other people are just proof-texting). A more positive use would be, oh, something like singing songs based on that text. Yeah, I betray my being a composer adn a musciian there but God DID command Moses to write a song to help aid in memorization of His deeds, right?


Estel said...

Hi, I'm another BHT lurker, and an online acquaintance of Jesse's.
I think your point is good, that the bible is meant to be understood in large units and not small decontextualized bits. I want to point out that, while memorization is often practiced in a way that takes things out of context, it doesn't have to be.

In my first year or two of university, I developed a goal of memorizing scripture in large chunks - whole chapters or even whole books. Part of the point of this - particularly learning whole books - was precisely to have a feel for whole books and to know how everything fits together, rather than just seeing one or two verses or a story at a time.

Also, while memorization can turn into mere rote without actually paying attention to the content, my experience is that it can also be the reverse: the repetition, with attention, can be almost a sort of meditation that brings things to light that would otherwise be passed over. Some of my best experiences of scripture have come when I've simply been memorizing a verse because it was next in line, and as I've gone over it, I've suddenly seen the beauty in it and the wonder of what God has done.

Christopher said...

I personally, in order to keep from memorizing things out of context, and for other reasons, memorize whole books of Scripture. It has been about a year since I have memorized individual verses. It is incredibly tempting to take verses out of context and all too easy to do, I agree.