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A few years ago I was visiting my friend Shawn.  Shawn is what you would call audio-phile. Meaning, Shawn was a person who devoted an immense amount of time, energy, and money to thinking about and listening to music.  He’s one of these people who would prefer to buy music than groceries. His apartment was simple, but decorated by wall to wall records.  

I asked Shawn, “Why do you still collect records?”  He looked at me, as audio-philes do, as if he was disappointed in me.  He simply shook his head and said, “It sounds better!” I must have shook my head in retaliatory disbelief, as if to say “you’re crazy.” 

Shawn said “I could give you a lecture about the physics of music, and how the music on a record is actually pressed into the vinyl, giving the music a full range of expression, rather than a CD that is digitally compressed that consequently lops off the high and low frequencies, but I don’t think you’ll understand.  So why don’t you pick out an album from a stack and listen for yourself?”

I did.  I went to his stacks and picked out one of my favorites records of all time, U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire”.  This is an album that I have listened to probably more than 1,000 times in my life. Shawn put the black vinyl on the turntable, dropped the needle, dimmed the lights, sat, and listened.  Maybe it was because of the mood, or maybe it was because I was predisposed to listen carefully, but when Shawn played that old record it was like the first time I had ever heard it. From that moment on, I was sold on vinyl.  

Since then I have bought a turntable and I try to listen to most of my music vinyl.  I have not been disappointed. I like the act of having to listen to a whole record through – without being able to skip ahead.  I enjoy the patience required of me to really listen. This kind of listening, deliberate and patient, feels counter-cultural.  

Why Memorization?

What I enjoy and value about listening to music on vinyl is what I enjoy and value about the spiritual discipline of memorizing scripture.  Like records, scripture memorization is a counter-cultural act of listening. 

First, memorizing scripture slows us down in an ever fast-paced culture.  To memorize a scripture means that you have to take your time, savor and chew each word.  Memorization is a spiritual discipline that slows us down enough that we can begin to hear the full range of the Word’s message.  This quality of care invites a kind of participation in reading the text that cannot be simulated by a quick glance or a scanning with a hurried eye, seeking to simply get information.  Memorization demands we catch our breath and read with new habits of being. This kind of being asks us to read deliberately and patiently.  

Second, scripture memorization reinforces the intrinsic value of scripture.  Ours is a culture that privileges the extrinsic worth of people and things. By extrinsic I mean that we view and value people, places, and products by what we can get from them.  When this is applied to the practice of reading scripture, we approach the text with a desire to “get something” that we can use or be useful for life. What scripture memorization asks of us is not so much what you can “get” from scripture, but who you can “be” with scripture.  Taking time to read and meditate on the Word slow enough to memorize it helps us understand that the Bible was not given as a utilitarian tool to construct a better you. Taking the time to read and meditate on scripture reminds us that God’s Word has a value that is worthy of our attention and time in and of itself.  Memorizing scripture reminds us that we don’t have to read the Bible and “get something” out of it for it to be useful. Reading scripture to memorize helps us recover an intrinsic love for God that is born out of long reflection of the Word. In a culture that values only what it can see and use, this is a corrective practice, as memorizing scripture reminds us that God’s Word is never meant for us to read first and use, but a Word that first reads and uses us.  Simply stated, the discipline to memorize scripture is a practice that places the authority on scripture on the intrinsic beauty and power of God’s revelation, rather than on the extrinsic benefits we can get from revelation. In other words, memorizing allows us to be mastered by the Word, rather than our vain effort to master the Word.

A third way the memorization of scripture is a counter-cultural spiritual discipline is that it helps me to read reflectively.  Ours is a culture that prizes efficiency. We streamline our day, maximizing every minute, every activity, and every event. We don’t want to waste time.  However, memorizing scripture demands that we give ourselves over to a task that is not efficient.  Memorizing cannot be hurried. Efficient reading wants to mine the needed information and move on. Reading to memorize puts us in a posture to be reflective, where the end goal is not simply to know more, but to be more.  That is one of the true gifts of memorizing scripture.  

This is the gift that helps us recover a true interest in Christian spirituality.  There has long been a fascination with being spiritual. Go into any bookstore in the country and you will find volumes of books on creative ways to nurture one’s spiritual life.  But spirituality in and of itself is not Christian unless it is nurtured by Christ and his Word. Memorizing scripture teaches us to relocate our spiritual life back into relationship with Holy Writ.  Rather than listening solely to the esoteric self where we are trapped inside the cul-de-sac of our own personal experience, memorizing scripture tethers our spiritual life to a relationship in the Word.  That Word is what launches us into a new life where we are confronted and led forth by the Triune God who speaks and creates all things new.    

A final reason that memorizing scripture is a counter-cultural discipline is how it shapes the Christian imagination.  This is critical. One of the biggest ministries we can encourage right now for both old and young in the church is the recovery of a Christian imagination.  By imagination I am speaking to the unique hope that allows us to see that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18)  A Christian imagination is one whose mind is so prayerfully saturated in the Word that it allows us to begin to share the mind of Christ.  To share a mind in Christ is also to share Christ’s imagination.  

One of the lies going around, even in our churches, is to suggest that the biblical world is smaller than the “real world” we live in.  What memorizing scripture has taught me is that it is just the opposite. In the so-called “real world”, everyone is so preoccupied with the reduced world of the self.  Memorizing scripture shows us that the biblical world is the real world that expands our soul, our sense of place, our vision to see–as if for the first time–God and God’s Kingdom that is breaking in upon us even now.  

The value of memorizing scripture requires that we make scripture a priority–which is also a way that we make God a priority again.  It is a practice that asks each of us to fit the reading and study of scripture back into our life again so that God can once again be a norm we aspire to be attentive with.  Such an act of priority helps us get our attention off of ourselves and back onto another, namely the living and speaking Triune God of grace. It is Triune God, not ourselves, that is the subject and object of the real world.  Thus, the goal for memorizing scripture is that it allows our imaginations to be so immersed in the world of scripture that our lives become completely saturated and shaped by the truth of God’s revelation – Jesus Christ.


How does one go about the ancient art of memorizing scripture?  

The first thing is to make a commitment.  By making it a commitment, you have to put it in your calendar.  This is a practice that takes time, and it can’t be rushed. You won’t memorize scripture unless you give yourself a scheduled time and place to do so.

Second, set some specific and achievable goals.  Begin with easy at first, then moderate, then more challenging.  For example, start out with Psalm 1 or Psalm 23. Begin with small bits.  If you get more comfortable, then move on to something more challenging. Personally, I have tried to memorize what I call “iconic texts” in my Christian walk.  These are the texts I go back to again and again for renewed vision. Texts like the Prologue of John, Romans 8, the Sermon on the Mount. At any time and at any place, I want to be able to pull these scripture passages up and let them speak to me.  What goals could you set for yourself? 

Third, develop some memorization habits that help you.  Here are some basic ones that could be useful to consider.  

  • Repetition: go over and over and over a passage until you can say it with your eyes closed.   Do this until you can say it without reading it ten times. Then go down to the next verse.  Do the same thing. Do this until you have the selected text memorized.  
  • Para kinesthetic: incorporate bodily motions to reflect what the passage is saying.  While memorizing the text use body motions, or act it out. Your memory is also tied to movement.  Use movement to groove the Word deep into your physical being.
  • Orality:  As you repeat the selected passage say it out loud.  Speak the Word so that you can hear it. Don’t just read scripture silently, give it voice.  It was meant to be heard. 
  • Scribal:  If you are having difficulty memorizing the bible try writing the passage by hand (another old-school practice!).  Writing the passage over and over again can help you remember what it said. It is an act that cuts the words deep into your physical memory! 
  • Mnemonic devices:  Some find that using acronyms or other creative ways to remember key words and phrases to jump-start the memory can be helpful.  
  • Hieroglyphics:  I have a friend who uses stick figures or pictures related to the text to jog his recall.  

The good news is that there is not one way, or a right way, to memorize scripture.  Simply make time, find a place, have some goals, and practice, practice, and practice until you can say the Word in such a way that it shapes your word.  Grooving the Word into your soul means that you can play it at any time and in any place. It is a spiritual discipline that focuses the mind, even as it expands the soul.  I hope you will give the old way a new start. If you do, you may find yourself listening to a favorite and familiar tune as if for the first time, and in the listening, rediscover why you loved it in the first place. 

First published in “Reformed Worship: Resources for Planning and Leading Worship”, September 2013:

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