This past Saturday evening I had the pleasure of seeing my friend and colleague Dr. Lonnie Polson actively recite—expound—the Gospel of Mark. (The performance was live-streamed; check here to see the archived version.) I’d seen him do an excerpted version of it several years ago at my church. I’ve enjoyed seeing similar recitations; one of the pastors at my church, Abe Stratton, gave us the book of Romans some time back, and years ago I saw a professional presentation of the Gospel of John at BJU; unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the artist’s name. (Was it the Brad Sherrill production?)
There’s great benefit to reading, or hearing, large chunks of Scripture at a single sitting. For years now I’ve been requiring students in my Epistles classes to read any epistle at a single sitting; you notice things, particularly large-scale structural things and repetitive patterns and themes, when you read the whole thing that you don’t notice when you read it a chapter at a time.
This is not to say that micro-reading is a bad thing; it provides opportunity to notice details (all of which are important in a verbally inspired document) and particularly to spend time in meditation, which reinforces the impact of the concepts on your mind and eventually on your instincts and the resultant actions.
But we ought to eat large meals of Scripture as well. Big, fat feasts.
For similar reasons, we ought to memorize large passages of Scripture. There’s benefit to memorizing key verses, whether “fighter verses” or key doctrinal passages; BJU has students in its undergraduate systematic theology course memorize the key doctrinal proof texts for all 10 standard theological topics, so they’ll have them at hand when they need them.
But the Scripture wasn’t given to us in little pieces of unconnected thoughts. (OK, Proverbs is the exception that proves the rule.) It was given to us in great sweeping arcs, storylines and extended logical arguments (most obviously Romans) that support the even greater storyline that all the Scripture together forms. There’s integrity and wisdom in memorizing it that way.
The summer after my freshman year in college I started out on that road by memorizing the book of James, 1 verse per day. The experience was life-changing, and James has been my friend ever since; I have regular conversations with him in my mind, which I couldn’t do without having expended that effort all those years ago.
How did I do it? Well, I was living in a western suburb of Boston that summer, and working in a CVS downtown. I commuted on my bicycle. (For folks who know Boston, when I tell you that I rode in and out on the infamous Route 9, you’ll consider it a miracle that I lived to tell the story.) I had about 45 minutes each way, 90 minutes per day to just go over James’s words in my mind. That was more than enough time to review once what I had memorized of the book up to that day, and even to go over it several times. And the stress of doing all that in killer traffic, I suppose, increased my long-term retention.
As I’ve noted before, memorizing doesn’t have to require a lot of time; what it requires is day-to-day discipline. We memorize, or move material from short-term memory to long-term memory, by a simple process of regular, spaced repetition. In other words, you need lots of brief sessions rather than a few long ones. You say today’s verse until you can say it without error (the number of repetitions is different for different people—God made us all different—but you’ll find that for pretty much everyone, the required number drops as you get more experience), and then you review what you’ve memorized on the previous days. That doesn’t need to take long; you can say the entire book of James out loud in just 15 minutes. Then you put the whole thing out of your mind and do other things. Most people will need to do that again later in the day; when I’m starting out on a dramatic role, I’ll review lines 3 times a day, for just 5 or 10 minutes. Each session goes a little faster, because you’ll retain more of what you did in the earlier sessions.
As little as 15 to 20 minutes a day. Just 5 minutes while you’re brushing your teeth in the morning, while you’re waiting for the microwave to heat up your meal at lunch, and while you’re waiting to fall asleep at night.
What can you accomplish with that?
In 3 months you’ll memorize Colossians, the greatest treatise on the headship of Christ ever written. In a month and a half, 2 Thessalonians, and in 3 more months, 1 Thessalonians, both on how to live while waiting for Christ’s return. In 3 more months, 1 Peter, on how to endure triumphantly while suffering. A new Psalm every week or two.
How much is that knowledge worth? How much difference would it make for you to have that kind of information stored in your head, part of how you think and who you are?
Maybe you’d be more consistent. Maybe you’d be more successful. Maybe you’d be happier.
I dunno. Worth a try.