Like Music Pressed Into Vinyl

The Spiritual Discipline of Scripture Memorization

A few years ago I visited my friend Shawn, who is what you would call an audiophile. Shawn devotes an immense amount of time, energy, and money to thinking about and listening to music. He’s one of these people who would rather buy music than groceries. His apartment was simple, but decorated wall to wall with record albums.

I asked Shawn, “Why do you still collect records?” He looked at me, as audiophiles do, as if he were disappointed in me. He simply shook his head and said, “Because they sound better!”

I must have shaken my head in retaliatory disbelief, as if to say, “You’re crazy,” because 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, which gives the music a full range of expression—as opposed to a CD that is digitally compressed, a process that lops off the high and low frequencies—but I don’t think you’ll understand. So why don’t you pick out an album 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, which I have listened to probably more than a thousand times in my life. Shawn put the black vinyl on the turntable, dropped the needle, and dimmed the lights. Then we sat and listened. Maybe it was because Shawn had set 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 on 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 patient, deliberate listening records require of me. This kind of listening feels counter-cultural.

The Counter-Cultural Act of Scripture Memorization

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

First, memorizing Scripture slows us down in an increasingly fast-paced culture. To memorize Scripture you have to take your time; you must savor and chew each word. Doing so allows us to hear the full range of the Word’s message. It invites a kind of participation in reading the text that cannot be simulated by scanning with a hurried eye that seeks information only. Memorization demands that we catch our breath and read with new habits of being.

Second, Scripture memorization reinforces the intrinsic value of Scripture. Our culture typically weighs the extrinsic worth of people and things: we view and value people, places, and products in terms of what we can get from them. Likewise, we often approach Scripture with a desire to “get something” that we can use. Scripture memorization asks us to simply “be” with Scripture. Taking time to read and meditate on the Word slowly 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 mediate on Scripture reminds us that God’s Word is worthy of our attention and time in and of itself. In a culture that values only what it can see and use, this is a corrective practice, because it reminds us that God’s Word is not meant first for us to read and use; it first reads and uses us. In other words, memorizing allows us to be mastered by the Word rather than attempting to master it.

A third way the memorization of Scripture acts as a counter-cultural spiritual discipline is that it helps us to resist the temptation to read efficiently and instead read reflectively. Our Western culture 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 gift helps us recover a true interest in Christian spirituality. Go into any bookstore in the country and you will find volumes of books on creative ways to nurture your spiritual life. But spirituality in and of itself is not Christian unless it is nurtured by Christ and his Word. 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 the Word. That Word 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 because it shapes the Christian imagination. 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 mean 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 that is prayerfully saturated in the Word. To share the mind of Christ is also to share Christ’s imagination.

Memorizing allows us to be mastered by the Word rather than attempting to master it.

One of the lies going around, even in our churches, is that the biblical world is smaller than the so-called “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 preoccupied with the reduced world of the self. Memorizing Scripture shows us that the biblical world is the real world. It expands our soul, our sense of place, and our vision, allowing us to see to God and experience the kingdom that is breaking in upon us even now.

Memorizing Scripture requires that we make Scripture a priority, which is also a way that we make God a priority again. It helps us direct our attention away from ourselves and back to the living and speaking Triune God of grace. The Triune God, not ourselves, is the subject and object of the real world. Thus, the goal of memorizing Scripture is to allow 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.

The Practice of Scripture Memorization

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

The first thing is to make a commitment. By making memorization 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 goals at first, then gradually challenge yourself more. For example, start out with Psalm 1 or Psalm 23. Then move on to what I call “iconic texts,” such as 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 memorization habits that help you. Here are some basic methods that could be useful to consider.

  • Repetition: Read a verse or passage over and over until you can say it with your eyes closed. Do this until you can say it ten times in a row without reading it. Then move to the next verse or passage and repeat. Do this until you have the selected text memorized.
  • Kinetics: Incorporate bodily motions to reflect what the passage is saying. While memorizing the text, act it out. Use movement to groove the Word deep into your physical being.
  • Voicing: 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.
  • Writing: 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 says. 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 can be helpful in jump-starting the memory.
  • 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 “right” way to memorize Scripture. Simply make time, find a place, set some goals, and practice, practice, practice until you groove the Word into your soul so that you can play it at any time and in any place. This spiritual discipline 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 favorite and familiar passages as if for the first time, and in the listening, rediscover why you loved them in the first place.

Trygve D. Johnson (johnsont@hope.edu) is Dean of the Chapel at Hope College, Holland, Michigan.