When was the last time you memorized passages from Scripture? It might have been when you were in eighth grade, preparing for confirmation. Or maybe earlier still, in Sunday school, when you learned the 23rd Psalm. Can't remember when it was? Never mind. It will probably come to you.

Within living memory, as the saying goes, evangelicals unselfconsciously learned Scripture by heart. The value of this practice was taken for granted. Certainly there was a wide range, from back-row pew-sitters who could call on a few salient passages, to silver-tongued preachers who could cite Leviticus and Luke with equal authority. But if, for instance, as a child in the 1950s, you regularly attended Wednesday evening prayer meetings, where the voices of laypeople predominated, you heard Scripture quoted (and misquoted) from memory. And if you listened in, during the Sunday meal after church, when grown-ups who took their faith seriously were discussing—maybe arguing about—theological nuances, perhaps inspired by the morning sermon, you heard Scripture quoted from memory.

What was common 50 years ago has not entirely disappeared, but neither is it common anymore. In part, this change reflects attitudes in the larger culture. We live in a time when memorization is routinely scorned, an attitude summed up in the ubiquitous phrases "rote memory" and "rote learning." Memorizing, we are told, discourages creativity, critical thinking, and conceptual understanding.

This scorn is odd. It doesn't seem to jibe with our everyday experience. After all, training to be a doctor or a lawyer entails memorization—a lot of it. We don't foolishly assume that the creativity of actors or musicians is crushed by the formidable feats of memory their art demands. And why is Peyton Manning such a dazzlingly good quarterback? In part because he spends countless hours in the film room, studying defenses, looking for patterns to memorize, so that—in the midst of the action, with a 290-pound lineman who runs like a cheetah and hits like a sledgehammer bearing down on him—he will make the optimal decision in a split second.

What Manning does when he studies game film, what Helen Mirren does when she learns the lines for her next role, is a special case of what we all do from the time we are born, an ongoing enterprise of memorizing and forgetting, largely conducted without conscious intent or awareness. "Whenever you read a book or have a conversation," the prize-winning science writer George Johnson reminds us—and, we might add, whenever you cross the road, change a diaper, or make love—"the experience causes physical changes in your brain. In a matter of seconds, new circuits are formed, memories that can change forever the way you think about the world."

Article continues below

The impact of most of what we memorize is not so dramatic as to change forever the way we think about the world. But it is real, and its consequences accumulate over time. Hence the choices we make about what to put in our mind are of lasting importance. "Memorization of Scripture," Dallas Willard writes, "is one way of 'taking charge' of the contents of our conscious thoughts, and of the feelings, beliefs, and actions that depend on them."

Spiritual toughness

A few months ago, a strange little book arrived on my desk: Scripture by Heart: Devotional Practices for Memorizing God's Word. I wasn't familiar with the author, Joshua Choonmin Kang, who was described as a pastor and speaker in Los Angeles, the author of more than 30 books in Korean and one previous book in English. This new book, the author said, was first written and published in Korean, after which "I had it rendered into readable English." Hmm.

At first glance, the book didn't look like my cup of tea. It was loaded with tidbits of quotation: "Calvin Coolidge put it this way: 'We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once' (as quoted in Wisdom for the Soul by Larry Chang)." I was about to add the book to the giveaway pile, but something kept me reading. Maybe it was Kang's willingness to champion the unfashionable cause of memorizing Scripture. As I read on, I became deeply absorbed. Never mind the stylistic distractions: This is a wise book, practical, winsome, and above all communicating a vibrant love for God and his Word. I could understand why Willard contributed a foreword.

There was something else, too, what for want of a better phrase I will call a "spiritual toughness." Kang's book challenged me. When I picked it up, I was already well persuaded of the value of memorizing Scripture. Hadn't I learned great swatches of it when I was growing up? But Kang's insistence on a daily discipline—no more than 30 minutes and no less than 15 minutes a day, he says, with his characteristic firmness—jolted me. He was talking about a constantly renewed intimacy, a loving rehearsal and renewed exploration of the verses learned "by heart." And as I began to re-read the book and apply it, I made a distressing discovery. All those passages I had learned long ago? With some exceptions, they were not sufficiently fresh in my mind to recite inwardly.

Article continues below

But does that matter? If you have absorbed the sense of a passage, does it matter whether you know it word for word? And for most of us (myself included), the words, after all, are in translation—nowadays, in a bewildering range of versions. In conversations over the months since I first read Kang's book, I have recommended it to many friends and acquaintances. Most of them, while listening politely, have not been interested enough to investigate the book for themselves. Several who are either Catholics or were raised Catholic referred to the dreary catechetical experience of their youth. Others have mentioned how they have been blessed by having the Bible instantly accessible and searchable on their hand-held digital devices, the implication being that memorizing Scripture is a waste of time and effort—and perhaps that it is really self-focused, a feat to perform, a substitute for living out what Jesus calls us to do.

We live in a time when memorization is routinely scorned. Yet this dismissal doesn't seem to jibe with our everyday experience.

Of course it could be distorted in that way, just as prayer can easily be distorted. But the fashion among evangelicals to deprecate Scripture memorization—or, more commonly, to ignore it—is itself based on caricature. Kang observes that Jesus was "the beneficiary of habit. He read Scripture in the synagogue (Luke 4:16); prayed early in the morning (Mark 1:35); prayed on high places (Luke 22:39)"; and, as a teacher, expounded the Word he knew by heart. "When we commit ourselves to memorizing Scripture," Kang writes, "we follow in Jesus' footsteps. We cultivate his lifestyle. We gather our wits and concentrate."

Again and again, Kang emphasizes that memorizing Scripture is not an end in itself. "When we meditate deeply on the words of Scripture," he writes, "we begin to bear fruit," directed by the Spirit. "The more we commit the Word to memory, the richer our being becomes. The melodious concert of his Word will continually echo within us. Then we'll encounter the conductor, our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit, who helps us remember the Scriptures, and the Father, who'll receive glory through all of this."

Article continues below

Sometimes I walk downstairs into the basement, hunting for a misplaced book. While I'm there, I come across two or three books I wasn't even looking for, books that seem to have come magically to hand for this or that project-in-progress.

So too in the chambers of memory. While thinking about Scripture memorization and rummaging around for specific recollections, I have come across many more that I didn't know I was looking for. Many have been in the form of voices I heard decades ago (by no means all of them identifiable), quoting Scripture: some resonant, some frail, some unctuous, some down-to-earth.

And among them is the voice of my mother, who celebrated her 88th birthday in December. The daughter of missionaries, she grew up at a time when the discipline of Scripture memorization was honored. And she was endowed with an exceptionally good power of memory, so that the practice came easier for her than for many others. For her, it was (as Kang suggests) first and foremost a discipline of meditation on God's word. But when she did quote aloud from the Bible, it was always with a sense of dear familiarity.

Today, she can't quote even a single verse aloud. Completing a sentence of any kind is difficult for her—often she'll launch into one, get several words out, and come to a halt, unable to continue. Memorizing Scripture isn't a magical practice that allows us to escape the burdens of our earthly life. Perhaps, in a way that isn't perceptible to us from the outside, words from the Word continue to guide and comfort my mom in some inner speech. And maybe not. But we are confident in the promises that Willard recalls:

Through memorization God's words reside in our body, in our social environment, in the constant orientation of our will and in the depths of our soul. They become a power, a substance, that sustains and directs us without our even thinking of them, and they emerge into conscious thought and action as needed. This is what Jesus spoke of as abiding, dwelling in him.

Whether or not my mother remembers anything more than scraps of the Word, the Word remembers her, and she abides in him, at his gracious invitation.

Memorizing Scripture can be reduced to technique, competition, repetition without understanding, and other departures from what God wishes for us. But it can also lead us into participation in the "melodious concert" Kang evokes, just as in celebrating the Eucharist we participate in the great feast set before the foundations of time. I am thankful to Pastor Joshua Choonmin Kang for his forceful and timely guide to intimacy with God's Word. "How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!"

Article continues below

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.

Related Elsewhere:

ChristianBibleStudies.com has a Bible study on "Scripture By Heart."

Other articles on Bible memorization from Christianity Today's sister publications include:

My 3x5 Salvation | When words fail, the Word I've memorized is there. (Leadership Journal, June 20, 2008)
Is Your Bible Big Enough? Part 2 | The power of the Bible: in story and memory and more. (Leadership Journal, February 25, 2008)
Ben's Ultimate Bible Drill | For two-and-a- half hours all the people, children included, listened as three men simply recited the word of God from the last book of the Bible, beginning to end. (Leadership Journal, October 31, 2002)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.