Memorization

I begin Scripture memorization with a few individual verses as a child, but my first introduction to memorization of whole passages was actually still when I was fairly young: one year my class was given the project of memorizing Luke 2:1-20. Twenty verses! I was actually young enough that this didn’t bother me very much; and the class itself was given plenty of time to practice. Still, we were expected to be word-perfect on it by the end of the semester. I still remember that it worked so well that I recited the passage to my mother a year later. I don’t have the wording anymore because it’s been probably almost two decades, but I know the content, and phrases remain. If I wanted to re-memorize it, it would take much less time than starting a passage from scratch. Plus it contains one of the best examples of remembering and thinking about what’s important: “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

Growing up, I only really had one main method of memorization: repetition, which worked for some things (songs) better than others. Naturally songs lend themselves to memorization better because they have multiple modes of information: melodies go with the words, and both together are more easily recalled than one alone. My initial musical training in choral performance was by ear alone: the director would play the first line of the song, and we would sing it, repeating a few times to get it right if necessary. We’d do the same with the next line. Then we’d sing both together, then go on to the next line, and so on. This actually worked so well that one year we had ten or twelve year-olds singing the Hallelujah Chorus in four-part harmony without printed music. Yet I attribute this mostly to the skill and patience of our choir director rather than any particular skill on our parts. I make no claim to the quality of the final rendition of the piece, merely that it was doable by the method we followed.

I didn’t have nearly as much success with spoken parts, though, with a few exceptions. We did primarily musicals, so the spoken lines were fairly limited, and the ones arranged in conversations weren’t a problem because one naturally followed from the previous one. Again, repetition was the main key here. There was one year where we did an abbreviated version of Arabian Nights. I remember that, after the final performance, I tested my memory of the lines by sitting down and typing up a copy of the first several pages of the text with what everyone had been saying, not just me. This included a few fairly solid chunks of commentary by the narrator, too. I hadn’t been trying to memorize anyone else’s lines, but hearing them so many times had put them into my head. However, another year, I was originally supposed to speak a section of narration between several songs of a musical medley production, but I didn’t have any source of external repetition, so I wasn’t able to memorize the text well enough to do the role.

My experience from those productions shows that external repetition can be quite an excellent way to memorize without effort something that is in the environment. Many parents have seen the negative side of this when they find their children singing songs with offensive lyrics from the radio, or using offensive phrases that others have used around their children. But repetition has its limitations, particularly for adult minds that require far more exposure than children’s minds do to retain something. I found myself thinking off and on over the years about the difficulty of intentionally memorizing something that is not normally in one’s environment – such as passages of Scripture.

Some years ago, I read some articles about people who perform amazing feats of short term memory, such as memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards, or the sequence of thousands of digits of pi, or a list of unrelated objects. While these particular tasks seem useless (no practical calculations require more than a handful of digits of pi for reasonable accuracy), it turns out that the techniques they use to do these things have relevance for more meaningful tasks. The main trick is assigning memorable meaning to what may seem arbitrary, either by drawing connections between the items directly, or by assigning them in order to a known sequence and drawing connections between each item and its corresponding item in the known sequence. Standard mnemonic phrases are one simple example of the second method: a sentence like “All Cars Eat Gas” (while no longer strictly accurate now that we have electric cars) is quite easy to remember, while the first letter of each word corresponds to the order of the notes in the spaces of the bass clef: A-C-E-G.

The breakthrough with regard to Scripture came when I found the Bible Wheel site and discovered the numerical and thematic symmetry and structure within each book. In other words, Scripture is already correlated to the order of the Hebrew letters at every level, and each letter has its own set of themes that recur most often in the books, chapters, and verses that correspond to that letter. That essentially means that Scripture comes with its own built-in mnemonic sequence!

The problem of making scripture memorization on a large scale much easier, then, became that of using the sequence of Hebrew letters and their themes to draw connections within and among the verses of a passage to be memorized. The exact wording may still need some repetition to nail down, but the content and structure of the passage can be remembered by using the Hebrew letters as a mnemonic. As an additional step, even the order of the words in the verse can sometimes be correlated to the Hebrew letter sequence with meaningful success, even with the English text rather than the original language text (Hebrew or Greek). Please note that this works best with the King James Version. No attempt has been made to correlate the words of modern approximate translations.

Pages and entries on individual books will illustrate this in much more detail as I practice and refine the process.

This page has the following sub pages.

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