How Memorizing the Bible Empowers Us for Discipleship and Mission Part 1


In 2018, Baeble Music released its list of the top karaoke songs of all time. You don’t have to particularly like any of these songs or even have been born in the era when they were hits to have some of the lyrics of every one of these songs buried in your brain somewhere. From the list:


    1. “Mr. Brightside”— The Killers
    2. “You Oughta Know”— Alanis Morissette
    3. “I Will Always Love You”— Whitney Houston
    4. Don’t Stop Believin’”— Journey
    5. Cheerleader”— OMI
    6. Wonderwall”— Oasis
    7. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”— Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
    8. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”— Aretha Franklin
    9. “Under Pressure”— Queen and David Bowie
    10. “Lose Yourself”— Eminem

Go on, admit it. You heard a strain of “Just a small town girl / Livin’ in a lonely world,” didn’t you? What about “And I wish to you joy and happiness / But above all this, I wish you love”? We might not know the whole song, and we might have even misheard or misremembered the lyrics, but a couple of lines like “Maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me / And after all, you’re my wonderwall”— well, they really stick, don’t they?

They’re Not Called Earworms for Nothing.

What about lines from movies? We have friends who can quote whole scenes from The Big Lebowski. And everyone knows “I’ll have what she’s having,” from When Harry Met Sally . . . , or “You complete me,” from Jerry Maguire, or “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse, from The Godfather. It never ceases to amaze people what bits of useless dialogue they have rattling around in their brains. What’s the use of knowing all that stuff? Is our memory just a repository for random bits of pointless data?

And yet memorization used to be a central part of learning. I (Michael) am just old enough to remember, when I was a young student in Australia, being made to recite long swathes of poetry or learn multiplication tables by rote. We were forced to memorize the periodic table of elements, and (for some reason) we had to be able to recount every river that flows into the eastern seaboard of Australia from north to south, and the major towns on its banks! I hated it— mostly because we got hit with a ruler if we got it wrong; things have changed a lot since then, thank goodness.

Memorization Has a Bad Rap These Days.

Memorization has a bad rap these days. Mainly because we know that information learned by rote in school is soon forgotten when we have no other use for it, but also because we live in an age when impromptu expression is more highly valued than memorized screeds.

Note how today people think public prayer is more meaningful if it’s made up right there on the spot. We’re suspicious of memorized liturgies because we assume they don’t come from the heart. We prefer preachers who appear to be presenting extemporaneously to those who are either reading their notes or reciting them by rote. We don’t trust politicians who are woodenly following a teleprompter. Our love of unrehearsed speech and our skepticism about memorized information have meant that no one commits anything to memory much anymore, except maybe PIN numbers.

Memory Was a Key Component

And yet, in his treatise On the Education of Children, Plutarch claimed memory was a key component in the development of students:

Above all, the memory of children should be trained and exercised; for this is, as it were, a storehouse of learning; and it is for this reason that the mythologists have made Memory the mother of the Muses, thereby intimating by an allegory that there is nothing in the world like memory for creating and fostering.

In other words, the brain is a muscle, and if you want it to be strong enough to be creative and intelligent, you have to exercise it. According to Plutarch, rote learning is like burpees for the brain. We might forget useless information we memorized, but the process of learning it was good for us.

You Take the Poem Inside You

So how come I can’t recite those Australian rivers in geographical order anymore, but if I walk into a pub and someone is singing Billy Joel’s Piano Man, I know every word? Poet and novelist Brad Leithauser has some thoughts on that. Writing for the New Yorker on the memorization of poetry, he says,

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.

Whereas the recitation of poetry once achieved this, today it’s pop music and dialogue from television and film that fill that role, conforming our hearts to the beat of their sometimes strange rhythm. So memory is important for the development of our brains, and poetry and pop songs are easier to memorize than Greek declensions or the periodic table (believe us!). But memorization is even more important than you might realize.

Check for Part 2 of “How Memorizing the Bible Empowers Us for Discipleship and Mission” tomorrow!

Taken from Hide This in Your Heart by Michael Frost and Graham Joseph Hill. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.

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