February 4, 2009
The Best “Rejection” Decision I’ve Ever Made
At SBL a few months ago a certain professor of NT spoke with me about his enthusiasm for memorizing Scripture—whole books of the NT, and even in Greek. In fact he had a proposal for a book on memorizing Scripture. His evident enthusiasm for memorizing entire books of the Bible caught me at a receptive moment. It was something that in recent years I’d often thought about trying.
I shelved Scripture memorization a long time ago. When I was a kid, I had to memorize and recite at least one verse of KJV before breakfast, except on Sundays. I don’t recall ever going hungry, but it left a bad taste in my mouth and some tear stains on India paper. The last serious episode of memorizing I recall was one summer during my college days, when I worked at the Grand Canyon. I remember sitting on the South Rim of the canyon working on memorizing a few chapters of the Gospel of John. Since then I don’t think I’ve experienced more than sporadic attempts at memorizing.
Anyway, upon returning home from SBL I opened up the Greek text of Colossians and started to memorize. It’s a Pauline letter that I’ve previously spent quite a bit of time in. It’s not too lengthy. And it seemed to me that the pay-off would be handsome. Memorizing the Greek text, by the way, immediately solves the problem of what English translation to use! (And that’s a problem, quite frankly.)
First, I learned that memorizing doesn’t come as easily at age 59 as it did at age 9 or 20. Though I’m sure there are many other folks my age who can memorize with much less effort than I! But it’s possible. Just don’t set your expectations too high. Don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t seem to be “taking” fast enough. If you keep at it, the text will work its way into the cranium, laying down its patterns and crystallizing in words, sentences and paragraphs. Keep inching forward and keep reviewing. Nothing is lost and much is gained by taking more time. Think of it as meditation. Or lectio divina, if that sounds cooler. And if you make a mistake that is represented in the textual apparatus at the bottom of the page, give yourself an extra point! You’ve got a bit of tradition on your side. Some ancient scribe’s mind traveled in the same vein.
One great benefit of memorizing is that you notice things in the text that have escaped you before, such as patterns of words and phraseology. And it’s a fantastic way to review Greek grammar and vocabulary. Then too, you can feel yourself starting to think Paul’s thoughts after him. As I recite a text I’m trying to recall the train of thought.
I’m beginning to think that memorization is a terrific step forward in exegesis. And I now think that a sure way to slow the flow of commentaries, and possibly increase their value, is to require commentators to first memorize the text! (There are scholars in the past and even the present who are reputed to have committed large tracts of the NT to memory—or at least succeeded in convincing their students that they had.)
And here is another benefit: walk the dog, go on a drive or a run, and lines and paragraphs of the Greek text come to mind unbidden. Not bad.
To be sure, in the midst of all this I’ve had the experience of looking at a new paragraph of Greek text and flinching from what seems like a daunting thicket of words and syntax—even though I know what it says. But amazingly, as I wade into it with the sole aid of memory, the thicket takes form and shape, and the trouble pretty much dissolves.
Memorizing is quickly becoming a lost discipline. Ironically, the writing of texts probably originated as a memory aid. And memorizing used to be a common feature of education. In some parts of the world, and some communities of our own society, it still is. Think of the many Muslims who succeed in memorizing much or all of the Quran. Yet here in the West we often demean it by calling it rote memory. That, I’m afraid, is an unworthy label, most casually applied by those with little experience in the benefits of memorizing.
The good professor sent me his book proposal in December. By that time, I’d invested many hours testing out his own thesis, so to speak. But I eventually decided it wasn’t going to work as a book. Or at least I’d never be able to convince others at IVP that it would work as a book! There just aren’t enough people who will pick up a book on memorizing whole books of Scripture. But what will work is a teacher who is enthusiastic about it and will require and coach students in memorizing. Or even fire up a tough-skinned editor. They will experience the benefits for themselves. And these disciples will in turn disciple others in the art. Some ideas are just not viable book material. But they are great nonetheless.
I’ve never worked so hard—or experienced quite so much joy—in arriving at a “rejection” decision. And I told him so.
Now, on to Colossians 2. Thelo gar humas eidenai. . .