Devotion, scripture and memorization: Elder Scott

Elder Scott, in his recent Conference address, extended a call to greater devotion of our scripture. This devotion, in his life, seems, in part, to have emerged from the practice of memorizing scripture. Within Mormonism memorizing scripture is tightly bound with seminary and the experience of Missionaries. The practice is often geared toward establishing as truth a particular doctrine or concept through a specific verse from the standard works. The ability to do this well seems to have become the Latter-day Saint definition of a ‘scriptorian’.  As such, I fear this association has lead some to conflate the practice of memorization with the act of proof-texting but this is not necessarily the case and it under-appreciates the religious value of this form of devotion.

Elder Scott correctly suggests that the process of memorization allows us to develop a different relationship with a text.  Although he notes the attendent familiarity that comes with this practice he did not emphasis the alienation that also occurs.  Memorization makes those same oft-read verses seem somehow strange.  The words start to move as we intonate them differently and as we recite them over and over again. We get a sense of their revelatory multiplicity and with that persist to uncover the other insights and truths that might be found there. Not only do the words change but we are altered (or at the very least become more malleable) in response to this linguistic uncertainty.  It is in these spaces of openness that God can speak to us. I believe that memorization is one way to approach God and to seek his voice.

However, this is not to suggest that we must purchase ourselves a set of the scripture masteries and go to work; although that is probably not a worthless endeavour. Instead we should return to those texts which have become foundations of our faith and we must excavate them anew through memorizing whole chapters, sermons and passages. How might our approach to the natural world and all forms of life change if we memorized each creation narrative? How might our sense of discipleship alter if we memorised the sermon of the mount or King Benjamin’s address?

To be sure, these are not easily accomplished.  It would require affection, time and care; in short, it would require devotion. Elder Scott invites us to demonstrate our devotion to scripture; a devotion which involves more than reading daily or even studying particular concepts. It is a form of religious practice that opens to us the possibility of change through the word of God.

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    Aaron, there may be more to the practice of memorization, particularly in the face of modern tendencies towards scattered attention spans and multitasking. Rote memorization requires discipline and singular focus, both of which are extremely valuable (and increasingly rare) traits in their own right. So those Scripture Mastery cards may really be setting you up for a lifetime of peace and contentment!

  2. Thanks for the reminder. It sounds like the beautiful Jewish tradition of memorizing larger passages of scripture. I like Steve’s comment too…I wonder if memorizing scripture helps our minds be still-thus furthering our effort to know God

  3. i heard that the talk says that memorizing scriptures can heal your body physically, was that accurate? ( i didnt happen to see the talk )

  4. I love what you said about us associating memorization with “proof-texting”. Being fairly young, that is all I have used memorization for, but I know it can mean so much more if I take personally meaningful scriptures and memorize them. I agree it can be a powerful tool to help ourselves draw nigh to God rather than others.

  5. Hebrew Bible scholar David M. Carr’s 2008 book, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature contains a fascinating discussion of scribal cultures in the Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and Greece, where scribes used written texts primarily as an aid for memorization and recitation–oral activities. They called this process writing on the tablet of the heart, a phrase that also shows up in the Hebrew Bible, showing in Carr’s view that biblical works transitioned from primarily oral traditions to written texts. Scribes believed that they became fully human when they had committed to memory a certain body of texts. This process enculturated scribes and qualified them for work in government, and, again in Carr’s argument, provided the means by which Jews maintained distinct identities during Hellenistic times, where Greek education had taken over everything.Anyway, I think Carro’s work has a lot to teach us about the role of memorization and education in forming and maintaining identities and how we become enculrurated as Mormons.

  6. For some more thoughts on memorizing scripture, see here:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2008/11/01/barneypalooza-1-memorization-and-eye-contact/

  7. .

    “Devotion” is the trick, isn’t it. That takes time.

  8. /threadjack

    Kevin Barney: I re-read your post on memorizing. Good stuff. How much do you follow that advice of memorizing when it comes to court/oral argument?

  9. The only problem with memorization is that often times the meaning of the memorized scripture or passage is limited to only one meaning.

  10. We get a sense of their revelatory multiplicity and with that persist to uncover the other insights and truths that might be found there. Not only do the words change but we are altered (or at the very least become more malleable) in response to this linguistic uncertainty. It is in these spaces of openness that God can speak to us.

    Beautifully said Aaron.

    When I first started having children I was determined to teach them to memorize verses every week. That has since fallen by the wayside.

  11. Hunter, I’m not a litigator so that is something I don’t deal with.

  12. Chris Gordon says:

    Kerry (9), I’ve experienced the opposite with those few passages that I have memorized or at least learned well. Since they pop up more often in my mind while ponder, discussing, etc., and since they are ready in my arsenal of “thoughts” to draw on, they’ve come to take on different interpretations.

  13. Inspired by Julie M Smith’s T&S posts about focusing her family’s FHEs this year around The Living Christ, my family decided we would do the same with the goal of memorizing the document by the end of the year. We are very close, and it’s been a great experience. I hope we can continue the habit of memorizing lengthy texts together. Next I think we’ll tackle scripture, though; I really like the idea of King Benjamin’s speech (at least portions). I have been really impressed with how well my 6 and 8 year old have been able to do; they almost have it down. Even my 4 year old has memorized large chunks of it. (My 8 month old hasn’t managed to keep up, however.) I think the sentiments and language they are internalizing will serve them very well as they learn more about the gospel and our beliefs, and as they have discussions with others. And I have enjoyed it personally. Not to mention having some focus to our FHEs has been a relief.

  14. I had a good friend a who grew up the son of protestant missionaries in Brazil. He had large swaths of the Bible (Old & New Testaments) memorized. It was awesome to watch him make connections about the teachings of the scriptures. Someone in a class would say, “I don’t know where this is, but the scriptures say….” and he always knew where it was and could quote it. Amazing. I assumed the memorization was part of his upbringing. I don’t know if he extended it to the Book of Mormon and other LDS scripture after his conversion to the church.

  15. Btw – This is a little off the *direct* topic of this post, but I’d like to comment on this series of posts reflecting on the talks given in general conference. You authors of these posts are showing me, a young Ph.D. student who has been given recently to fits of ennui regarding Church activity (*), an entirely different and more intellectually-driven paradigm for studying and analyzing the words of the prophets. I’m much more excited now for the conference issue of the Ensign than I was about two weeks ago. Keep up the good work, and know that you’re influencing people for good.

    * This doesn’t sound entirely right; it’s not that I’m thinking of becoming “inactive” in the usual sense of non-attendance. I can’t think of a better way to phrase it though.

  16. Steve, that is an insight that I had not considered and a important dimension to this topic.

    Lessonnumberone, I agree that this can help us to be still and is therefore also a form of meditation.

    Albert, I believe the comment was that quoting scripture can physically heal us. Personally I am not quite sure what he meant but do not think that he intendes the most literal reading.

    Mr X I am not sure you intended this but I am not sure I would draw a distinction between drawing closer to God and drawing closer to others.

    David G, great thoughts. In that view what does our approach to memorization and sacred texts say about our identity. The notion that this process is writing upon the heart is nice as well.

    Kerry, I have had the opposite experience. In fact I would say that any passage can more than one meaning when situated in a larger context.

    mmiles, my children are quite young but I had hoped to ask them to memorize poetry for birthday presents. I like your idea as well although it seems hard.

    Sbagleysd, glad you are enjoying the posts. Thanks for your comment and ensure you stick around.

  17. Aaron,
    Poetry is perfect for young children, I think I had that idea when they were still too young. If I had started with poetry, it would have been much better.

  18. Chris Gordon says:

    @sbagleysd, you’re describing a lot of what I like about reading and discussing here. I’m not going to presume to have contributed to your appreciation, but it astounds me that there seem to be so few among the rank and file who take the leap in applying their academic and/or professional talents of reading, analysis, synthesis, etc. to the context of the gospel. I’ve attended several BYU graduations (with and without hoods, though only once as an actual recipient–my undergrad), and at each students are encouraged to do just that. Glad that there is no shortage of that effort here.

  19. Maybe this is a bit off topic, but I would be interested in hearing about what others feel the attitude is towards memorization in our society in general, as well as it’s worth.

    I grew up in Utah the 70’s and 80’s and we had to memorize all the time in school. We had to memorize all four verses of the “Star Spangled Banner,” famous poems and sonnets, the preamble to the US Constitution and the Declaration of independence, the Gettysburg Address, the list could go on.

    I have two children in High School Right Now, one in Middle School and one in Elementary, and I don’t think that they have ever been asked to memorize anything, except maybe the “Pledge of Allegiance.”

    I agree with Steven in #1 – memorization teaches focus and other valuable life skills. Plus, I feel we are richer as individuals and as a society when we are more familiar with classic literature.

  20. StillConfused says:

    As a child I memorized every summer when I spent a week at Southern Baptist Bible School. I don’t remember doing that in Mormon church though.

  21. I think that the memorization of religious texts can verge on the liturgical, especially if used as a part of regular devotion. Primary kids used to recite the Lord’s Prayer, now it is the Articles of Faith.

  22. I recently had the opportunity to sit in with the missionaries during a discussion and listened while one of the missionaries shared the First Vision from memory. Sharing it the way he did (simply, heart-felt and with eye-contact) seemed more powerful than it would have been had he simply read it. I wasn’t prepared for my own emotional response to his recitation.

  23. anon, I appreciate hearing about your experience. Thank you for sharing.

    J., I agree there is certainly a liturgical component and wonder if that is something that could be emphasised more on the local level.

    StillConfused, I know we were encouraged to memorise the AoF when I was in primary but I am not sure how strong the encouragement was.

  24. Chris Gordon says:

    @19, I’ve always had the impression that memorization in school has kind of gone away. At one point it was seen as a convenient/valuable way to learn, but kind of went the way of the dodo in favor of teaching “critical thinking” skills. I think it’s time for the pendulum to swing back a bit.

  25. Joseph S. says:

    I love memorizing scripture, but I have found memorizing great works of poetry to be even more fulfilling.

  26. I get the impression the education system doesn’t encourage much memorizing anymore. I had to do some formal memorization for my grad work; for one class, we had to pick a poem, memorize and perform. I had to recite 30 verses of Mutanabbi in class, and did not shine, I’m ashamed to say. I still remember the opening lines.

    I think there’s great value in memorizing, as long as it’s not the only method one is using to learn or sharpen the mind. One can memorize much and know little.

    @sbagleysd Welcome to the blogs.

  27. Years ago, I undertook to see how much of the Book of Mormon I could memorize and recite. As I recall, I got the first few chapters of 1 Nephi down well enough that I could do them with almost no errors.

    While the task didn’t fit my needs at that time, I have found that — as with other scriptures I’ve memorized — the simple “having” of the words in my head has allowed them to arise at times and in places and situations where they provide me with another perspective, one that I wouldn’t have had, but for them.

    I’ve found the same to be true of various soliloquys of Shakespeare.

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