Embracing the Thrill of the Chase

Several years ago, I lived on a street with a most interesting religious configuration. Three houses in a row — a minister from a conservative church with his wife and eight children — Abel, Esther, Lydia, Hannah, David, Daniel, Rebekah and Miriam. Their neighbour was a retired pastor of 30 years from another denomination, who now served a large geographical area assisting in mediation between pastors and their congregations. He and his wife had three grown children. And finally there was us: a Mormon bishop, his wife and their three little pre-school boys. Our commonalities as much as our differences, held us together, forming a somewhat tenuous community of believers who were trying in their own ways to follow the teachings of Jesus.

During those years on Burton Road, one of my favourite things to do was to watch the school age children, who lived two doors down, arrive home from school. The bus stop was around the corner and like clockwork at quarter to four, here they would come. The oldest boy, confident and aloof, striding ahead. Esther, Lydia and Hannah came next, laughing and talking and finally David and Daniel, bringing up the rear, stopping to look at bugs on the sidewalk or pausing to pick up a dropped lunch box or books. If I was outside with my own boys, I would somehow, occasionally, be swept along to their house for an after-school snack and visit. I have pleasant memories of sitting around the kitchen table — more often then not, their home was a happy confusion of children, music and chatter. Their mother was meant to be the nurturer of a large brood — she mothered with grace and enthusiasm. I marveled at her as she took them on bicycle rides and canoe trips, helped with flute and piano practice and deftly handled their misbehaviour. She became a good friend and trusted advisor.

Which is why I was so shocked and unprepared, the day she decided to attack.

We were walking home from the park. They were moving the next day — a new posting to another province. We were both pushing strollers and as we paused to cross the street, she turned and said, “Why would a woman be a Mormon? I can see what’s in it for a man, but cannot understand why any woman would be a member of your church!” I flushed. I struggled for words but under the onslaught of her unexpected assault, I was paralyzed. She poured scriptures like acid over me, as I tried to articulate our beliefs and our doctrine. I was confused — this was my friend. But she had carefully stalked me, studiously prepared for the confrontation, marshaled the scriptures and left me for dead.

I came home and cried. I felt violated and bewildered by the nature and timing of her parting blows. But I also came to the realization that I was unprepared. I couldn’t recite scriptures at the drop of a hat. I read the scriptures for my own edification and understanding. Memorization held little interest for me and I shied away from heated scriptural debates. I wanted to internalize the words and change my heart, not compete with others over them.

Until the scripture chase. Years after that terrible afternoon, I now find myself memorizing, reciting and locating scriptures to the click of a stopwatch. My motive is not to debate and crush members of other religions but to encourage (and hopefully defeat?) the youth of my ward, as they prepare for a Tri-stake scripture chase. We’ve decided as a Young Women’s Presidency, to work extra hard for this event, I suppose in an effort to show that it is important for women and girls to know and understand the scriptures. As I strive to permanently embed them into my aging grey matter, I am surprised to feel them being etched more deeply into my heart. Perhaps now, I am finally ready to embrace such an exercise.

We moved away from Burton Road five years ago this week. As I sit here this morning, holding my scripture mastery cards, I think of Inge. I remember her playing her guitar at Daniel’s 5th birthday party. I remember the story of when she was snorkeling in Indonesia and scraped her big pregnant belly on the coral reef. But most of all, I remember her dark flashing eyes, as she wielded the scriptures like a sword. I will use the scripture chase to beat such weapons into ploughshares.


  1. Nice post Kris. Getting ambushed by a so-called friend is a terrible experience.

    Your story reminded me of something: When I was a missionary there was an uber-challenge in our missions that I decided to take. One of the requirements of this challenge was to memorize and recite (without mistakes) something like 150 passages of scriptures (the longest single passage on the list was the 3 1/2 pages of JS-H 1-20). It took me more than a year to prepare, but I knocked it out in the summer of ’90.

    Maybe I should feel embarrassed to have put that much energy into precisely memorizing so many scriptures, but I don’t. I’ve discovered in the years since that verses just come to my mind when I need them.

  2. When there’s a determination of best blog posts for this year, this one should be in the running. I particularly enjoyed the line about using the scriptures to turn swords into plowshares. Unfortunately that’s not always the way things work.

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    I have mixed feelings about this.

    On the one hand, you should have been prepared to answer her. On the other hand, I don’t think lobbing scripture verses at her would have been the way to do that (even if you had had some zingers memorized). On the other hand, this isn’t to say that I think memorization is a bad thing–it is a wonderful thing that truly embeds the word of God in your heart, and we should do more of it. On the other hand, it bothers me that virtually all of the scripture memory verses are apologetic in nature–where are the words of comfort and hope?

    I wish we better prepared people for anti attacks. I wish we focused more on memorizing scriptures. But my sense is that those should be two entirely separate endeavors.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m not a fan of argumentation grounded in prooftexting scriptures, which is undoubtedly what your friend was doing. To be your good friend all that time and then to pounce on you just when she was on the verge of moving away (knowing she wouldn’t have to face you again) was simply unconscionable.

    But I am a fan of memorizing. When I was a young man we had these priesthood advancement books, and we were supposed to set goals for memorizing scriptures. I always checked the lowest box allowable, and I never actually memorized any. It just seemed too hard, even impossible, to me.

    Flash foward to my mission. In those days we had to memorize the discussions, at least 90% word perfect, and all of the discussion scriptures (about 75 as I recall), 100% word perfect. At zone conferences, the MP would ask you to stand and give you a citation, and you had to recite it in front of everyone (and some of the scripture passages were 10 verses long). And you know what? I learned that I can indeed memorize scriptures, with little difficulty, actually. All it takes is repetition. I wrote them out on index cards on a ring, which I would regularly consult when standing in line or doing something else that did not require my attention.

    After I memorized the discussion scriptures, I just kept going. I memorized all of the scriptures used in the libretto to Handel’s Messsiah, for instance, just because I enjoyed that oratorio so much.

    One year, I was put in charge of the Christmas program, and I decided that rather than reading the scripture selections I wanted to use, I would memorize them and recite them as part of the program. It was a total of 116 verses of scripture, and it took me two and a half months (mostly practicing while driving my car to the train station for my morning commute), but I did it. The audience loved it, and a lot of the young people were totally blown away that I would put that much effort into our Christmas program, and that such a feat was even possible.

    I first learned the power of memorizing scriptures in giving talks while on my mission. I was newly transferred into a ward, and was asked to speak on “faith.” I prepared the talk I wanted to give–no great shakes, really–and, as a last minute lark, I decided to memorize the scriptures I wanted to use and speak without notes. It was a simple talk, but I maintained total eye contact with the audience. Afterwards, I was surrounded by people telling me how wonderful the talk was, wanting to give me referrals, etc. Ever since that experience I have always memorized whatever scriptures I wanted to use in a talk and have spoken without notes, and the results have been excellent. It is one of the keys to good public speaking, I think.

  5. What a splendid post! It is subtle and ferrocious. I think that there is also lessons to be learned here on how we share the gospel with our friends. No one likes to be ambushed.

  6. MikeInWeHo says:

    Beautiful post. Did you have any contact with your friend again after her scriptural assault?

  7. I had the very lucky opportunity of listening to a missionary try and give out a BoM on the train this morning. She was a nice missionary, very friendly, but as the guy asked questions about the Bible, its completeness, the place of the BoM etc she had a whole bunch of arrows in her quiver. This one for this response. That one for that response. I’m not sure if the man was dis/satisfied but I felt like she wasn’t thinking things through or had assigned one single meaning to her memorized scriptures and ideas and couldn’t access some of the complexity.
    I agree with Kevin. Memorizing makes you smarter, makes people like you and invites language you like to remain in your brain, but memorizing scriptures is sometimes weird to me because once memorized we forget to think about other meanings or purposes of the memorized verse.
    Great post, Kris.

  8. A few weeks ago I taught the RS lesson on the atonement, and as I read through the manual to prepare I was strongly struck by the context in which Wilford Woodruff’s thoughts were presented. The lesson started out with WW responding to a member of the church who was publicly claiming that the atonement wasn’t necessary and continued with WW responding to people who claimed that repentance and baptism were not necessary to partake in the gift of salvation.

    I decided hang the lesson on the idea that we really need to not only understand the atonement as best we can for personal reasons, but that we need to be able to explain to others what we believe about the atonement. I used the current example of how some Christians fear for our souls (to the point of sending missionaries to us) because they think we believe that works alone will save us, and we talked about how to explain that we believe both in the gift of salvation (grace) and that we need to act (faith, repentance, baptism) to partake of it.

    Knowing scriptures is an important element, but at the core of it is that we need to figure out how to articulate our beliefs to someone who isn’t familiar with them, and who may already have preconceived, erroneous notions.

  9. I couldn’t disagree more with Kevin (#4). I consider memorization of scriptures a complete waste of time; that’s what the topical guide is for. More importantly, I think it fosters in people the idea that the person who has a scripture memorized knows what it is he or she is saying, when the reality is too often that the person only knows what order the words go in. I’ll take someone who really understands what the scriptures mean over someone who has memorized it every day of the week. And my anecdotal experience is that too many of us (especially our youth) often mistake the latter for the former.

    And, with no offense meant, I think the value of being highly regarded at meetings based on memorized scriptures is pretty low.

  10. Huh. With the shortage of good sacrament talks, I appreciate some thoughtful memorization. I also think memorization makes you wicked smart or at least uses a part of the brain not many people use so I”m all for it. Like everyone else has said tho, sometimes we forget to think through scriptures (or ideas mostly) that we have memorized, and that makes for stupid people.

    “I used the current example of how some Christians fear for our souls (to the point of sending missionaries to us)”
    Mel, Aren’t we just like them? Don’t we fear for people’s souls to the point of sending missionaries to them? What makes us so different from them?

  11. #10: The point of the comment was that they fear for our souls because they misunderstand our beliefs about the atonement (they think we believe we can earn salvation on our own and not rely on the atonement), not because they disagree with them.

    Of course, they may come to an understanding of our beliefs, disagree with them and still fear for our souls.

  12. Beautifully written Kris! I was right there with you, attacked and uncomfortable. Very well done.

  13. Wow. what a great post. I too like the image of using the scriptures as ploughshares, and I can’t help but feel like that image is central: we plow, furrow and plant seeds of faith using the scriptures. Digging up the clods of doubt, breaking them down, preparing ourselves for faith.

    Swords are useful, but not if you want things to grow. Thanks Kris.

  14. #11

    My wife grew up in small town on the east coast and she had a good friend that was thoroughly baptist, but my wife felt that the friend was understanding and respectful of their differences.

    A few years back my wife’s brother left the church. A few months back my wife discovered that this friend of hers has been praying fervently that she would see the error of her ways and leave the church like her brother did.

    I suspect anybody that goes out to convert anyone because they “fear for someone’s soul” is bound to offend, irritate, etc.

    There was an earlier blog article about what role hormones/physical attributes play in our agency and the answer was “do your best and God would judge mercifully.” Consistent with that thought, I would think the good Christian folk for whom we fear are going to be provided appropriate opportunities in this life and/or the next, via our involvement or despite it. I bristle at “fearing for the souls of others.” I’d prefer to be approached in sincerity and treated sincerely.

    What a shock for Kris (and my wife) to feel respected/befriended and then be betrayed.

    I suspect I would have spent many years crafting responses that would have turned the shame on the attacker, “I thought we were friends, why are you attacking my beliefs?” but I obviously have some work to do.

  15. On my mission, in a feat of excessive zeal that makes me laugh now, a former companion and I decided that we would go beyond what was required in terms of scriptural familiarity. There was a scale of piety/success, something like “magnify” and “ultra-magnify.” The point was that there were a few scriptures/proof-texts to memorize and a whole slew to be familiar with. Missionaries who met criteria were listed in the mission bulletin.

    We decided that we would memorize every last one of the scriptures, including the “be familiar with” category. Imagine our shock when we discovered that the entire DC 138 (JFS’s vision of the spirit world) was listed. Undaunted, I memorized the entire section, along with every other scripture on the list. I recited them to the AP on the way to the airport to take me home. It gave me an endorphin-esque high.

    Shortly thereafter, I told a secular Jewish friend, suffering from a recent breakup, that I couldn’t see why non-Mormons even bothered to get married–“if it isn’t forever, what’s the point.” You can imagine how well that went over.

    Proof-text memorization is conducive to a rather insensitive and self-absorbed religion, in my own experience. I’m not sure though whether the same is true in an attempt to catechize the youth in an exciting way. Maybe just as Luther liked his simplistic hymns we like our competitive proof-texting as a way to familiarize the young and the simple with the outlines of our doctrine. As comical as it is now, by the end of my DC 138 experience, I had a pretty clear idea of the contours of Joseph F Smith’s vision of the dead. Steve Prothero gave a talk a few months ago about religious literacy and suggested that it’s important we work to restore it. I understand he’s working on a book to that effect right now which should be a good read.

    There is another idea about scripture memorization, though, and that’s akin to poetry memorization. That is the desire to memorize something because it is beautiful, because there is something in the words and their composition that is exciting or touching or uplifting. This approach I would think would rarely focus on a single verse and would take more energy, but I think the dividends would be higher.

    I still have Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud” rattling around in my head from my teens. I should probably add a bit from Paul, some from Isaiah, a bit from Matthew.

  16. Elisabeth says:

    Hi, Kris, thank you for sharing this with us. I’m curious to know what happened with your friend after this confrontation. Did either of you ever speak of it again? Did you ever speak to each other again?

    I think your point is right on – we should memorize and be familiar with a scriptural foundation from which to explain our religion to others. It’s like learning to speak a language or learning the cultural traditions of others so that we can best communicate with them. Unless we understand the way the “outside world” views the Mormon community using their understanding and scriptural references, we’ll have difficulty explaining to them (and to ourselves) our true beliefs in a language they can understand.

    I’m not sure this requires memorization, but it does require a greater familiarity with the Bible (and the BoM) than many regular church-going Mormons have. This is especially true of those who haven’t served missions with the opportunity to explain the scriptures on a daily basis to others.

    Great post, Kris!

    P.S. I still have Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales memorized from my 10th grade English class with Mr. Emmett. Sometime every spring, I smile to myself and recite (in my best Middle English accent) “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote…” 

  17. A few responses —

    First of all, we never spoke again. I left later that afternoon for a weekend at a cottage and she moved out of the province the next day. We had exchanged addresses, but neither of us ever wrote. I was unsure if perhaps I had misjudged the friendship … perhaps, it wasn’t what I thought it was. I was to afraid to find out, I suppose.

    I guess I would like to say that I didn’t intend this to serve in any way as a morality play on how to deal with those who disagree or even attack us. And I don’t advocate using scriptures to argue or defeat those we might differ from whether in a class at church or in our communities.

    But I do think there is great value in learning by heart, with emphasis on the heart, as opposed to rote memorization. I believe that when we commit important pieces of poetry or scripture to our hearts, we will be able to share our thoughts in a more sensitive and grounded fashion.

    Thanks all who shared ideas and feelings on this thread — it is greatly appreciated.

  18. I often wonder what people who use the method your “friend” used expect. That a well reason arguement backed by some scriptures will tare out a deep belief one central to the identity of the person one thinks he cares so much about? I have seen Evangelicals withstand verbal blow after verbal blow from people refuting their beliefs using science and textual analysis. Why? Because they believe and it is central to them. Why do they think we are any different? I really don’t know.

    A commentor on CS Lewis explained his popularity by stating he created a vison of beaty that is both persusave and that one wants to see over and over. That is what the Church is to me. People like this want to burn our vision insead of constructing one of their own.

  19. With the shortage of good sacrament talks, I appreciate some thoughtful memorization.

    I have a number of issues with this statement, many of them related to what a “good” sacrament meeting talk is in a lay clergy church and how the more “enlightened” among us could take talks for what they are: average people doing their best to express the gospel as they understand it. Surely even the least educated among us have good things to say about the gospel we can all benefit from, even if the delivery leaves something to be desired.

    More topical, however, is that I don’t think memorization actually improves sacrament talks. It’s a matter of preference, of course, but when I see someone who has memorized whole chunks of their talk, I think to myself that that person has spent too much time memorizing, and not enough thinking about their topic, regardless of how much time they’ve spent total.

  20. JR from Dallas says:

    The scripture-memorization and citation style of convincing people a religion is true is not very effective. Most evangelical Christian churches have not learned this lesson.

    The reality is that effective missionary work is a hard thing to learn. Our church is probably the best at it in the world because we have spent so much time practicing it, studying it, and refining it. Sending people to the street corner to cry repentance may be traditional, but it’s not very effective. It’s interesting to note the shift toward less memorization in the recently revamped missionary program. But many other church’s haven’t discovered that the softer approach used by our missionaries (which not all missionaries live up to) is more effective than the confrontational approach.

    I also think that the scripture-battle approach is more popular with the Protestants because that, ultimately, is all they have. The only distinguishing features between the churches is in their different interpretations of the same Bible. Other than “My pastor is a better speaker”, there is little else to use to persuade than “The Bible proves we’re right.” Since that is their primary tool, they learn it and use it well, especially in a pastor’s family.

    Mormons not only don’t learn to use the Bible in the same way, but we don’t need to. We don’t believe our only advantage in doctrine comes from a better interpretation of the same scriptures. And we don’t believe that mastery of the Bible (only) is the way to convert. Ours is a faith rooted in living prophets and a personal witness of the truth.

    Preparing to fight the battle on their terms will accomplish nothing, nor should we believe that their superior committment to memorization of scripture reveals any shortcomings in our own devotion. The two systems of belief are founded on very different theories of truth.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    For me the issue in talks isn’t memorization per se, but eye contact. And if you want to use scriptures in your talk, memorization is an effective tool to achieve maximum eye contact.

    Once when I was teaching GD, we were supposed to do a six-week block on missionary work. So I arranged for the elders to teach a discussion in front of the class. I figured this would give them some positive exposure. Boy, was that ever a mistake. They were absolutely terrible, and they probably put missionary work in that ward back several years, because I can’t believe anyone would give them a referral after that performance. They couldn’t deliver the discussion without constantly referring to some paper they had. So most of the time their heads were in their laps, and occasionally they would look up, then lose their place and try to find it again. It actually would have been better if they had just read the thing.

    Now, I’m not saying they necessarily should have memorized the discussion. I know the long trend has been away from that. But they should have at least had enough familiarity with it to be able to deliver it without notes.

  22. I think memorization can help you internalize meaning — and it makes teaching the Gospel a lot easier. I try to memorize at least one scripture from each lesson I teach, and recite it a few different ways during the lesson, explaining what it means and why it’s important. I don’t think you can really tell another person what something means or why it’s important until you know what it actually says. But then, I also find memorization, especially of very short verses, relatively easy.

    And as for proof-texts in the Scripture Mastery set… amongst the scriptures that are in the Scripture Mastery groups (the current one and the older, 160 verse, version,) and sorting for the ones most often cited in General Conference, you get a top 5 of:

    Moses 1:39
    For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

    2 Nephi 2:25
    Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

    Romans 1:16
    For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

    D&C 14:7
    And, if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God.

    John 17:3
    And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

    Which really seems more like joy and comfort than proof-texting to me, though I’m relatively new to the term and so I might be missing something.

  23. I agree with some of the apprehension about convincing through ninja-rote memorization skills. I remember a missionary who had a prove-the-Catholics-are-wrong-with-this -set-of-scriptures handbook.

    However, I was thinking about the value of memorization the other day in another context when I read an interview of some sort with literary critic Harold Bloom where he was lamenting how frightfully dumb we in this miscreant generation are (except for, interestingly, his Latino and Asian students at Yale), and he said that poetry is beyond our grasp because we don’t memorize poems like people once did. And here was the interesting part, he said that the value in memorizing is that it enables a significantly deeper level of analysis and meditation. Once memorized we can put the pieces of the text together a million ways unavailable to the bookbound. While Bloom could then be applicable certainly, I still think the idea of etching on the heart as you phrased it, Kris, is more eloquent.

  24. Once memorized we can put the pieces of the text together a million ways unavailable to the bookbound.

    Which puts the memorization impared (such as myself)at a disadvantage.

    I am very much a context learner, and memorizing things word for word has been very difficult for me. I could often remember what things meant but not what they said.

    In the end I envy those who can memorize large amounts of information at, what seems to me, relitive ease. It allows reflection on the text at the leasure of its master.

%d bloggers like this: