By my reckoning, the rise and fall of the Ponderize Corporate Empire took about six hours, from the time of Devin Durrant’s talk on the subject in General Conference to the removal of a website that appeared to have been designed to profit from the concept by selling t-shirts and wristbands. I fear, though, that this six-hour debate about marketing strategy was a red herring—one that causes us to discuss the merits of t-shirts and mobile apps when we should be discussing the merits of the “ponderize” concept itself.
When I first heard about ponderizing (all the way back to yesterday afternoon when I didn’t know about the t-shirts) I found the concept comfortable and familiar. The basic idea—selecting a single verse of scripture, committing it to memory, and thinking about it deeply over a long period of time—should be familiar to anybody who grew up in the Church. In Seminary, we called it “Scripture Mastery,” where we learned 25 or so verses a year for four years, making us experts on a hundred different passages in the Standard Works.
Missionaries do the same thing when they enter the mission field. In my mission (and I have no idea if this was or is standard), we had to memorize and repeat 80 different scriptures before we were allowed to drive a mission car. And much of the adult curriculum of the Church is organized around a similar principle. The Gospel Doctrine manuals, for example, frequently move from one salient verse to another, without much context in between.
Let me be very clear that I am not knocking this. There is value to learning—and even memorizing—important passages from scriptural texts. I can think of many worse things for my teenage children to be doing any night of the week than ponderizing a few verses from the Pearl of Great Price. But I worry about our tendency to confuse this kind of isolated engagement with a few verses with really studying the scriptures. And that is a problem.
I was well into my 20s before I really realized that the Bible was more than a collection 30 thousand or so one-sentence texts. Individual verses, in fact, came fairly late in the game—about 1560, when the Geneva Bible was published with the radical innovation of numbered chapters and verses. And though the modern chapter-and-verse Bible is a very convenient way to locate and communicate specific words, it was never part of the original plan. The Book of Mormon, too, was originally published without numbered verses. God may have inspired the words, but mere human typeseters created the numbering systems.
And there is a spiritual danger in treating the scriptures solely as a collection of interchangeable, sentence-length citations. This way of understanding the scriptures promotes proof-texting rather than reading. And it is very easy to “prove” all kinds of stuff by constructing acontextual chains of proof texts from random passages in the standard works. If I can take one sentence from 1 Corinthians, combine it with another sentence from Leviticus, and throw in a metaphor from the Psalms, I can demonstrate to anybody’s satisfaction that God has a body, or that He doesn’t have a body, or that he has three heads. Let me throw in a verse from Ecclesiastes, and I am pretty sure that I could prove that He is a baked potato.
But proof-texting is not a strategy for understanding stuff; it is a strategy for arguing about stuff—for proving ourselves right and other people wrong. And once this becomes the goal of our scripture study, we have already lost the Kingdom of God.
There is great depth and beauty in the scriptures when they are read as their writers intended for them to be read—as coherent poems and stories, meaningful prophecies, fascinating histories, intricate legal and social codes, and long letters to people who were struggling with many of the same things that we struggle with today. You can’t get to these parts of the scriptures by ponderizing or prooftexturizing. You have to read, re-read, and study, all of which is hard work, and none of which can be reduced to a mobile app or a Twitter feed.
So, by all means, ponderize. Master the scriptures. Learn everything that this strategy of scripture study can teach—and I do not dispute that it can teach important things. But at some point, remember to make the significant effort of time and energy required to read and struggle to understand the magnificent texts that our religion holds forth as the Word of God.