Work Smarter, Not Harder

I’m not normally given to certain Americanism’s, but this one seems much better than “The last four letters in ‘American’ are I CAN!” It’s especially true when the point here dovetails nicely with something I’ve always thought as well: Bible memorization seems like a fairly sneaky, Biblicist way to distance ourselves from creedal and catechetical memorization. Of course, it’s not that there is anything wrong with committing Scripture to memory, but we only have so many megabytes in our brains. It seems the catechetical scribes not only understood the importance of systematic theology, but also that it can be both pastoral and accessible.

Plus, it has always seemed to me that Scripture is a text whose familiarity is best nurtured by simply being read and heard, over and over again. There is almost something religiously defeating about breaking Scripture up into parts and making it a text to be memorized like flash cards. It may be a function of our rather rationalistic age where pew-sitters furiously take notes instead of exercising the most important muscle of faith, the ear. I’m also not particularly given to pointing out how the world is going to hell in a hand basket as evidenced by one lost practice or another, but it could be that the relative discomfort with simply sitting down and listening is a lost discipline. (I know my own children find my reminders to use their ears during private and public worship fairly annoying.) But the gospel is all about sitting and listening. If we want work, catechetical memorization seems to fill the bill. But could it be that Bible memorization, as opposed to Bible familiarity, actually works against a better balanced piety?

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20 Responses to Work Smarter, Not Harder

  1. RubeRad says:

    With your title “Work smarter not harder”, I guess your point is that catechism is the Cliff’s notes of the Bible?

    For the best of both worlds, memorize the catechism with its scriptural foundations in the foreground. A few years ago we got a free copy of Training Hearts Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism, which has 6 paragraph-sized biblical devotions for each SC question. On nights when we are home for dinner and have time afterwards, we practice the latest Q&A, discuss the devotion (which is always organized around some bible passage), and repeat the Q&A. I think that drives home the point that catechism is a “shortcut” to the larger content of the Bible.

    There’s also this expanded catechism by Matthew Henry, which expands on each SC Q&A with a bunch of questions with answers that are scripture passages. This catechetical technique gives a context for each memorized verse(s); what question does this verse answer?

    Interesting points also about the importance of listening. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I’d point interested parties to Jacques Ellul’s Humiliation of the Word, in particular the prolegomena on Seeing vs Hearing, which ends with this phenomenal bit of brilliance:

    The written word is just a mummy whose wrappings must be removed someday — not to discover a few bones, but to breathe life into it again. Only the word conveys the truth of a religious message. What the written word needs is not to be considered the source of a mere code, law, or formula, or of an indefinitely repeated prayer. It must be taken at its source and given rebirth, not by repetition, but by an inspiration [in-breathing?] that reopens it. Written language has closed the mind. Like a fist grasping a diamond, it has closed its grammatical and structural trap over a vanishing whisper that it tries to translate through enclosing and containment. But instead, writing snuffs it out, and we must open the straitjacket of writing so that it becomes a freshly spoken word. That way the whisper can be perceived and received again. Then the word can start the listener off anew in his quest for truth.

  2. Chris S says:

    Ok, I put my little notebook away this past Sunday and just sat still and listened to the sermon. I have to admit there was a great amount of comfort and relief in being a passive receiver of the Word.

    I got in the habit of taking notes from the 11 years spent in our former “church” where 1 1/2 hour sermons were not uncommon. It was my way of passing the time when the “pastor” was repeating his point for the 3rd or 4th time and I got it in the first 10 minutes. Sleeping wasn’t an option. Taking notes was the only way I could appear like I was truly interested in what was being preached, without having to make eye contact.

    Thanks for the post Zrim.

  3. Zrim says:

    Chris, I tend to suspect that overly lengthy sermons (which can’t help but be repetitive) can be a reaction to what is perceived to be an age that has truncated its attention span. I get that we have “dumbed ourselves down,” etc., but is the answer really a poor use of others’ time? Do preachers really think they can help our culturally fashioned attention spans by going long once/twice a week? Or are they just trying to prove something?

    And this only seems to work against the notion that we are to sit and receive, I think, because who wants to sit and listen more than they have to? It could be that in trying to correct truncated attention spans or prove a point we work against the entire edifying point of sermons.

  4. Zrim says:

    Rube, curious: do you know of any such tool for the Heidelberg Catechism?

  5. Chris S says:

    I recall the “pastor” saying something to the effect of we needed to “endure the Word”. Indeed, it was reactionary. I can appreciated seriousness, however he took himself too serious. In reality it was his lack of faith. I tried to convince him to just preach the Word then go have a beer and let the Word do the work, but alas it was I who went and had the beer.

  6. TC Phelps says:

    Thanks, Zrim. Good post, as usual. I hate to say it, but it seems to me in some quarters, Bible memorization borders on superstition – a kind of “magical” view of Scripture. Usually, Psalm 119:11 is quoted as the apology for memorization – “I have hidden Your Word in my heart that I might not sin against You.” Mechanical memorization, however, is not a magic sanctification bullet – and I’m pretty sure that’s not what the Psalmist had in mind. We seem to forget that for millennia, God’s Word was not available in paperback, on index cards, or in electronic form. If you wanted to hear God’s Word, you had to assemble with God’s people – and hear it read & preached. Indeed, faith comes by HEARING – the Word of Christ publicly read and preached.

  7. Zrim says:

    TC (I didn’t know Traverse City had a last name),

    I wonder sometimes if Bible memorization is a version of Bible worship (or would it be memory worship?). I think you’re onto it about the Psalm 119 apology: the point sure doesn’t seem to be to fill up the megabytes in our brains…or jewels on our AWANA vests (I was an AWANA leader a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away).

  8. Paul says:

    Zrim, what are your thoughts on the universal practice of Scripture memorization in Judaism, Early Christianity, and the early church? Would you say that it was just a matter of necessity since the people didn’t have ready access to Scriptures? And, if so, what would you make of the practice by those who did have Scriptures in their possession? Paul and Silas sang Psalms in prison, but Paul had access to the OT Scriptures more than other laymen. Also, entire churches would have just one Bible. It would be read aloud, and it was memorized en masse. Also, why were presbyters in the early church required to have memorized all 150 Psalms, and frequently they were called upon to have more than that memorized. I’m sure you don’t think this was “bad,” but do you think it was solely a pragmatic necessity common to the times?

  9. Paul says:

    “Rube, curious: do you know of any such tool for the Heidelberg Catechism?”

    Yes, I do. There’s DeYoung’s The Good News we Almost Forgot. I appreciate what I’ve read so far.

  10. Durell Flood says:

    I think your INTJ maybe speaking here a bit, Z. In what I’ve read about that peculiar personality type those who are INTJ tend to shy away from wrote memorization.

    I want to understand something that is said more than I want first memorize it. Generally speaking, if I understand whatever’s said, I have it burned on my heart.

    But more towards the subject at hand, I find it annoying when people would say stuff in the order of “The Baptist’s know their Bibles better,” when comparing Reformed folks to Baptists. I find the definition of knowing to mean verbatim quoting, not necessarily understanding. If I’m not mistaken, Pharisees, rabbis, and a certain fallen angel were good at citing texts too.

    Two good books to read on these things: “How to Speak, How to Listen” and “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Jerome Adler.

  11. Zrim says:

    Paul, you’re right, I wouldn’t say the historical phenomena that you describe is “bad” anymore than my AWANA kids earning jewels were doing anything wrong. But I also have to believe that there are some principled differences between the two. I wouldn’t say it was solely a matter of pragmatic necessity, but that certainly seems to be more the case “back in the day” than now. In our times, I think a heavy dose of individualism is at play perhaps in ways it wasn’t then. One result is to have as many formulas as there are formulaters. Again, nothing wrong with scriptural memorization per se, but amongst those who claim a tradition of catechesis it sure seems like the flashcards should be reserved for the Q/A.

    Also, thanks for the DeYoung tip.

    Durell, if I’m guilty of letting my INTJ slip show then maybe you’re doing a bit too much psychologizing? (Have you ever noticed how personality descriptions read a lot like horoscopes?) But my point isn’t against rote memorization. That’s what catechesis is for. It seems to me that a catechatical tradition parcels out the what and how differently from a Biblicist tradition, where there is no category for formal catechesis.

  12. Paul says:

    Zrim, fair enough. C’ept the only problem is that the Confession wasn’t written in a vacuum, and so rote memorization of it doesn’t differ much from rote memorization of the Bible. Meaning must be given to each, for our 21st century ears.

  13. Durell Flood says:

    I only bring the whole briggs-meyer thing up in jest because you brought it up in the past. I really am not one for those types of categories and I don’t see much use for them other than having material to slap onto one’s profile somewhere to get a date (which is what the zodiac thing is used for, oh and explaining away inordinate behaviour).

  14. Chris S says:

    Say, aren’t those Rod Rosenbladt’s bible flash cards?

  15. Zrim says:

    Paul, certainly meaning should be given. The pedagogy for catechesis is “parrot, pert, poet.”

    Besides, the catechism is human and fallible and the Bible is divine and inspired. That pedagogy seems more fitting for the former than the latter, which seems to be all about proclamation and receiving.

  16. Chuck D says:

    ‘NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing
    but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else,
    and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of
    reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any
    service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own
    children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these
    children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

  17. Zrim says:

    (Speaking of brute facts, Chris S’s and Chuck D’s WordPress icons are identitcal. What’s the interpretation of that fact?)

  18. Chris Sherman says:

    Just thought I would let Chuck D speak for himself. Although Dicken’s “Hard Times” is more a criticism of utilitarianism in our industrial age, it served well to remind me of the importance of not dis-integrating fact from meaning whilst teaching my kids. We were never big on scripture memorization, rather we would talk about what Bible passages meant. Oh, to have known about the WSC or Heidelberg back then. The Westminster catechisms and Heidelberg are wonderful.

    I wish I hadn’t spent so many years confused in the mainstream evangelical church. (Now I’m just confused in the PCA, but there seems to be more hope.)

  19. Not Glenn Beck says:

    we’ve been hanging out with some Baptists and in our discussions my husband and I keep bringing up questions and answers from the catechism. our new friends really appreciate how westminster and heidelberg summarize our faith.

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