When was the last time you memorized passages from Scripture? It might have been when you were in eighth grade, preparing for confirmation. Or maybe earlier still, in Sunday school, when you learned the 23rd Psalm. Can't remember when it was? Never mind. It will probably come to you.
Within living memory, as the saying goes, evangelicals unselfconsciously learned Scripture by heart. The value of this practice was taken for granted. Certainly there was a wide range, from back-row pew-sitters who could call on a few salient passages, to silver-tongued preachers who could cite Leviticus and Luke with equal authority. But if, for instance, as a child in the 1950s, you regularly attended Wednesday evening prayer meetings, where the voices of laypeople predominated, you heard Scripture quoted (and misquoted) from memory. And if you listened in, during the Sunday meal after church, when grown-ups who took their faith seriously were discussing—maybe arguing about—theological nuances, perhaps inspired by the morning sermon, you heard Scripture quoted from memory.
What was common 50 years ago has not entirely disappeared, but neither is it common anymore. In part, this change reflects attitudes in the larger culture. We live in a time when memorization is routinely scorned, an attitude summed up in the ubiquitous phrases "rote memory" and "rote learning." Memorizing, we are told, discourages creativity, critical thinking, and conceptual understanding.
This scorn is odd. It doesn't seem to jibe with our everyday experience. After all, training to be a doctor or a lawyer entails memorization—a lot of it. We don't foolishly assume that the creativity of actors or musicians is ...1