The forgotten tool of memory

The forgotten tool of memory

Memorising chunks of text has a bad press in theological education. It is seen as the lowest form of learning, learning by “rote”, in an era that (rightly) emphasises critical judgment. This is unfair and causes us to miss a very valuable tool for our task.

Memorising a key text does not mean we do not exercise critical judgement, it just gives us anytime access to the material we are able to work with. It also embeds text in our very psyche which becomes a part of us. I was blessed to have been in a school which required us to learn “by heart” speeches from Shakespeare, poems from Wordsworth, Browning and Keats which I can reproduce today and are now part of my intellectual furniture.

Admittedly, for Christians, this has been an area of abuse in the past with so called “proof texts”, usually not more than a verse, or even “promise boxes” which isolate statements from their context. But few of us would disagree with our students learning by heart significantly long key passages of scripture. Exegesis is important and to have the key passage always in our mind’s eye is a great advantage to good exegesis. Furthermore, it allows the scripture to become a part of us and makes it available in times when we need comfort, re-assurance and challenge. Who does not know by heart Psalm 23, or parts of Philippians 2, or Romans 5 or John 3? We worked with the text so much in college that I even have forever in my head the Greek text of parts of John 1.

And the blessing is not confined to scripture, it carries over to key theological texts. Every Christian should know the Apostles Creed. Presbyterians may well know the shorter catechism. No student of mine would do well in an exam question on the Person of Christ who did not know the key statements of the definition of Chalcedon. Our students need to also be able to quote accurately, from memory, key statements from a number of contemporary theologians so they are available for argumentation.

The problem is that we agree with all this but do not incorporate it into the deliberate teaching and learning of our colleges and seminaries. What is wrong with setting an assignment such as “memorise Ephesians chapter 2 by next week” or a psalm, or a key passage from Augustine’s De Trinitate, or the opening section of Luther on the Freedom of a Christian, or key passages from the Lausanne Covenant? Or the Nicene creed? (OK, make your own list if you do not like mine.) In so doing, we are putting up the pictures in the room of their mind, nailing them to the walls of their brain as things they can stand in front of, gaze at any time in their future lives, and love.

These will form for them a foundation for life, a basis for ministry and, one day when their short-term memory is less certain, they will grow larger and more luminous and help to govern their last days.

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One Comment on “The forgotten tool of memory”

  1. perryshaw Says:

    Excellent observations, Graham. An essential element of any learning taxonomy is the ability to remember foundational knowledge. An element of memorisation is crucial to this. There are of course different pathways to memorisation, but I have found it valuable at the beginning of every course to think through what is the most important knowledge in the course – ideas and content that should be able to be recalled 5-10 years from now – and drill this into the students by frequent repetition in class and through cumulative quizzes in which the same material is given over and over.


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