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Memorizing Scripture: A Progressive Case

Originally featured on the Salt Collective in 2018

Progressives have got to start memorizing scripture again.

For so many of us, memorizing scripture brings up associations with church-related trauma. Especially for those of us who are LGBTQIA+, we know too well the ways that proof texted pieces of the Word were weaponized against us, hurled towards us like Bible Bullets. The casualties of this kind of use of the Bible were great and cannot be overstated. Many of us were deeply wounded by people who memorized scripture in order to use it against us.

The language used here isn’t a metaphor; there really have been and continue to be casualties because of this kind of use of scripture. And some of us didn’t make it.

Out of the remnant of those of us who survived, many of us left the church to find liberation. For those of us who stayed, we are constantly parsing out what parts of our tradition are worth preserving and what parts need to be made new or thrown out altogether. This is a continual, ongoing discernment process – deciding what parts of the baggage to leave behind, what parts to try to get reacquainted with, what parts to reclaim. It can be painful, because so much of the beauty of our tradition is often swallowed up in practices that have been harmful to us. And being disciplined in the memorization of scripture is something that has been strongly tied in recent years to Biblical literalists and conservatives. There is an impulse for us to run far away from anything that resembles that world or reminds us of the people who have hurt us.

And yet, I would argue that Biblical literacy and memorizing scripture is not something that we should leave to the literalists. It is something that progressive Christians should take upon ourselves as a spiritual discipline for both defensive and offensive purposes. For one, we cannot allow people who fling Bible Bullets to know scripture better than we do. When we hear someone say, “The Bible says….” it is essential that we are able to immediately know the greater context of the verse they are talking about. We can only do this when we are familiar with scripture, when we know where to locate it, when we can trace the verse in the wider scheme of the narrative and the arc of the Gospel.

History has shown us that some of the fiercest ancestors of our faith memorized scripture. This is true in part because, for a long time, many people were not able to read and write on their own, and so hearing and memorizing the Word was the primary way that they interacted with it. I think of Sojourner Truth, who was unable to read, and yet, her progressive abolitionist theology, grounded in her interpretation of scripture, pierced the hearts of everyone who heard it. This is because she was so familiar with the Bible that it had become a part of her. Its words were written on her heart.

There are parts of scripture that we may be afraid of. We may find them outdated or harmful or problematic. It can be tempting to put distance between ourselves and the Bible as a protective measure. But we cannot let those parts of scripture intimidate us or scare us away from the rest of scripture and its overarching message of Love and Liberation. This is not to say that we excuse the parts of scripture that have been used to hurt us. On the contrary, the more that we are familiar with scripture, the more comfortable we are in interacting with it. It is only when we have scripture written on our hearts, like our forbearers did, that we can be emboldened to talk back to scripture – to ask questions, to reframe it or retell it, to push back, to challenge it and be challenged by it.

We should memorize scripture.

Memorize scripture so that the characters come to life for you, so that you can hear their voices, so that you can carry on conversations with them as easily and as naturally as if they were sitting at your kitchen table.

Memorize scripture to figure it out, so that you can see the way the gears turn on the inside, so you can take it apart and put it back together again.

Memorize scripture so you feel close to it, so you can get scandalously cozy with it. Let your relationship be so intimate and exciting that the hairs on your arm stand on end when you are thinking about it.

Memorize scripture so you can play with it. So you can have fun with it. So you can find joy in it again.

Memorize scripture as resistance. Refuse to surrender it to the literalists who use it as a death-dealing force. Memorize scripture to reclaim it as Good News, as something life-giving.

Memorize scripture. Not to get another notch on your Bible or for another Awana’s badge.

No, we should memorize scripture so that when the Bible bullets come flying towards us and the people that we love, we can use scripture itself as a shield.

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