The Valley of the Shadow of Bible Verse Memorization

When I was young, memorizing Bible verses was to me what different knots and coin tricks were to other boys: a rite of passage. I would have preferred cards or comics or anything really to memorizing the Bible, but my little Midwestern church was convinced that the path to competent adulthood went through committing various swatches of Scripture to memory. And, to ensure that our maturation was unencumbered by the many rebellions of youth, we were started on this practice very young. I could recite snippets of John’s Gospel before I could say the Pledge of Allegiance.

The seemingly impossible feat of sitting dozens of crooked-toothed, freckle-faced, mud-flecked boys down around Bibles was accomplished through one of the church’s favorite tricks: reappropriation; take something fun, add something Christian, and see if the fun sticks.

In this case, the hijacked activity was Boy Scouts. Our church started a boy’s club in which boys received vests, and then recitation of different verses earned a variety of badges and pins for that vest. You started out as a “Skipper,” and when you memorized enough of the Bible you became a “Hiker.” And a few particularly gifted memorizers graduated onto become “Climbers” and after that, one assumes, “Pastors.” What memorizing the Bible had to do with skipping or hiking was never rightly explained, but it took me some years before I started to suspect that I’d been duped.

I bought the whole package unflinchingly when I was eight, however – almost every boy in town did. We were split up into small groups, given a spiral bound book filled with the Bible’s key passages, and were coached through the book by stout-hearted adult leaders, verse by verse, till we could spout off every last one, confident as a boy scout performing the backstroke.

Whether or not we could rightly explain what we were saying was another matter altogether. The great oversight of our Bible club was that it insisted on the King James Version, which has enough “thee’s” and “thou’s” to make a medieval studies major weep in frustration. The group I was in – which consisted of me, Robby and a quiet, moon-faced boy named Andrew – could handle the memorization. We wanted the badges bad enough. However, when we were asked by our parents or pastors to explain whatever we were rattling off, we fell silent and mumbled something about God loving us.

But if the words were tattooed in our brain, then surely the meanings would come later, perhaps in a moment of extreme temptation – like the unlikely hero’s seemingly useless trinket whose saving powers are not realized until they’re needed. This, at least, was Mr. Amon’s theory.

Mr. Amon was Andrew’s dad, and our group leader. A quiet, long suffering, olive-skinned man with perennially weary eyes, a receding hairline, and a black mustache that bristled like the end of a broom, Mr. Amon served as our spiritual guide, a prospect which excited him about as much as it did us. My attempts to quote the entire twenty-third Psalm clearly stretched his famed patience to its breaking point.

 “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death –” I began.

 “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” he corrected.

“Yay! I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

“No. ‘Yay, though, I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. ’Yea’ as in ‘yes,’ not ‘yea’ as in ‘hooray.’”

Yea, as in yes?”

“Yup.”

“Yes, I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

“No.”

Indeed, Mr. Amon must have felt like he was walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and his defense against was how easily he could be talked into giving us our badges, regardless of how well the recitation actually went.

“In the beginning, God created the earth.”

The heavens and the earth,” he corrected.”

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth.”

“Close enough.”

“Close enough,” became a regular mantra in our meetings, along with “that works,” or, one time, “the heck with it.” Whether it was grace or laziness on Mr. Amon’s part was hard to say, but it seemed gracious enough to me. And he seemed gracious too, one Sunday morning, when he called my friend, the other Tyler, to the front of the sanctuary in front of the entire congregation to award him his gold crown for having memorized 150 Bible verses, while I sat with my family in the second-from-the-front pew, slick-haired and fuming with jealousy.

Mr. Amon then told the congregation that he was proud of each of the boys in his club and said that he was certain that this would be only the first of many awards he would be giving. And, as he said this, he looked my way, winked, and I flushed with pride.

He soldiered the cause with quiet dignity, like a good Christian ought to. Most of the men I knew volunteered at church. Both my father and my grandfather sang on stage, my grandmother led the children’s musicals, Micah’s dad led a Bible study, Robbie’s dad led Sunday School. So, it didn’t seem odd to me or anybody else that Andrew’s dad would do the same, though in retrospect, he seemed to hold the whole thing at a distance. Whether or not he thought it was odd himself, I’ll never know. Did he ever think it was strange that he put on a little red vest, every week, to go conduct his son’s friends in Bible memorization? And did he think it was strange when we rattled off words like “no more sorrow” and “eternal life” so robotically? Did he wonder if he should interrupt us here and there, give his perspective?

Did he think his bedroom was a strange place to loop a hefty tractor chain over a pipe in the ceiling, and fashion the other end into a fine, firm noose? Did he think it was strange that somebody so lauded for his patience with kids could run out of his patience with life? And, however dimly, did it occur to him as his body jerked like a hooked fish, that his son would be sitting with me, clutching his little spiral-bound book, munching on cookies, wondering where his father was?

Of the funeral, I remember only two things clearly. One was how his son looked, standing at the head of the casket, all awkward in his suit and tie. I had thought he’d be crying, but he wasn’t. Instead, he looked rather like his father generally had. Tired. The other was our pastor, perched behind a mountain of solemn poinsettias, speaking of the eternal glories of heaven in which Mr. Amon found himself after he stepped off the little chair in his bedroom. I, who knew suicide to be a grievous sin, was not so sure. And then our pastor opened his Bible, and asked us to join him in the recitation of the twenty-third Psalm. And as I obeyed, I was rather proud of myself for not needing to look down at my Bible even once.

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2 Comments

  1. Matt Vargo

     /  October 21, 2013

    Very insightful writing. I have similar memories, but yours has a unique twist. As a Jr High Pastor now, I make sure EVERY time when we read a “memory verse,” that I ask the students important context questions and give them some background on what led up to this verse. The story of God, the Gospel, and Israel did not happen verse by verse. It was lived and unfolded like a story.

    Reply
  2. Caro

     /  June 20, 2014

    I was one of these kids growing up. I memorized Psalms and Bible verses and looking back, it seemed that every story and passage in Scripture had a simple lesson–e.g. Daniel teaches us to be faithful, Abraham teaches us obedience. And there was an answer for everything (e.g. sometimes God lets tragedies happen so we can grow closer to Him). Not saying these answers are completely wrong, but as you grow up you realize that they don’t always satisfy you or even seem completely right.

    Now I teach Sabbath school for the kids in my church, and I find myself teaching the same way I was taught: giving clear-cut answers, A causes B, this means that, when I know it’s not always as simple, and that there are deeper lessons we can learn from familiar passages.

    But how do I explain this to 10 year olds? 7 year olds? 4 year olds? We need to know the Bible well, and memorization is a helpful tool for that. And though children are smart and inquisitive, I can’t teach them the same way I would teach adults; they (usually) need to be taught in simpler ways. How can we go beyond a simple regurgitation of verses and stories and enable children to explore deep or abstract ideas/lessons from the Bible?

    Reply

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