On July 24, ABC Family premiered its new competition show Spell-Mageddon. The show takes the traditional spelling bee format — popularized in recent years by films like Spellbound or Akeelah and the Bee — and adds a new wrinkle. Rather than competing in a quiet and controlled environment, contestants are subjected to absurd distractions while attempting to spell words jovially called out by host Alfonso Ribeiro (Fresh Prince’s Carlton Banks). Thus, for $10,000, participants may have to spell “vicissitude” or “verisimilitude” while running an obstacle course or getting pies thrown in their faces.
Without jumping too hastily to conclusions, I am inclined to doubt that the producers of Spell-Mageddon have any high-minded aspirations for their show. It’s comical and absurd entertainment, with little pretension to anything more. Yet watching it caused me to reflect on how it might serve to underscore an important and often neglected aspect of Christian practice: the concerted memorization of Scripture. In Spell-Mageddon, the contestants’ hopes for victory hinge not only on their ability to remember the spellings of words, but to have those spelling so thoroughly ingrained in their minds that they can be recalled even amidst the most bizarre distractions imaginable. As Christians, we are called to a similar commitment, not only to remember God’s Word, but to do so in such a way that it can be brought to mind despite, or even because of, the distractions around us.
This commitment to the rigors of Biblical recollection are highlighted in one of the most famous portions of the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, ESV)
The Hebrew people were about to begin the process of occupying Canaan at this point. The distractions would be many: battles and wars against hostile nations, the seductive lure of their many tangible, idolatrous gods, the daily trials of finding food or shelter in an unexplored territory. Yet in an era when only a small, elite percentage in most societies was literate, God had enjoined His people as a whole to read, learn, and commit to memory — to heart and mind (the Hebrew lev connotes both) — the law He had graciously given them.
In his classic novel The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis evokes the thought behind this passage in an early chapter. Young Jill Pole is about to be sent into the land of Narnia on a quest, but first she encounters the regal lion Aslan, who gives her four Signs to remember in the course of her journey. Jill — the product of a thoroughly modern education — balks at the crude memory work, but Aslan insists that “the first step is to remember. Repeat to me, in order, the four Signs.” Just as he is about to send her to Narnia, Aslan reiterates:
[F]irst, remember, remember, remember the Signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the Signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters.
Of course, Jill allows herself to get distracted and frequently forgets the four Signs, adding trials to the journey she and her friends undertake, trials that might’ve been avoided had she heeded Aslan better.
As Christians, we often like to talk about Biblical principles or about declaring the Gospel through our lives, none of which is insignificant. Yet we live in a world of distractions. Those distractions may not be strobing lights or cream pie projectiles; they may not be pagan militaries of foreign false deities; they may not be man-eating giants or shape-shifting sorceresses. More likely, our distractions will come as a busy work week, or high-maintenance children, or electronic devices that never shut off.
Surrounded by such incessant buzz — much of it, perhaps, not even intrinsically bad — God’s command in Deuteronomy, like Aslan’s advice to Jill Pole, becomes all the more relevant. We must first “remember the Signs” and have Scripture sunken so deeply into our being that it can penetrate through the distractions. We must be like the contestants who know their words so well that they can spell them under the most ludicrous of circumstances. Only then can we hope to live out our Christian calling in our modern Spell-Mageddon world.