Seminary Series: Scripture Mastery

Author’s note: This is the third post in a series about my experiences with and reflections on teaching seminary on a volunteer basis this past year. Its observations and opinions do not necessarily represent the teachings or policies of the Seminaries & Institutes program or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I was a bad seminary student; out of the nearly 100 scripture mastery verses in all 4 years of seminary, I memorized three of them. Back then, I thought it was a waste of time, but it could not have been more of a time-waster than flipping and fumbling through my scriptures — later, while teaching as a missionary — for passages I knew I should have had memorized. Besides that, memorization is an underrated pedagogical tool. I learned my mission language in large part by memorizing the discussions in it. Classically educated people memorized large works of literature for centuries before the modern age, and we usually consider them pretty smart.

So I’m strongly in favor of rote memorization. But memorizing little scripture packets also has its downsides: 1) It’s boring. I don’t really care about this one. Work is hard. Suck it up. Besides, the Church develops thoughtful, innovative tools for the students to memorize and the Sons of Ammon have even composed some fun, albeit corny songs, without which I don’t think I could have memorized them myself this year. I realize that some students will still be better at memorizing than others, but since Scripture Mastery does not count as part of their grade anyway …

The second downside should be taken more seriously: 2) Memorizing short passages separates them from their larger context. Sometimes seminary students can memorize a scripture not knowing where it comes from, how it fits in to what’s around it, or who is even talking in the verse. This can lead to some interpretive problems, including but not limited to proof-texting (not an unforgivable sin, in my book, but still far from an ideal strategy).

So I wanted to encourage the students to read and learn the passages in context. To this end, I assigned devotionals on a rotating schedule to each class member. When their say came to give a short presentation (5 min) on the scripture mastery for the day, they were required to

  1. Read the scripture aloud.
  2. Tell us about the historical context (what was happening to the Israelites at the time, who was king, were the Assyrians or Babylonians the “bad guys,” etc.
  3. Tell us about the literary context (who was talking, what larger section was the passage a part of, where did it fall in the book or narrative, etc.)
  4. What it meant to them in their own life, or how they thought the doctrine was supposed to be applied.

Numbers 1 and 4 were pretty straightforward, and no one seemed to need any help with them. But it seems like people wanted to know the difference between 2 and 3 every. single. day. Despite my best efforts, I guess I never taught this well enough. Perhaps if I had used other words than “context?” It was pretty clear that most of these students hadn’t yet encountered the concept in an English literature class.

Despite that, the system worked pretty well as long as most of the students came to class consistently. I regret that, over the course of the year, as numbers dwindled, the assigned students could not be depended on to present on their specific day and I ended up filling in, which really defeats the purpose of the exercise. But when it was working, it made the students read the passage and its surrounding chapter(s), do a little digging in the Bible Dictionary.

If I were to do it over, I might be more specific in what I wanted a student presentation to answer. So a revised list of questions might look like this; the last three questions have to do with the view of prophecy I presented later on in the class when we got to Isaiah:

  1. Who is speaking?
  2. What’s going on in the rest of the chapter?
  3. How does this fit in to the bigger story?
  4. What’s going on with the Israelites at this point in time (if applicable)?
  5. What is God trying to tell the Israelites in this passage?
  6. What is God trying to tell us with the passage?
  7. What is God trying to tell you in this passage (optional)?

So how would you bring greater context to Scripture Mastery?

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  • aquinas

    I think this is a great topic. What concerns me most is the selection of which scriptures constitute the 25 scriptures from each of the standard works. The very act of selection functions as a overriding hermeneutic.

    I’ve been examining the kinds of scriptures that get chosen and most of them seem calculated to instill good behavior such as paying tithing, observing the sabbath day, repenting, scripture study, temple marriage, missionary work, etc. Each scripture mastery scripture is given a personal application but also a missionary application. Just based on that alone, it would seem to me that one of the contemplated goals of seminary is to prepare youth to serve missions. But I sense a particular focus in the scripture mastery scriptures that seems overly harsh. It seems calculated to prevent the youth from bad habits and instill good habits, but sometimes I feel this is done at the expense of a more holistic understanding of God. In fact, I almost want to say that the ways that these 100 scriptures get combined and configured constitute a kind of theological bias.

    In addition, I think scripture mastery scriptures have an influence that extends beyond seminary. Its my observation that these scriptures get a lot of play in our lesson on Sunday. Adults who have gone through the seminary program, whether they memorized the scriptures or not, tend to go for these scriptures first. I think this can often skew our discussions. There are many extremely important scriptures that are not scripture mastery scriptures and as a result tend to be forgotten or ignored.

  • aliquis

    Thanks, aquinas. Similar thoughts were definitely going through my mind as we talked about Deut. 7:3-4. And I can vouch for scripture mastery’s use even in primary lessons because those are the scriptures remembered by the leaders. Obviously the selection of scripture mastery passages is a process in which seminary teachers have no control, but I hope efforts to contextualize them in seminary will affect the way they are used later in religious expression.

    As for the selection, I agree that there are some (like Deut. 7:3-4) which seem calculated to encourage good behavior, but the majority expose doctrinal fundamentals, such as the creation, man’s relationship to God, passages quoted in the New Testament, the mission of prophets, etc. Nevertheless, you’re absolutely correct that the selection of the catalog itself is a hermeneutical decision with far-reaching consequences. If you were to make a selection of passages for class discussion and memorization, which ones would you pick (I extend the question to any other readers as well)?

  • Brian D

    It’s been over 10 years now since I was in early morning seminary, and I still remember at least fragments from many scripture mastery scriptures, even more than scriptures I learend on my mission (probably because I learned my mission scriptures in Chinese, which has been difficult to retain). I very frankly think scripture mastery was one of the most important things I learned in Seminary. I remember very little else from those early morning lessons, even from good teachers, probably because I was always half asleep. I agree with OP’s interest in using some rote memorization as a useful pedogogical tool.

    I think the best scripture mastery scriptures are those that are meaningful with very little understanding of the context in which they are used. For example, I think John 3:16 is a great scripture mastery scripture, and I think the above exampled Deut. 7:3-4 to be a horrendous choice, since the passage seems almost certain to be misinterpreted outside a clear understanding of its immediate historical and literay context. 5 years from now, how many students are going to remember what was happening in Deuteronomy 7? But students only need to remember the most fundamental elements of the NT for John 3:16 to make sense, so it will stay meaningful longer in your students’ lives.

  • Aaron R.

    Rote memorization is important but I agree that focusing on small packets of words is not always very helpful. More than that I think it encourages proof-texting rather than thinking about the whole narrative. I like your ideas and think you have done a nice job here.

  • Ben S

    Good work indeed. Keep up the series.