Seminary Series: Scripture Mastery

Seminary Series: Scripture Mastery June 5, 2012

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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