How to memorise Bible verses like a boss

Over the past three years, my wife and I have spent many hours driving through the Kenyan countryside. We have been living in Kenya since 2018, working in a school. And one of the great things about working in a school is that you get school holidays. Booyah. Hence, we have been fortunate enough to take a number of road trips around Kenya in our time here.

Anyway. That’s slightly beside the point. The real point is that we have spent approximately one butt-tonne worth of hours in the car, together. So the question is, how do you fill the time? Podcasts and music are fine, up to a point, but the real car journey gems are games. Boy oh boy, the games we’ve played. OK, I exaggerate. We haven’t played that many, and they haven’t been that good. But they have passed the time. One of our personal favourites is to rap battle. The rules are fairly simple. One person sets the theme, for instance ‘potholes’, or ‘bananas’, or, if you want to psych out your opponent by going abstract, ‘meaning’. Then, we play this song, specifically. It simply has to be that song. If you listen to it, I think you’ll understand why. Then we just take it in turn to absolutely roast each other, rap battle style. It’s a game with no winners. Just two losers, rapping terribly in a car.

Anyway. Asides from themed rap battles, we came up with another hum-dinger of a time passer this year, on one of our journeys. Bible memorisation. Depending on your theological convictions or lack thereof, this may seem like a pointless task or a pointful one. For us, it’s the latter. But whether or not you think the Bible worth memorising, surely you can agree that memorising anything is pretty badass? Well, we devised a method of memorising Bible verses that was as badass as Billy-O. Here’s what we did. (Fair warning — it’s not easy peasy lemon squeezy. It’s more like challenging pallenging lemon squallenging. But my wife and I are bozos. If we can do it, so can you).

Step one: Create a memory palace.

If you have spent any time at all geeking out on the topic of memory and memorisation, you will know that memory palaces are basically like crack to mnemonists. And rightly so. They’re awesome. They tap into something that may or may not be called the trans-cranial-spatio-memoritus pathway in the brain. In layman’s terms, when our memories are attached to vivid mental pictures, that occupy real space in an imaginary world, we tend to be better at recalling them. If you’re interested in memory stuff, read this book by Joshua Foer. It’s really rather good.

I digress. Memory palaces are simply places that you know, really well. So for us, it was our house. To be more specific, we created our memory palace room by room. So we began with our hallway, leading out to our patio. What we did, simply, was imagine ourselves walking on a specific route through our hallway/patio. We imagined the smell of the place, and the way the sun lights up the room, and the way that it feels to be there. Then, we very deliberately fixated upon 10 items in our hallway/dining room in particular. Not that it’ll bother you particularly, but we chose: the bowl we put our keys in (#1); the french windows (#2); the patio chairs (#3); a big old leafy tree (#4); our banda (#5); the washing up line (#6); the door to our temporary tunnel (long story, #7); the inside of our tunnel (#8); the door back inside (#9) and then a comfy chair (#10).

This part of the process is really important. I’d recommend just doing what we did, and using one room of your house. Go through it, mentally, a few times, until you can visualise every little aspect. And make sure the journey is the same every time. Make sure you know what all the marker points on your journey are.

Step two: familiarise yourself with the Dominic system.

The Dominic system is another piece of mnemonic gold. It’s a method of converting numbers to letters, in a way that’s easy to remember. Don’t worry about why you’d want to do such a thing right now, just take it from me that it’s helpful.

Very simply, the Dominic system assigns different letters to different digits, like so:

1 = A | 2 =B | 3 =C | 4 = D | 5 = E | 6 = S | 7 = G | 8 = H | 9 = N | 0 = O

You need to learn these. 1 through 5 is easy, as it corresponds with the first to the fifth letters of the alphabet. Six is ‘S’ because of the ‘s’ sound. Eight is ‘H’ because, I guess, the sound ‘aitch’ is a bit like ‘eight’. Nine is ’N’ because of the ’n’ sound. Zero is ‘O’ because they look alike. I have no earthly clue why seven is ‘G’, but there we are.

Step three: Get ahold of some Bible verses to memorise.

This is quite straightforward. If you google ‘Bible verses for memorisation’, you will find that a lot of people have quite helpfully created lists of just that. Choose some that you like, and put them in a list. We did 10 at a time, which worked well for us.

Step four: Turn your verse references into memorable images.

Right. Now things get to be a lot of fun. And the best way of explaining what to do here is simply to go through what we did.

Our first memory verse was Psalm 51:1 — Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.

In itself, not a particularly difficult verse to memorise. But we wanted to make sure that we would remember it not just for a season, but forever. So we wanted to make it stick. So here’s what we did:

  • We came up with an image to represent the word ‘Psalms’. For us, this became a cartoonish, exaggerated version of Uncle Sam.
  • Then, we came up with an image to represent the number ‘51′ (for the chapter number) and ‘1’ (for the verse number). For us, these were a man with the EA Sports logo instead of a head, and Alvin, from the chipmunks, respectively.

You can probably see why ‘Psalms’ became ‘Uncle Sam’. They just look kind of similar. But you might be wondering where the heck we got EA sports logo head man, and Alvin from. Fair enough.

Remember the Dominic system, from step three? Well, if you remember that each number became a letter. So 51 became ‘E’ and ‘A’. Likewise, 1 became ‘A’. Now we simply needed to think of a famous or memorable person to be represented by those letters. No one with the initials ‘E’ and ‘A’ sprung to mind, so we got desperate, and conjured up a bizarre image of a man with the EA Sports logo for a head. Weird, I know. But memorable. For the letter ‘A’, we just thought of Alvin, with that big letter ‘A’ on his jumper.

So now we had converted our not innately memorable verse reference — Psalm 51:1 — into three persons: Uncle Sam, EA Sports Head Man, and Alvin. Onto the next step.

Step five: Turn the verse itself into a memorable image or scene.

Now we get to the heart of the matter. Memorising the actual verse. Our first verse, again, is this:

Psalm 51:1 — Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.

Now at this point, you’ve just got to get creative. You have to:

  • Find a way to make those words memorable.
  • Include all the figures that are represented by your verse reference.
  • Locate the image/scene in the key spot in your memory palace.

So here’s what we did. We visualised the area in our memory palace where the verse was to be situated. For us, this was the bowl we put our keys in. Then, after some deliberation, we settled on the following imaginary scene:

Uncle Sam is pointing a gun at a quivering and terrified EA Sports Head Man and Alvin, who have their hands up in cowardly surrender, right in the middle of our key bowl. I should say, that they’re mini versions, so they fit in there nice and snugly. EA Sports Head Man makes an appeal to Uncle Sam: “Have mercy on me!”, then, seeing Uncle Sam’s unrelenting scowl, lets out a whimpering and defeated exclamation — “Oh, God!”, before passing out. Uncle Sam is bemused, but continues to point his gun at the pair of them. Then Alvin pipes up, and in his distinctly and, frankly, annoyingly high pitched voice, squeals the words “According to your steadfast mercy!”, which seems to be a little incongruous to what’s going on.

And scene. That’s it. What happens next? Who knows. Who cares? It doesn’t really matter. The point is, that’s the scene.We know it inside out, and when we enter that part of our memory palace, it plays out vividly, like some weird outdoor avant-garde theatre. Et voila! The process is complete. Once the memory has been firmly implanted, and rooted in your memory palace, recall becomes a simple case of translating the images into their original content, thus:

  • Uncle Sam helps us remember Psalms
  • EA Sports Head Man and Alvin help us remember ‘51’ and ‘1’.
  • EA Sports Head Man’s plea gives us the phrase ‘Have mercy on us’ and ‘Oh God’.
  • Alvin gives us the final clause, ‘according to your steadfast mercy’.

Put it all together, and we get — Psalm 51:1 — Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast mercy.

Does that all seem bonkers? Like a mad amount of effort to go through just to remember one verse? Well maybe it is. But the point is, it works. And once you get the gist of the thing, it becomes increasingly easy to create mad scenes, memorable characters and bizarre combinations of the two.

Step six: Take a walk through your memory palace.

This is where the magic of the memory palace makes itself known. Once you have gone through the faff of making 10 (or so) memorable scenes and placing them in prepared areas of your memory palace, you just need to carefully walk through said palace in your imagination. As you do, you will be blown away by what occurs. Images will pop into your brain and start acting out weird and wonderful performances. And most importantly, those wacky scenes will elucidate for you the treasures that they carry: the Bible verses you have chosen to remember.

Yes, it takes some time initially. But the outlay is worth it. The dividends it can pay are immense. Currently, we’ve memorised 42 verses, and we plan to keep going until we’ve reached a hundred at least. And we have a lot of fun, in car journeys and other times besides, playing out our crazy scenes and recalling the verses they represent.

Your memory is far more powerful than you give it credit for, and this is just one way to start tapping into that potential. I hope it bears as much fruit for you as it has for us.

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