Confession: I cannot say the books of the Bible in order. Sometimes I still feel embarrassed when I have to flip around a little bit to find a certain book or, even worse, use the table of contents. It seems like I was supposed to learn this Christianity-defining skill at some point in my upbringing (preferably to the tune of a cutesy song or chant), but I never did. I am 28 years old, a teacher, and have a master’s degree, yet beyond the first few books after Genesis and “Great Electric Power Company” (Galatians-Ephesians-Philippians-Colossians), I get mixed up.
The realization that the order of the books does not particularly matter, then, comes with a bit of relief and freedom. In the Protestant canon, the Old Testament books are arranged by category (law, history, poetry, major prophets, minor prophets). The New Testament books are similarly arranged by type (Gospels, history, Paul’s letters, general letters, and prophecy). The Great Electric Power Company and friends — I mean, Paul’s letters — are actually arranged by length!
Certainly, there are reasons for knowing the order of the books in the Old and New Testament. It is simply more efficient to know exactly where to find a book. Knowing the names of all of the books does give you a general familiarity with our sacred text. These reasons, however, are functional, not crucial to one’s faith or salvation.
There are even more reasons for memorizing Scripture, from the way it can help us meditate on verses as the Psalms describe to the fact that Jesus himself pulled from quite a repertoire of the ancient texts. I still enjoy singing Steve Green’s verses set to music on his Hide ‘Em in Your Heart albums. They are special to me and I like that they bring truth to mind. However, memorization does not equal understanding, nor does the ability to memorize or the lack thereof indicate a measure of one’s faith.
My concern is when we emphasize memorization to ourselves, to others, or to our children, we communicate that rote facts are more important than principles. When I teach my students the names of the bones in the human body, it would be pointless if we did not also explore their structure and function. If I ask them to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the Star Spangled Banner, what worth does it have if they have no idea what they are saying?
Knowing the incredible potential for learning that occurs in a child’s early years, it can be tempting to cram as many facts as possible into their ever-expanding brains. We need to realize, however, that learning is much more than flat fact, but is most importantly about meaning, application, and conversation. We also need to remember that when Jesus urged us to have the faith of children, he was not referring to a checklist of memory verses.
I remember being concerned when a friend in elementary school did not know the number of days and nights Noah and his family spent on the ark. I also remember being somewhat haughtily disturbed when a friend in middle school genuinely asked me why I highlighted certain verses in my Bible (I thought she should already know). My picture of faith and Christianity was quite limited to the trappings I thought defined belief. I have often wished I could go back to those moments and responded graciously and humbly. I am grateful my God is much bigger than silly things I say.
If memorization of biblical facts and verses can be helpful, but is not a make-or-break faith tenet, then how should we approach it? I am not going to pretend to have an exact answer, but I would suggest we make a regular habit of asking ourselves whether the tool has become more important than or distracting from its purpose. I participated in a verse-memorizing program growing up, and I could memorize so quickly that one of the leaders had to set a restriction on how many verses a person was allowed to recite in a session. I probably memorized hundreds of verses. Today, however, I might be able to recall two or three of the verses, much less tell you what the words were about in their context. For me, the memorization was about accomplishment and doing what I was told, certainly not about becoming more familiar with the foundational text of my faith system or about meditating on God’s word. The routine was essentially pointless and in reality an obstacle to my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.
If you want to know the books of the Bible in order frontwards and backwards or be able to recite entire books of the Bible at a time, have at it. But if you and I are ever talking and I need to Google the reference for a verse, please do not doubt my legitimacy as a Christian. If I get to heaven and God asks me what book comes after Lamentations, we will deal with it then.
Emily A. Dause is a public school teacher and a freelance writer. Her writing appears in PRISM Magazine (prismmagazine.org), Teaching Children Mathematics, RELEVANTmagazine.com, and her blog, sliversofhope.blogspot.com.