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“My philosophy of life,” says Ed Cooke, a British author and Grand Master of Memory, “is that a heroic person should be able to withstand about ten years in solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed.”
Cooke has already memorized the bulk of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and is working on doing the same with the works of Shakespeare. “Given that an hour of memorization yields about ten solid minutes of spoken poetry, and those ten minutes have enough content to keep you busy for a full day, I figure you can squeeze at least a day’s fun out of each hour of memorization—if you should ever happen to find yourself in solitary confinement.”
While I’ve never found myself in solitary confinement, I have experienced a close substitute. While waiting to leave for Marine Corps boot camp, I spent a summer working in a factory in Moberly, Missouri making parking brakes. For eight hours a day my sole duty was to sit in front of a metal grinder and smooth the rough edges off the parts to be assembled. The mindless task freed me to be alone with my thoughts for about 2,400 minutes a week. But it took only about 24 minutes before I realized the material in my head was as dull and dreary as the factory around me.
The first few days I recited the lyrics to every pop song that had ever stuck in my head. The next week I tried to piece together the plots of favorite sitcoms. By the third week I had tired of Michael Jackson hits and Brady Bunch reruns and began to plead God to free me from my wage-based boredom. The Lord answered by having my military recruiter ship me off to basic training four months early.
The initial thrill of being free from my own mental prison soon waned when I realized I was in for more of the same. The endless hours of standing in formation on the parade grounds of San Diego, the interminable hours of running on the beach as San Onefre, and the never-ending forced marches through the hills of Camp Pendleton almost made me wish I were back at my grinder in Missouri. Yet again I was required to lean on my imagination and found—yet again—it could not bear the weight.
At the time, I thought God was either punishing me for some hidden sin or testing me to see how much pain I could endure. Now I realize I had been blessed with an opportunity that I was unprepared to appreciate. I had been given hours of uninterrupted time that could have been used to reflect and meditate on God’s word. But I was unable to nourish my soul because I had failed to feed my imagination.
Had I spent time memorizing Scripture I would have been prepared for the times of solitude and reflection. Instead, I began to realize the truth of Blaise Pascal’s claim that, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
When we have the entire Bible available as an app on our smartphones, it seems an unnecessary waste of time and effort to memorize specific verses or the grand narrative of the story. By relying on technology to do our remembering for us, we have forgotten the moral aspect of memorization. “A trained memory wasn’t just about gaining easy access to information,” says Joshua Foer, referring to the ancient world, “it was about strengthening one’s personal ethics and becoming a more complete person.” Foer adds that the thinking of the ancients was that only through memorization could ideas truly be incorporated into one’s psyche and their values absorbed. “Indeed, the single most common theme in the lives of the saints—besides their superhuman goodness—is their often extraordinary memories,” Foer notes.
In the medieval era, almost all Christian clergy and educated laity were expected to have memorized significant portions of the Bible. As one guide for monastics makes clear, before being accepted as a monk a man was expected to have memorized all the Psalms. For church fathers like Augustine, memorization of the Biblical text helped to make Scripture function like a second language. It has been observed, says Mary Carruthers, that Augustine wrote “not only in Latin but ‘in Psalms,’ so imbued is his language with their phrasing and vocabulary.”
When we speak euphemistically of “devouring a book,” we are following the lead of our medieval ancestors who considered the stomach a metaphor for memory. Books like the Bible were devoured and digested by their readers and regurgitated for recitation. As the Italian poet Petrarch said, “I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening; I swallowed as a boy what I would ruminate upon as an older man.”
How many of us can say that we’ve swallowed Scripture in a way that allows us to ruminate on God’s Word?
But the craft of memorization is not just for our internal uses; like most crafts it has practical application. “As an art, memory was most importantly associated in the Middles Ages with composition, not simply with retention,” say Carruthers. “Those who practiced the crafts of memory used them—as all crafts are used—to make new things: prayers, meditations, sermons, pictures, hymns, stories, and poems.”
Memorization is an essential aspect of the stewardship of our imagination that has been all but lost. To help you recover this forgotten skill, we’ll cover the following topics in this short series (the dates in parentheses are projected publication dates):
Part #1 – How Memorization Feeds Your Imagination
Part #2 – How to Memorize (Almost) Anything
Part #3 – 4 Tips to Memorize (Almost) Anything
Part #4 – How to Memorize the Biblical Narrative (I)
Part #5 – How to Memorize the Biblical Narrative (II)
By the time this series is complete you’ll be able to memorize short lists (such as the Ten Commandments), learn techniques for memorizing long and detailed lists, and have memorized—and be able to recall—thirty key events from the fifty chapters of Genesis. (Seriously, you will. It’s much easier than it sounds.) I hope you’ll join me over the next few days as we work on developing an important skill for feeding our imaginations.
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[Note: This is part 2 in a 5 article series on using memorization to increase knowledge of the Bible and develop a sanctified imagination. You can find part 1 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.]
You say you can’t remember your own phone number? I can’t either. But we don’t need to know those strings of digits; remembering phone numbers is a job for our smartphones.
You don’t have to have a “good memory” (whatever that means) to fill your imagination with Scripture and knowledge about the Bible. By the time you finish this series you’ll have learned how to memorize lists (e.g., the Ten Commandments) and almost every key event that occurs in Genesis (that’s the first step in memorizing the entire narrative structure of the Bible, including details about hundreds of persons and events mentioned in the 66 books). But before you accomplish those amazing feats I have to convince you that the memory God gave you is sufficient for the task.
Later I’ll outline the ancient techniques and tips of memoria technica that were developed by the Ancient Greeks and perfected by the Europeans in the Middle Ages. For now the main thing you need to know is that the art of memory, as Ed Cooke explains in his book Remember, Remember, is the “art of making sure what you give your mind to remember is as bright and amusing and energetic and outrageous as possible.” In other words, you are unlikely to forget information when it has been associated with a vivid image.
In order to quickly and easily remember any new piece of information, associate it to something you already know or remember in some ridiculous way. Those last four words are essential to effective memorization—and they are also the reason why many people who have been taught memory techniques do not apply them. The technique seems silly because it is silly. For some reason unknown to us, God designed our brains to remember things that are absurd and unusual. This fact didn’t bother giants of the faith like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas so it shouldn’t bother you either. Use it, as they did, to honor the Creator of our imaginations.
Let’s put this concept into practice by memorizing these twenty items in sequence: Otter, Thor, Zeus, American, Idol, Weathervane, Ice Cream Sundae, Parents, Sleigh, Adult, Tree, Steel, Bear, False, Eyelashes, Watches, Wife, Ox, Butler, and Donkey.
While you may be able to find associations between some of these words (e.g., Thor and Zeus are both mythological gods and otter, bear, ox, and donkey are all animals) there isn’t any obvious connection that ties them together. You could use a brute force technique (e.g., reciting the words over and over until you can repeat them verbatim) but that is too time-consuming and not very effective. Instead, let’s try to associate them in some ridiculous way.
Let’s take the first five items— Otter, Thor, Zeus, American, Idol—and combine them into a ridiculous, but memorable, mental picture. Since most people are familiar with the music competition show American Idol, let’s combine those two words (American, Idol) as the basis of our first vivid image.
Instead of the usual panel of judges on the television show, picture the guest judges as an Otter, Thor, and Zeus. To make it easier to remember these items, give them an action: The Otter loves the singers and is enthusiastically clapping; Thor too appreciates the music and is banging his hammer (Mjölnir) on the desk in approval; Zeus, however, is displeased and is throwing a lightning bolt at the contestants. (To remember them in order, be sure to see each one in turn, creating a vivid picture of them before moving on to the next.)
Now follow Zeus’ lightening bolt as it misses the singers and hits the words American Idol in the logo behind the stage. The shocked duet that was singing are dressed as a Weathervane and an Ice Cream Sundae, but when you look closer you notice they are . . . your own Parents (or someone else’s parents if that makes it easier to picture).
Frightened by the Greek god’s action, the Parents look for an escape. To their surprise (and ours) Santa Claus comes to the rescue, beckoning them to jump into his Sleigh. As Santa rides off into the sky, the Sleigh crashes into a very tall Adult Tree (the children trees on either side are unhurt). Santa and your Parents fall out of the Sleigh, but before they crash to the ground they grab onto a Steel beam that is sticking out of the side of a building.
The Parents are barely hanging on by the tips of their fingers but, fortunately for them, underneath is huge Bear ready to catch them if they fall. The Bear is rather peculiar looking, though: he is wearing large False Eyelashes and two diamond-encrusted Rolex Watches, one on each arm. Coming toward the hero are his bear Wife riding an Ox, and his very human Butler (dressed as a proper English servant) riding a Donkey.
Now before you do anything else, close your eyes and try to remember each of the items—starting with Otter—by picturing them in the sequence of events. Chances are that you were not only able to remember at least ten out of the twenty but were also able to remember their order. That’s not bad for having merely read through the passage one time. If you spend an additional five to ten minutes reading through the list and sequence again, and create clear mental images of each (particularly the ones you missed) you’ll soon be able to recall all twenty perfectly.
The purpose of having you memorize this list of seemly random terms was mainly to have you prove to yourself that you could, using absurd visual images, quickly and easily remember new information as well as the sequence in which they are presented. But you might have also noticed that the terms weren’t chosen at random. Strung together they provide cues to remember the order of the Ten Commandments using terms that are the same or similar sounding:
1. “You shall have no other gods before me.” – No other (Otter) gods (Thor, Zeus)
2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” - No idols = American Idol
3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” – Vain = Weathervane)
4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” – Sabbath = Sunday = Ice Cream Sundae
5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Honor your Parents
6. “You shall not murder.” Murder = slay = Sleigh
7. “You shall not commit adultery.” – Adultery = Adult Tree
8. “You shall not steal.” – Steal = Steel
9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” – Bear false witness = Bear False (Eyelashes) Watches
10. “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.” – Do not covet wife, servants, ox, donkey = Wife, Butler, ox, Donkey
If you are completely unfamiliar with the Ten Commandment then these cues are likely to be of no value. But if you have trouble remembering whether “You shall not steal” comes before or after “You shall not murder,” then it may help in learning the proper sequence.
Now that you know that you can memorize – and that it wasn’t as painful or difficult as you might have imagined – let’s look at few of the techniques we used in the exercise. In our next article you’ll learn four tips that will show you how to apply this process to remembering lists of items and how to store them in a “memory palace” so that you can instantly recall an extraordinary amount of information. Then, next week, we’ll put it all together so that you’ll memorize thirty key points in the book of Genesis.
In the meantime, practice memorizing a string of terms. Make a list of 10-20 words (preferabaly nouns), create an action-oriented images for each, and string them together in a simple story. Then test yourself to see how quickly you can memorize the words and how many you can remember by using your image-string-story technique.
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Now that you’ve learned to create images and string them together to memorize lists, let’s examine some of the ways you can expand on that technique to develop your ability to quickly and effectively memorize large collections of information:
Tip #1 – Use images as mnemonic pegs: A mnemonic is a device, such as a formula or rhyme, used as an aid in remembering. You probably already use simple verbal mnemonics to remember such things as which way to turn a screwdriver (righty tighty, lefty loosie), adjust a clock for Daylight Savings Time (spring forward, fall back), or remember musical notation (Every Good Boy Does Fine for treble clef notes on the line E, G, B, D, F and FACE for the spaces on the bass line (F, A, C, E)).
The “peg” in each of these mnemonics is a word that serves as both a reminder and placeholder for an action or item. For instance, “righty tighty” is the peg that reminds us to turn the screwdriver to the right when we want to tighten a screw. Unfortunately, verbal pegs often rely on rhymes (e.g., righty tighty) or words that sound the same but have different meaning (e.g., spring as an action and Spring as a season), which limits the ability to quickly create them. Also, while words are the best tool ever invented for the purpose of communicating, images are the most effective means God has given us for remembering.
In Thomas Aquinas’ magnum opus, Summa Theologica, the theologian lists “four things whereby a man perfects his memory.” The first on his list is creating strong images:
First, when a man wishes to remember a thing, he should take some suitable yet somewhat unwonted [i.e., unusual] illustration of it, since the unwonted strikes us more, and so makes a greater and stronger impression on the mind; and this explains why we remember better what we saw when we were children. Now the reason for the necessity of finding these illustrations or images, is that simple and spiritual impressions easily slip from the mind, unless they be tied as it were to some corporeal image, because human knowledge has a greater hold on sensible objects. For this reason memory is assigned to the sensitive part of the soul.
In The Memory Book, Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas offer four simple rules for helping to create such unusual images:
Applying all of these rules will help to accomplish our goal of developing one of the most important tools for memorization: the ability to quickly create ridiculous and unusual images.
Tip #2 – Link image pegs together: The link system is one of the simplest of all memory techniques and connects many of the other techniques we’ll be using. This method is applied by linking words or images together into a chain by using a sequence of events or simple story. Notice how in our Ten Commandments example, the sequence of events tied each peg to the next one and helped us to remember the order by placing it within a specific context. For short lists, this technique can often be sufficient for your memorization purposes.
Tip #3 – Create a “memory palace”: Next to creating memorable images, the “memory palace” is the single most effective tool for remembering large amounts of material. The invention of the technique is credited to Simonides of Ceos, a famous fifth-century Greek poet. After performing at a banquet, Simonides stepped outside to meet two men who were waiting for him outside. But while he was outside the banquet hall, it collapsed, crushing everyone within. The bodies were so disfigured that they could not be identified for proper burial. But Simonides was able to remember where each of the guests had been sitting at the table, and so was able to identify them for burial. This experience suggested to him the principles that were to become central to the later development of the memory palace.
He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and the images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written upon it.
This technique, which is also known as the “method of loci”, is a use of an imaginary journey through a sequence of places, or loci, each of which acts as a memory link system. For ancient Greeks, the “places” were often rooms in palaces. But since most of us aren’t intimately familiar with the layouts of any palaces, it’s preferable to use a location that you already know well, such as your current house or apartment or a childhood home. The key is to choose a memory palace that contains at least ten locations (e.g., kitchen, bedroom, bathroom) that can be reached in sequence.
The imagined journey through your memory palace might start on the front porch (Location 1), then into the foyer (Location 2), on into the living room (Location 3), then the kitchen (Location 4), the dining room (Location 5), up the stairs (Location 6), into the hall (Location 7), your bathroom (Location 8), in your bedroom (Location 9), then ending in the spare bedroom (Location 10).
Choose a journey that matches the actual layout of your house. Imagine that you are walking along this journey and don't cross over your path or backtrack since this could cause you to either miss some locations in your journey or use the same ones twice. You can use the same rooms more than once, even on the same list, but be sure to complete the journey completely before starting again at Location 1. (By the way, this practice is said to be the origin of the expressions “in the first place,” “in the second place,” etc.)
At you visualize each location, imagine always looking at the scene from the same location and perspective and looking around the room in the same order, such as from right to left. Practice mentally following your journeys and be able to visualize as much detail in each location as possible. The more details you can see in each location the more mental hooks you can use to attach your image pegs.
Keep in mind that the memory palace is simply the storehouse for the memorable images you create. It provides a structure to help you remember the order and sequence and to prevent you from leaving items off of a list. Memorizing each specific item in a very specific location will help to prevent getting items out of order or leaving them out altogether.
Tip #4 – Incorporate the “nook and cranny” method: This is a method for expanding the capacity of your memory palace without adding extra rooms. Rather than placing only one peg in each location, you’ll identify three to four areas – which we’ll refer to as “nook” – where you can place your images. For instance, if you use your kitchen as a location you could use the refrigerator (either inside or in front of), the pantry, and a counter space as a nook. Keep in mind that because you will be applying the Rule of Out of Proportion, the mental images will often be larger than would actually fit in the space of your nook. Don’t let that physical constraint concern you: unlike in the real world, your imaginary space will expand to fit the object. The important consideration is not what you choose as a nook, but that you’ve identified several areas in your location where you will be able to place your images. Be sure that you have a minimum of three nooks for every location.
As the author of the famous book on memorization, Rhetorica ad Herennium, noted over 2,000 years ago, there are two kinds of mnemonic images: one for ‘things’ [res], the other for ‘words’ [verba]. That is to say ‘memory for things’ makes images to remind of an argument, a notion, or a ‘thing’; but ‘memory for words’ has to find images to remind of every single word. In this series we’re focusing on “memory for things” (that’s why there is an “almost” in the title). Memory for words is a bit more difficult and relies primarily on drill and repetition (for more on that, see this article).
But for now we’re going to stick with the easier (and more fun) stuff. And for our next task—memorizing a detailed sequence of events and people from the Biblical narrative—these tips will be sufficient.
Before we learn to memorize the narrative of Bible, though, let’s practice using the tips mentioned in this series to memorize another list of item. Choose a list that suits your particular interest. For example, a movie buff can practice by memorizing all of the Best Picture Oscar winners for the past 20-30 years; history buffs can memorize the U.S. Presidents or the monarchy of Britain; literature buffs can memorize the titles of Shakespeare’s plays, etc. The key is to choose a list that you have an interest in rememmbering and that have between 25-50 times. It may take 30-60 minutes to come up with the images and put them in your memory palace. Then you’ll want to practice by going through your memory palaces and reciting the items in order.
If you do a practice run like this over the weekend, you’ll be completely prepared next week to quickly and easily memorize the events of Genesis.
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[Note: This is part 4 in a 5 article series on using memorization to increase knowledge of the Bible and develop a sanctified imagination. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 5 here.]
Christ can only be truly and properly known through the revelation presented in the entirety of God’s Word. The British theologian Alister McGrath notes that Scripture is regarded as a channel through which God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is encountered. Faith accepts Scripture as a testimony to Christ, and submits to Christ as the one of whom Scripture speaks.
Too often, though, our faith is based on testimony about the testimony. We may be able to affirm that Scripture is, from Genesis to Revelation, where God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is encountered without truly having encountered that revelation directly. Even if we have read the Bible in its entirety we may only have a general sense of how any particular book, much less all of Scripture, reveals Christ.
An aid to developing this understanding is to delve into Biblical theology, the discipline of understanding how the person and work of Christ are the center of all of God’s works in redemption and the end to which all of the Scriptures point. But it helps to have a mental framework in which to hang the insights we can glean from that field.
One practical and immediate way to prepare for study of Biblical theology and to develop a deeper appreciation of Scripture, to thread it into the warp and woof of our imagination, is to embed as much of the Biblical narrative into our minds as possible. By having a detailed overview of the entire Biblical narrative available for recall, we can better see what Graeme Goldsworthy calls the binding theme of the whole Bible, the kingdom of God, which he defines as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.”
Narrative comprises the single most common form of writing in the Bible. These are the books that contain the main story line of the kingdom of God. Biblical narrative stories compose approximately forty percent of the Old Testament and a large part of the New Testament. The narrative based books would include: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, Haggai, some of the Prophetic writings, the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), and Acts.
In this article you’ll learn how to apply the techniques from the previous articles to create a detailed mental overview of these books. You’ll soon be on your way to knowing hundreds of people and events in the narrative books and where they fit into the story of the Bible. By the time you finish this exercise you should be able to correctly recall the following thirty events from the fifty chapters of Genesis
Having read the book of Genesis (hopefully several times) you are not unfamiliar with the story. Yet the task of memorizing these events still seems daunting, doesn’t it? Why start by memorizing the sequence of events of the fourth longest book of the Bible? Wouldn’t it be easier to start with a single verse from Scripture?
Surprisingly, no, it wouldn’t. Most people will find that they are able to memorize these thirty events easier and faster than they would a thirty-word verse. You’ll soon see for yourself. In an hour, after you’ve read the following section and made a concerted effort to create the mental images, go back and read over the list and you’ll see that you can remember almost all of them. With only a little more practice you’ll soon be able to remember them with near perfect recall.
Let’s get started on what will be the first step in memorizing the story of the Bible, from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1 to the city of New Jerusalem in Revelation 21.
The book of Genesis begins with creation (Gen. 1:1) and ends with the patriarch Joseph in a tomb in Egypt (Gen. 50:26). To help us remember the sequence of events that occurs in between, we’ll create image pegs that can be placed in the nooks and locations of your memory palace (see article #3). Since the same memory palace can be used again and again for remembering different material (we’ll use the same locations for each of the narrative books of the Bible) it helps to have a “trigger” that reminds you of a particular sequence. A useful technique for the narrative is the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This will serve as the cue to recall the list of thirty items for this part of the Biblical narrative.
One of the challenges of making our unique and creative mental impressions is that significant parts of the Biblical narrative involve direct action by God. The Bible warns us, however, against making images of our Creator (Exodus 20:4-6). As R.C. Sproul explains, “God is spiritual and invisible; nothing, therefore, in the earth or in the heavens above corresponds with His nature. Nothing can adequately or comprehensively represent Him.” We must therefore be careful to distinguish between images that represent actions by God and images of God.
For instance, in creating images to represent the actions of God in Genesis I’ll recommend the use of a pair of hands that are doing the “creating.” These images—which I’ll repeatedly refer to as the Representative Hands—should be considered a representative abstraction used for the purpose of creating a memorable mental image and should not be taken to represent “the hands of God.” The distinction is subtle but necessary to avoid confusion about the intention of the imagery we are using for our model.
Let’s get started . . .
Location 1 – Nook 1: God creates night and day
In the first nook of our first location, we want to represent the action of Gen. 1:3: “And God separated the light from the darkness.” Picture our Representative Hand –a pair of massive hands at least three feet long – pulling a huge, very bright light bulb out of a very large and extremely dark hole in the floor. It may help to imagine the words “day” and “night” written on the images.
Location 1 – Nook 2: God separates the water into atmospheric water and oceanic water
In the second nook, we want the same Representative Hands to be placed on the top (palm facing down) and the bottom (palm facing up) of an extraordinarily large drop of water that is floating in midair. When the hands pull the drop apart, the top half turns into series of fluffy clouds that bounce on the ceiling while the bottom half splashes onto the floor creating a waist deep expanse of ocean. Try to hear the sound of the ocean water splashing about and the clouds dripping rain into the water below.
Location 1 – Nook 3: God separates dry land from the oceanic waters and brings forth vegetation
In the third nook, the Representative Hands will reach into the ocean water (which has seeped over from nook 2) and wipe it away until a large section of dirt and land appears in the middle. Have one hand reach down into the dirt and quickly pull up a large fruit tree (Gen. 1:12), an action that causes some of the fruit to fall and bounce on the ground. As a hand pulls the tree to the ceiling, picture grass growing along the rest of the dirt and the ocean water lap around the edges of the dry ground.
Location 2 – Nook 1: God reveals the sun, moon, and stars.
Now let’s move on to your second location. For the first nook in this location, picture the Representative Hands reaching up to attach a comical-looking sun and moon being attached to hooks or beams (sunbeams and moonbeams?) on a black expanse of the ceiling. Picture the sun giggling as the moon tries to shield its eyes from the glare. Once the hand has the sun and moon firmly attached, it uses one of its fingers to poke holes in the dark ceiling, revealing the stars.
Location 2 – Nook 2: God creates birds and oceanic creatures.
In our next nook we are once again waist deep in ocean water with clouds above us. One of the Representative Hands reaches up into the clouds and pulls out a peacock (or other colorful bird that you find easy to remember) while the other reaches into the water and pulls out a great white shark. Picture the shark trying to take a bite of the peacock as the bird squawks and furiously flaps its plumage in an attempt to avoid being eaten.
Location 2 – Nook 3: God creates land animals
Next we move to the last spot in the location. Imagine the Representative Hand reaches into a relatively small burlap sack and pulls out three or four large land animals, like cows and elephants. The hand struggles to pull the various animals out of the sack and each land on the floor with a plop and annoyed grunt.
Location 3 – Nook 1: God creates Adam and Eve
We move on to our third location for the creation of our first parents. You likely have mental images of Adam and Eve already, so picture the hand reaching into a pile of dirt on the floor and pulling out a man. While one hands dusts him off, the other reaches into Adam’s ribcage and pulls out a woman.
Location 3 – Nook 2: God rests
On the seventh day, God rested. So to represent this action we’ll have the Representative Hands (which, keep in mind, are not God’s hands but mere abstract representations of his actions!) lie clasped on a pillow. The hands are emitting a deep and bellicose snoring sound.
Location 3 – Nook 3: Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and leave the garden
We don’t know what fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil looked like, so feel free to picture whatever image pops into your head when you hear the word “fruit.” For this example, we’ll use an apple. Picture Adam and Eve in a garden that is about waist high (it can be sitting on a table or other object in your location). As they share an apple they fall off the side of the garden and onto the floor (representing mankind’s fall from grace).
Location 4 – Nook 1: Cain kills Abel
Even when we are familiar with the story of the first fratricide, it can be easy to forget which brother was the murderer and which was the victim. To help us remember, we’ll use terms that sound similar as a helpful mnemonic device. So for this visual picture a man holding a massive candy CANE in both hands (Cain) who is using it to bludgeon another man who is lying on the ground and not ABLE to get up (Abel).
Location 4 – Nook 2: Noah builds an ark
Since the story of Noah is one of the most common in all of Western culture, you probably already have a strong visual you can place in this nook. If nothing else comes to mind, imagine an old man loading animals into an ark as the rain begins to fall.
Location 4 – Nook 3: God makes a covenant with Noah
The two cues we will use and tie together for this part of the story are the burnt offerings and the sign of the covenant (i.e., the rainbow). Create a picture of Noah setting fire to the feathers of a live peacock (perhaps the one from Location 2 – Nook 2) and as he does, a rainbow shoots from the plumage and creates an arch of color. (Bird-burning can be disturbing image, so it might help to make the visual less violent—and more memorable—by making is somewhat cartoonish.)
That should be enough to get you started. Make sure all of these points are firmly ensconsed in your memory palace. In our next article we’ll add the rest of the events from the book of Genesis.
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[Note: This is part 4 in a 5 article series on using memorization to increase knowledge of the Bible and develop a sanctified imagination. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.]
Let’s continue with our process of memorizing the events in Genesis:
Location 5 – Nook 1: The Story of the Tower of Babel
What image comes to mind when you think of a tower? For many people it is the Eiffel Tower in Paris (or it’s kitschy knockoff in Las Vegas) so we’ll use that as our tower. Picture the Eiffel Tower spewing BUBBLES (Babel) from its top and a BABBLE of strange languages coming from its base.
When remembering people from the Biblical narrative it can be helpful to associate them with the first person whose name comes to mind. Unfortunately, while I know many women who share the name of this patriarch’s wife (Sarah) I don’t know any Abrahams or Abrams. Instead I have to create a specific visual image for Abraham (e.g., a dusty, old and bearded nomad) that I can use throughout my memory palace. For this nook, I picture Abraham looking at an Egyptian pyramid (my go-to image for Egypt) that is surrounded by a fence made of candy canes (representing the similar sounding Canaan). Above the pyramid is the Representative Hand makes a beckoning motion to come toward the pyramid.
Location 5 – Nook 3: Abram has a son, Ishmael
There are many notable births that we’ll need to remember as we create the biblical narrative in our memory palace, so you’ll want to create a standard visual that represents “birth of a child.” As a boy I was told that the stork delivers babies, so that has visual has stuck with me. In this case, I picture a stork dropping a baby into the arms of Abraham. Since I don’t know any Ishmaels, I picture the baby with a sign around its neck that says, “Call me Ishmael” – the opening line of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. An alternative would be to use a similar sounding term. Instead of the stork delivering a human child, you can visualize him dropping a load of FISH MAIL onto Abraham.
Location 6 – Nook 1: God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah
Creating a visual to represent unfamiliar cities can be difficult. While its best to avoid using words in our visuals, this is case where is might be helpful. Picture two signs next to each other with the words “Welcome to So” on one and “Welcome to Go” on the other (an abbreviation that can be easier to picture than the words Sodom and Gomorrah). Each of the Representative Hands – which are now on fire – squashes the signs until there is nothing left but ash and debris on the floor.
Location 6 – Nook 2: Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt
This one is easy: As a woman looks back at the ashy signs on the floor, the Representative Hand taps her on the head and she turns into a human-sized saltshaker.
Location 6 – Nook 3: Sarah gives birth to Isaac
When picturing Sarah and Isaac, you may want to use an image of a friend, actor (e.g., Sarah Jessica Parker), celebrity (e.g., Sarah Ferguson, former Duchess of York), politician (e.g., former Alaska governor Sarah Palin), or historical figure (e.g., Sir Isaac Newton). As with Abraham and Ishmael, picture a stork dropping a baby with the face of your Isaac into the arms of the Sarah you picture.
Location 7 – Nook 1: God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but provides a ram as substitute
Create an image of the two figures preparing to engage in an act that you’ll recognize represents “sacrifice.” For example, you might picture Abraham with a knife standing over Isaac, who is also standing. As Abraham is bringing down the weapon, a ram butts Isaac with his horns, knocking him out of the way and taking the blow on his behalf.
Location 7 – Nook 2: Abraham's wife Sarah dies
As with births, you’ll want to create a standard image that can be used for common events such as deaths and weddings. For instance, you might want to use an image of an open coffin and a person crying over it. In this case, Sarah is lying in the coffin while her husband Abraham weeps.
Location 7 – Nook 3: Isaac marries Rebekah.
While it is tempting to create images we think would be more historically accurate, it is often easier to remember images that are familiar to us. For example, when imagining weddings mentioned in the Bible, picture the characters dressed in a modern wedding gown and tuxedo. An image of the 18th-century physicist Sir Isaac Newton marrying Christian pop singer Rebecca St. James (my visual cue) doesn’t become more accurate simply because we imagine them dressed in Ancient Near Eastern garb. The important factor is that the images be easy to remember. You don’t have to tell anyone how you remember them so feel free to make them as silly and strange as you want since silly and strange are more memorable).
Location 8 – Nook 1: Rebekah gives birth to Esau and Jacob
While Rebekah and Jacob are still common names, you don’t find too many Esau’s around nowadays. Creating memorable visual cues for Esau can be difficult, so you may want to use similar sounding words (like a children’s SEE-SAW) or create an absurd term (PEA SAW – a saw either made of or used to cut peas) and have the man carrying them. So for me, Esau is a bearded nomad who is carrying a chainsaw made of green peas.
Location 8 – Nook 2: Esau sells his birthright for bowl of stew
Picture Isaac wearing a chef’s hat standing behind a table with a large, steaming bowl of stew. His brother, licking his lips and holding an oversized spoon, hands over his birth certificate as payment to a gloating Jacob.
Location 8 – Nook 3: Jacob wrestles with God; has his name changed to Israel.
Create an image of Jacob wrestling with the Representative Hand. When the hand touches Jacob’s hip, the shirt he is wearing turns into the flag of the State of Israel (i.e., a blue Star of David on a white background).
Location 9 – Nook 1: Joseph angers his brothers and is sold into slavery
As a reminder that Joseph was also the given a coat of many colors (Gen. 37:3), I recommend creating an image of Joseph wearing a garish, oversized fur coat of wild colors. A group of angry young men of various ages is standing behind a supermarket checkout counter while Joseph is lying on the conveyer belt wrapped in his coat and chains. An ancient Egyptian is handing over a fistful of dollar bills to the brothers as payment for the newly enslaved Joseph.
Location 9 – Nook 2: Potiphar’s wife has Joseph thrown in jail
Picture an Egyptian woman (perhaps one that looks like a movie version of Cleopatra) holding on to the neck of Joseph’s fur-lined multi-colored coat. As he tries to get loose the coat breaks away and he runs straight into a jail cell.
Location 9 – Nook 3: Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker and then of Pharaoh
Picture Joseph (back in his coat again) standing before three men. One man is holding in his hands a giant cup filled with grapes (Gen. 40:10-11). The second man is balancing on his head a silver platter with three cakes that are being eaten by birds (perhaps peacocks again?). The third man has a head the shape of an Egyptian pyramid. Under each arm he is holding a cow–the one on the left is emaciated while the one on the right is plumb. The skinny cow is chewing on the ear of the fat cow.
Location 10 – Nook 1: Joseph is made prime minister of Egypt
Create an image of Joseph (in his coat, of course) sitting on a lavish throne. He’s wearing a clerical collar and baseball cap with ‘#1’ emblazoned across the front – a symbol that he is the #1 (prime) minister (not the clergy kind, but you get the idea) in Egypt.
Location 10 – Nook 2: Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy grain
Joseph, wearing his coat, is now the one standing at a supermarket checkout counter serving as the clerk. Each of the brothers (from the image you created for Location 9 – Nook 1) is standing in the checkout line holding a loaf of whole-wheat bread and looking sheepish.
Location 10 – Nook 3: Jacob dies and then Joseph dies.
Picture two open caskets, once with the image of your Jacob and the other is of Joseph laid out in his fancy, colored coat.
The author of Ad Herennium says that the duty of an instructor in mnemonics is to teach the method of making images, give a few examples, and then encourage the student to form his own. When teaching ‘introductions’, he says, one does not draft a thousand set introductions and give them to the student to learn by heart; one teaches him the method and then leaves him to his own inventiveness. That’s the approach I’ll take here.
The task of creating your own images will certainly take time and effort. But here are a few suggestions for how to make the process less intimidating and time-consuming:
Create your own shorthand – Rather than writing everything out word for word, create shorthand that will remind you of the images you create and where you plan to place them in you memory palace. For example, you could write the details of “Location 3 – Nook 2: God Rests” like this:
Genesis :: 3/3 :: God Rests :: RH sleeping, snoring
Just remember that the 3/3 refers to the particular location and nook, not the chapter and verse.
Divide the workload – While image pegs that you create yourself are often easier to remember, for a complex task like this it may be helpful to share the workload. Instead of coming up with image pegs for every book of the Bible all by yourself, divide the tasks up among your family, friends, or small group. Work together to come up with a consensus for which events to include, but then have each person take one book and create a list of mental pegs for that part of the Bible. Be sure that everyone shares the same code or shorthand to avoid confusion.
Set aside time each week for this task – Use the techniques we covered in this series to schedule a time to accomplish this task. You gain no benefit from merely agreeing that memorizing the Biblical narrative would be spiritually helpful; you have to actually make time to accomplish this task. Isn’t it worth twenty minutes of your time each week to embed the entire Bible storyline into your imagination?