The recent movie Yesterday is mostly a light-hearted romantic comedy with a divertingly fun premise. Although the movie (wisely) never tries to explain it, the premise is that the entire Planet Earth underwent a history-altering event. For around eleven seconds, electrical power blinked out worldwide before suddenly coming back on worldwide. The main character of the film is a struggling would-be singer/songwriter named Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel). As fate would have it, Jack is hit by a bus at the very moment the world experienced its inexplicable power outage. Somehow the trauma of the accident threw Jack clear and insulated him from the changes that every person in the world unknowingly experienced.
Elements of history got altered. Jack soon discovers that there was never any such thing as Coca-Cola. (As the short-order cooks on the old Saturday Night Live skit used to say, “No Coke. Pepsi!”) He later finds out that neither has anyone ever heard of cigarettes. But the main thing he discovers is that all memory of a musical group called The Beatles has been wiped out. All his Beatles albums have disappeared from his library and a Google search for “Beatles” yields only articles on insects (“Did you mean ‘Beetles?’”).
Needless to say Jack then realizes he can reverse his musical fortunes from dismal failure to rocketing success by introducing the world to Beatles songs and passing them off as his own. The ethical dilemma posed by this occupies much of the film as does his relationship with the key woman in his life. I won’t spoil the film for anyone who has not seen it by saying any more.
But I am bringing it up here to take one of the questions raised by the film and then giving it a spiritual turn. Because once Jack realizes the Beatles have disappeared completely from world history, he has to start remembering Beatles songs: the music but also the lyrics and also flat out any given song in the first place. Suddenly he realizes there are many songs he does not remember much at all (and if it’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” that might be OK!) and even when he does remember some songs (even one as well-known as “Eleanor Rigby”), he finds that getting the music and the lyrics right ends up taking a good deal of effort. I mean, he cannot Google these. He cannot look them up. There is nothing to goad his memory except . . . well, except for his memory.
Speaking of memory: many writers have noted a key historical progression. For the first 1,400 years of church history, if the average person knew anything about the Bible, it had to come from what they carried around in their heads. There were no books, no personal copies of Scripture, no way typically to look something up.
In the monastic tradition—as my colleague David Rylaarsdam recently reminded me—a great deal of time and energy was focused on memorizing Scripture. Not a few monks memorized the entire New Testament. Even short of that ambitious goal, there was a tradition in many communities of something called lectio continua in which mealtimes and other periods were filled with the sound of someone’s reading the monastery’s only copy of the Bible aloud from Genesis to Revelation and then starting all over again. People were hungry to absorb as much Scripture as they could since they could not pop open a Bible and read a passage at any given moment.
All that began to change with the invention of the printing press. Now memorizing the Bible started to get less important. And as time went on, more and more people had their own copies of Scripture—indeed, eventually families and individuals possessed multiple copies. (There was the one you got at church when you finished middle school, the one you got when you made Profession of Faith, the one you got . . . )
Needless to say all of this has been magnified to mind-bending degrees with the advent of the internet and a search engine like Google. The website Bible Gateway alone allows instant searching of the Bible (in every conceivable translation) such that I do not pick up my physical copy of the Bible near as often as I did even ten years ago—it’s quicker on Bible Gateway. Things I used to look up in the classic Eerdmans “International Standard Bible Encyclopedia” are now much more quickly found on Google. Similarly in other areas of life: people used to carry around lots of phone numbers in their heads but now those are saved on our smartphones so why bother to memorize them? As a comedian once said, “My phone has memory and now I don’t.”
So suppose we experienced with biblical knowledge something like Jack Malik experienced with the Beatles. Suppose you woke up one day and discovered that the entire tradition of the Psalms had been wiped clean from Israel’s history and from church history. No “Book of Psalms” existed in any Bible. No hymn or song setting of a psalm existed in any hymnal. All Psalm references in Handel’s Messiah or in the corpus of choral anthem writers like John Rutter had vanished. Suppose you were the only one left who remembered that in another world, there had been something called The Psalms. How many could you remember? How many types of Hebrew poetry could you recall much less how many could you reproduce and try to present to the church for its edification?
We could play this “What If?” scenario in lots of areas of the Bible or in church music or in traditional theological compendia like The Heidelberg Catechism. But the question confronts us: how much do we really know? How much do we absorb Scripture? When we find ourselves feeling scared or nervous inside an MRI tube, how much Scripture can we summon to mind for comfort and assurance? Or do we need Bible Gateway or Google now to recall even what should be considered really familiar passages?
We need not claim that having super good memories makes anyone a stronger believer or that God loves people with lots of knowledge in their heads more than those with less. I would not want this little thought experiment to be applied in ways that would diminish any believer in the world. But it may raise for us good questions as to how immersed we are in Scripture, in thinking spiritual thoughts, in rehearsing the biblical-theological tradition of the wider church. And maybe it presents a good challenge for us: maybe like the monks of old we need not try to memorize the whole New Testament but what if we chipped away at memorizing Philippians? What if we tried to commit to memory one example each of the various types of Psalms (confession, lament, ascent, thanksgiving, praise)?
Jack Malik got giddy when he finally could recall the lyrics of the classic Beatles ballad “Eleanor Rigby.” We ought to be able to get far more enthused by the prospect of remembering sacred words that mean far, far more to us than any other song could ever achieve.