“By the Book” group forges a new way for students to grow

By Libby Powell

Golden candlelight dances across the shadowy walls, casting a quiet glow on the faces around the room. After a long day, several girls curl up on the couches, warming their hands with steaming mugs of tea. Each has come with her own burdens and blessings, but there’s an eager light in their eyes that says that Tuesday nights are a gift, a reprieve in the thick of the week. 

The meeting might last an hour. It might last five. Anyone passing by might hear a muted chorus of female voices through the apartment wall, singing odd ditties again and again, punctuated with laughter. Anyone timely enough to walk by at its close would see a group of five or six girlish silhouettes tramp down the apartment stairs, pile into a minivan, and take off toward the college. 

Homework and showers await, and exams loom ever closer… but the evening was not wasted. These Tuesday nights have become the catalyst for deep conversations and deeper relationships. Even more, they facilitate storing God’s word in the heart.

It started when TMU students Catherine and Rose Wittenmyer posted flyers on the campus looking for young women committed to meet regularly and memorize the book of James.

What most people did not realize from a glance at the posters was how they would memorize James—through song.

The Wittenmyer sisters did not always advocate memorizing Scripture to music. Catherine recalls being made to memorize Ephesians for a school assignment when she was younger. Memorizing “rote” was her default, but, she explains, “Whenever I didn’t have the time to work on Bible memory, I would put it to a song, and then I would know that my homework was automatically done and I wouldn’t have to memorize it… [but] in the weeks that I had time,  I would rote memorize it.”

When Catherine was 13, the girls’ mother was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer and given only months to live. During that time, Catherine explains, “she couldn’t remember our names or anything like that.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Wittenmyer decided as she battled cancer, she wanted to commit Proverbs 31 to memory. Her daughters were skeptical, but did their best to help their mother get the words down. “We tried everything and she couldn’t memorize. But then, we tried putting it to music…”

The results were unbelievable. The woman who couldn’t remember the word for onion was able to recite Proverbs 31 from beginning to end.

That’s when Rose and Catherine started making the connection: “Mom literally [didn’t] have a short term memory, and she was able to memorize something to music. That means that somehow [music] is going into long term memory.”

After doing more research, they discovered that their conclusion was right. 

Catherine explains, “When you rote memorize something, your brain has to remember every single word and every connection, which is like thousands – tens of thousands of connections that your brain has to remember.”

Working on a chapter or a book by repetition would only commit the passages to short-term memory, which would easily disappear before the year had passed. Hence the need for reviewing everything again and again, an impractical solution for the everyday believer with a job and a family.

Through music, however, Catherine explained, “Your brain only has to remember one word, and the rest comes as a big, long string.” 

Barely any effort at all is required to retain the memorized passage. Years after first putting James to music and memorizing it, Catherine recited the entire book at the first meeting of the TMU women in one sitting with almost no mistakes.

After discovering the power of memorizing to music, God gave Catherine and Rose the opportunity to teach three kids at their church, ages four and five, 53 consecutive verses in 2-3 months. The children’s parents were amazed and asked for more… and thus, the seeds were planted for what would become By the Book, a program designed for families to memorize books of the Bible together to music.

At first, the Wittenmyer’s goal was to get big chunks of the Word of God into a memorable format, easy to pick up and retain for life. The songs are jaunty or dramatic as fits with each passage of Scripture.

“It’s not the sort of thing that you sing at church,” Catherine explains. “It’s just a tool to get the words in your mind in a way you can’t forget.”

Hannah Weber, a student participating in the weekly James memorization clubs, agrees that the songs and the music videos are “quirky,” but immensely helpful for getting the words stuck in her head. “It’s just so easy to access when it’s in your head in a song and I can actually remember it. It just keeps flowing out… which is amazing!”

For Scarlett, another weekly attender who came in with little to no experience in Scripture memory, joining the group was intimidating and she was full of doubt over her ability to memorize. To her surprise, three months later, she exclaims, “I still know it and it’s easy to recite it. And that’s never happened with anything else longterm.”

By the Book grew over time into a full-fledged business “with God as the CEO,” the Wittenmyers make clear, recounting the many times God’s faithfulness and provision directed their steps in incredible ways. As the team of workers grew from the two sisters to include other dedicated and gifted believers, the music also developed from quirky and catchy to more beautiful and technical.

Catherine’s excitement oozes as she describes how much more meaningful the music has become, particularly for their Isaiah project.

“Sometimes the book can be confusing,” she says. “But if you listen to Isaiah, put to music… that can be super cool, because you’re literally understanding more of what it means. Because sometimes you’re like, is this a good thing or a bad thing? But if it’s put to music you’re like, oh I can feel the emotion of what Isaiah’s [trying to portray].”

The technicality of the music allows for the “expositing of Scripture through music.” The use of motifs and variations allow for deeper exploration of inner- and intertextuality in the Scripture, calling to mind other passages that relate to the one being memorized.

Herbert Roger Vega, a music major at TMU who joined the By the Book team last fall, works to develop the musicality of the songs so that they are beautiful to listen to, while preserving the integrity of the text. In the composition process, he and the team intentionally craft a melodic line that’s easy to follow, while the nuances of the text are captured in the harmonies, rhythms, and emotions that support it.

“There are symphonies resounding in the word of God,” he explains. When readers read a certain phrase written in a certain way and accompanied by certain words, it is meant by the author to call to mind other specific passages of Scripture to make a certain point. These references can be either to passages in the same book (inner-textuality) or passages in other books by different authors (intertextuality). Such passages, Herbert says, are like “a song that’s recalled.”

James was one of the first books the Wittenmyer sisters put to music before branching out and developing their songs more. At the time, the goal was to get the words into a rhythm and a song that would be hard to forget–and on that score, the James tracks are a complete success, though they lack the musical development the team now implements into their compositions. Several of the girls who attend the James group at the Wittenmyer’s apartment say they find themselves singing it in the shower or humming it while doing homework, the words flowing along as easy as a river.

The impact of the weekly meetings is sweetly evident. According to Hannah, “I think because we repeat it so often, it [leads to] meditating on the word… doing it through song and with others, it’s just great because you really actually have to think about it.” 

After memorizing a portion of Scripture, the girls will sit and discuss its meaning and significance in the context of the bigger picture of the book so that the words memorized aren’t isolated and mere concepts. The times singing or humming the tunes during the week inadvertently stir up the mind to dwell on the truth and mull over its importance.

Catherine goes on to explain, “When you attach the meaning to the words as you’re memorizing them hundreds of times, God brings it to your mind when you need it, and it just makes that knee-jerk reaction Scripture. That’s the instinct… when you’re in a trial, what’s the first thing you think? ‘When you meet trials of various kinds [count it all joy]!’ (James 1:2).”

That’s where the importance of memorizing large chunks of the Bible comes in. Knowing an entire book provides the context and the significance that shed light on the individual verses that come to mind in times of need. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God” is urged by James as response to times of trial and perplexity, not merely as a neutral suggestion.

“The word of God is powerful,” Catherine continues with an excited grin. “It’s a sword, and when you have a whole book of it in your brain, it teaches you so much, and is a real strong weapon against attack.”

Scarlett Kuchiner, who has been with the club since its start, sees the impact of the meetings everyday: “It’s really like [in] everything that I do, random [verses] come to my mind – and at hard times, too…It’s been so wonderful to memorize my sword.”

All eight of the TMU women who attend the James group on Tuesday nights agree that the benefits of memorizing Scripture—especially to song—are encouraging and unavoidable in the best way.

An unexpected result of the weekly meetings is the close-knit community the girls have formed and how deeply they are able to share life with one another. The gathering can sometimes last for hours as they share their hearts, burdens, and joys with one another, pray for one another, and just enjoy being together over a cup of tea and freshly baked goods.

To Catherine, however, the meeting was not entirely about memorizing Scripture. “I thought that doing something where the stated goal is to memorize the Bible is going to… bring the people who want to find a like-minded community.” And so it has. On Tuesday nights, there is not a more grateful group to be together than the James girls, studying and storing God’s Word in their hearts and, in the process, learning to love each other deeply and practically as sisters in Christ.

“It’s so hard to find girls that are on fire for God and actually are trying to become more sanctified,”  Scarlett said. 

But here at the club is a gathering of friends who genuinely want to talk about the Bible and the Christian life, to point each other back to Christ, and to listen to “Catherine-spiels about eschatology at eleven o’clock at night.” 

The meetings are full of laughter and excitement over what God is doing and how his Word reveals his story. But the biggest blessing is the authentic, no-hiding life together that happens every Tuesday night. There’s a special unity that comes from focusing time around God’s Word–learning it, discussing it, and applying it in every situation, good or hard. In Scarlett’s words, “It’s how Christian fellowship is supposed to be.”

One thought on ““By the Book” group forges a new way for students to grow

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: