Bible rhythms: Verses as real *verses*

Hear Scripture verses as _verses_, with a back-and-forth rhythm. Rhythm links phrases, and turns paragraphs into poetry. Learning becomes _much_ easier.

When I began memorizing Mark, I broke the text into verses. As a side benefit, I noticed that each verse had its own shape, instead of the usual solid Bible column.

But some verses were still too long. I’d get rolling on a long stretch, and get lost. Or skip chunks.

Then I found The Oral Style by Marcel Jousse. This French priest eagerly explained how the best human learning happens with rhythm and gesture. And he wrote this in 1925.

Jousse grew up among peasants who couldn’t read, but who had memorized rhythmic versions of huge portions of the Bible. As with all the children in his village, he’d begun hearing French Bible songs even as he rocked in his cradle. When he grew up and became a Jesuit, he pursued these rhythms in the original texts and languages of the Bible. And he found them.

Even in translation, you can find the hidden rhythms in the Gospels.

Jousse showed me a whole new way to listen to these verses. Take Mark 2:16.

And the scribes and the Pharisees, seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners, said to his disciples, “Why does your master eat and drink with publicans and sinners?”

At first glance, and first listen, this verse is long and has little rhythm. If anything, it feels flabby; why do we have to repeat that whole bit about eating with publicans and sinners? Couldn’t they just have said, “Why does your master do that?”

But let’s look at that verse in a new way.

And the scribes and the Pharisees,
seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners,
said to his disciples,
“Why does your master eat and drink
with publicans and sinners?”

Wow. That unwieldy string of text is now several small, meaningful chunks. This Bible “verse” actually looks like verse, like poetry.

But that’s only the beginning. These chunks may look like a stanza, but they also look like a list. We don’t talk in lists. We talk in rhythm. Can we show that rhythm here?

And the scribes and the Pharisees,
    seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners,
said to his disciples,
    “Why does your master eat and drink
       with publicans and sinners?”

What is rhythm? Back and forth, to and fro, up and down, rise and fall, ebb and flow. Rhythm is like tossing a rock into the air. We feel tension, expectation—what goes up must come down. When the rock returns, we feel satisfaction and completion.

Jousse showed that, even in translation, Mark and other texts show this back-and-forth rhythm between phrases.

These phrases can come in a pair:

And the scribes and the Pharisees,
    seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners,

Or in a trio:

said to his disciples,
    “Why does your master eat and drink
       with publicans and sinners?”

Jousse thought that these twos and threes were a basic pattern that would get repeated over and over as the performer spoke. He called them propositional gestes, which goes beyond spoken rhythm to include actual movement. He thought that true learning meant expressing and feeling this rhythm in your whole body, moving back and forth as you chanted.

In fact, he found that children in oral cultures would physically rock back and forth as they recited their lessons. They would feel the rhythm in their whole bodies.

I personally haven’t gotten the hang of rocking back and forth. I do try sometimes.

But saying “back and forth” has made all the difference. Long verses used to feel like paragraphs. Now they feel like poetry.

Rhythm is so strong. What happens if you say:

Thirty days hath September,

… and just stop? You can’t stop. You have to finish it, even in your head.

    April, June, and November.

We’re used to this with nursery rhymes (and corporate jingles). But it’s another “ordinary” mental feature that ought to astound us. Rhythm links things. It’s a tool for knowledge. Mark used it, and so should we. Search for rhythms in Mark. When you say the first phrase, the second will follow.

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