Drawing from his background in theater, Australian Simon Camilleri has dedicated his life to memorizing the Bible and reciting it publicly in churches, conferences and workshops. Even if you never want to stand on a stage to recite what you’ve memorized, there are still so many things to learn from someone like Simon.
Or you can listen to the Memorize What Matters podcast on your favorite player:Listen to “He Memorizes and Publicly Recites the Bible (you can too!)” on Spreaker.
Learn more about Simon:
- His website: https://www.publicbiblereading.com
- Support Simon’s work: https://www.patreon.com/simoncamilleri
Interview Transcript w/ Simon Camilleri
In year seven, which first year of high school in Australia, I did a production of Oliver. And remember that moment when the curtains squeaked in the darkness as it opens up and you can hear the murmur of the audience. I can still remember that. And then the lights came on and we started singing food, glorious food. And I fell in love straight away from that experience and have always loved theater. I went to university and studied majored in theater. And coming to the end of my teen years, that’s when I was introduced to the gospel and embraced that. And I read a book called In His Steps, which I’m not sure if you know, it’s where the ww j d, what would Jesus Do Slogan came from. It’s a book in the seventies about a town where a church, not a true story, but it’s a great book of they decided to do everything for a year asking what would Jesus do? And so I thought, as a new Christian, what would Jesus do if he had skills and a passion for theater? And so I thought he would write Christian or plays that would share the gospel in some way and try and build God’s kingdom that way through that art form. And so that’s what I started doing. I started doing it at university. I went to a real artsy liberal type uni where the theater scene was very alive and I cared way more about that than my studies. It was great.
And parallel to that, I also joined the Christian group at university and was growing in my faith and just my love of theater and my love of Christ have always sort of journeyed parallel. And
I’m curious because at least in the us, and I’m making a generalization here so I apologize, but at least in the US the theater scene does not always jive well with Christian faith. So how was that for you? Did you find yourself kind of butting heads or was it okay? How did you feel about that?
I was a new Christian, so I was like on fire, passionate, evangelistic, just fell in love with Jesus sort of stuff. So that difference was exciting to me. It was a field right for the picking sort of thing, but I also wanted to be real artsy and clever and everything like that. So I would write these Christian plays that had sort a subtle Christian symbolism and a message in there. And so it appealed to the Artie sort of side of me and the Artie community that was there. But more and more I kept finding people coming out of the play, not realizing that it was Christian, not realizing it was a Christian message there. And I remember thinking at the time an analogy of a sower in the seed and instead of going, I’m just going to throw the seed out there and let it land where it may, I was seeing the soil and trying to whittle the seed to fit the soil.
And I was sort of sick of that. And I remember getting to a stage where I went, I just want to do something that’s just blatant, that’s just obvious, that’s just puts the gospel out there. And so I thought I’ll do a play written based on a gospel story and immediately images of many with T detailss wrapped around their heads and cardboard cutout sheep and everything came into my mind. I couldn’t think how it could not be done super cringe. And now of course we’ve got things like the chosen that do it really well, but of course you’d need the budget. So little student theater thing, I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine doing it. And that was getting me a bit down. And then I stumbled upon hearing that there was a guy called Max McLean who is from the States who is an amazing performer and bible recital and heard that there’s this guy who, and he is memorized the entire book of Mark and is on a stage by himself with the stool and he performs it.
And for me that was a light bulb moment. Instead of thinking of the text as something that would inspire a play or inspire a script, I went back to it and I just started reading as if it was the finished product, if it was the script. And at the same time it’s probably influenced me. Lord of the Rings had just come out at the movies the first one, and there’s the opening speech in Lord of the Rings where glad the queen of the fairies, the elves, she is doing this big speech about it was the time of men and there was one ring and all this sort of dramatic. So I went to Mark and I just started reading it, maybe channeling the Queen of the Elves and Max McLean, and I started reading it is written in Isaiah the prophet, I will send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way, a voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord.
And it was like, this is the opening of a movie. This is amazing. And I was blown away. I literally went to my friend who’s not theatrical at all and I said, listen to this. And we both knew the Bible well, but I just read it with that intention, with that emotion that I would bring to any speech or any script that I’d done through my theater training. And it blew me away. And so I put on, I didn’t really know how to do it. It was all very experimental. I put on a production, I got 11 of my friends and we put on a production of the entire gospel of Mark at my secular secular university, just a night, $5 a ticket. It was a two hour show, a one and a half hour show. And we each, instead of taking on roles or characters in the story, we each learned sort of chapters or chunks and we each learn a few of them and we just sort of pieced them, pieced them together on this night.
And we had boxes on stage and it was all very simple. And one thing that we discovered, it was a bit like striking gold, no striking like striking oil and only having tiny buckets to catch it in. We had first night it was sort of a good crowds there. Everyone’s supporting student theater at our uni. And then the next night new people would come and the old people would come back and bring five of their friends. And so we had crowds in the end. We had to turn away like 60 people a night because we couldn’t fit them legally in this little theater. And we just go, what is this? And yeah, it sort of discovered that, and that was about 21 years ago we did that.
That is so cool. I think that’s really encouraging, especially for people that when I think of doing that, let’s say even on a secular university campus in the United States, it just feels like, oh, politically correct, you can’t do something like that. It’s just all, and yet I think it speaks to the power of God’s word that not only can you do that, but you don’t have to make this a super flashy thing. We don’t have to have the chosen budget because the gospel can speak, the word can stand on its own and have people coming night after night to just hear it being recited. It’s not even anything super special on topic. No.
Yeah, I remember people asking me, so what is this? And I would sort of market it by going, well, they’ve discovered these ancient documents that tell the original story of Jesus in his day, these ancient ones. And so what we’ve done is we haven’t edited it all, we’ve just committed it to memory and we’re just reading out these ancient documents and people were like, really? Wow. They thought that was like this. And so it actually fascinated people. There’s something about the raw simplicity of it where you’re just sort of putting the text on a slab and letting people see it for what it is. You’re not trying to pretty it up, you’re not editing out the bits that you don’t like. You’re not adding bits to make it more persuasive. You’re just presenting it as it is and trusting that the message it has to tell, it can tell by itself.
And so we’ve never thought of all the performance side of things as adding to the text. It’s just us connecting with the text and presenting it in that way. And people really responded. And we were very surprised by that. And I thought it was just going to be a once off. And then I realized this is what I want to do. This is the sort of theater I want to do. And so for the last 20 years, I’ve only done a small handful of other types of shows directing or writing or performing. The main thing that I’ve loved to do when I’ve had the opportunity to do theater is committing to memory different parts of the Bible and presenting them.
Are not in the flesh, but in the spirit. If in fact the spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin. The spirit is life because of righteousness. And if the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, oh, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal body through his spirit who dwells in you.
I loved just watching part of that recitation. Simon, can you tell me when you are approaching this as somebody who is in theater, what is it that you are doing or how are you thinking about this text as you are memorizing it and as you’re thinking about performing it, what is that different than just sitting down and repeating something over and over and over again?
Yeah, I’ve talked to lots of people over the years who have said, I find it really hard to memorize and because I get a few words in and then I forget. Or I maybe do one or two verses and I find it really hard. And I often say this to them and I say, so Josh, if I asked you about a holiday that you’ve been on, could you think, what’s a holiday you’ve been on?
We went on a vacation to the beach this summer with my family.
Lovely. Have you talked about that? You could probably talk about that for a long time. We could talk about that for an hour. All the things that happened on that trip. And you in that telling, you would probably say thousands upon thousands of words, but you didn’t memorize those words. You lived that experience and then you told that story. And you might tell it each time. You might tell it pretty much the same, obviously, if you suddenly change it to, I’m now climbing a mountain, you’re telling the story wrong. So you’re going to tell the story pretty much the same. You might change little things here and there, but your focus is actually telling this thing that you’ve lived, you’ve experienced and you’ve connected with and you are sharing. And so to some degree, the goal for me is to get beneath the text to the story, to the experience that actually happened when in the first century, they would’ve gone up to John the apostle and said, John, you were there.
You saw what happened. You were at the cross. Tell us, I’ve got this friend. He wants to know. Tell us what happened. And John would tell it with this sense of immediacy, this reality that he experienced and saw. And so for me, what’s really important is actually connecting, seeing the text. That’s a record of an event that actually happened in history. And so my goal is if I just stay at the text and don’t go any deeper than that, then it will just be this cerebral memorization of words process. But if I’m connecting with this, really this happened, people saw this. How did they feel when they told this? And treating this record as something precious, a record of something that actually happened that I need to tell with respect to that. That’s actually the heart of what, the way I approach it now, I don’t ignore the words, obviously the words are the things that get you into that, connect you to that and tell you what happened.
But ultimately I want to know what’s the people feeling, if it’s a narrative, what are they feeling? What would’ve been like to see it? And as I break up the passage, I break it up broadly first. I don’t start word, word, word, word, word. I go sort of look at it on from a wider scale and break it up into sections, give headings to those sections, maybe see how the flow of the story goes through. Where does it climax? Can I tell the story briefly in my own words? Do I know it? The idea is that you are sort of marinating in the story over and over again so it becomes familiar to you.
Do you feel like, obviously with something like John or Luke or a narrative, that’s a lot easier to accomplish, but what about something like romances where we’re not talking about a story per se. Do you find that that same approach works well for you?
It’s so much harder, but it still is about a story. So the epistles are written by people who lived in time and they’re writing two people and they have a relationship with those people. And they were writing this for an intention and the people would’ve heard it feeling something as they heard it, and the writers riding it, feeling something as he’s riding it. And so there is a narrative going on there. And there is a train of thought through an epistle as the rider is moving from one piece to the next piece. And it’s actually really important for me to, it’s harder to do because it’s not as obvious, but it is. It’s actually part of the process where I need to get into Paul’s head. Why did he write that paragraph after that paragraph? What’s he trying to say? What’s he being moved by? And you have in it where it’s actually the emotional undercurrent that reminds me of the next part. It’s not just this word, and we all know lots of different techniques of memorization. Sometimes for me, it’s actually that emotional undercurrent that I’ve connected with
Pulls you along the tab.
Yeah. So one of the passages that comes to mind for me is in Romans eight where it says, he who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies, who is to condemn. And then this is the real moment. Christ Jesus is the one who died, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God and who is indeed interceding for us, who shall separate us from the love of Christ. And so in my mind, when Paul, the writer, he’s talking about what Christ has done. He’s died for us. He’s raised, he’s at the right hand of God and he’s interceding for us. He’s filled with awe and love for Christ. And that naturally leads into the next verse, which is, who shall separate us from the love of Christ? And so for me, part of the process is really connecting with that undercurrent, even in an epistle, which is it takes more time and more thought, but once you get it, then the presentation of it is so much more heartfelt and meaningful to you as well as a presenter.
Yeah, I’ve heard a number of people who are in theater have that kind of background. Talk about a little bit of what you’re saying here, where you’re connecting with the story in general, like putting yourself in their place. I’ve also, and I’ve heard you talk about this, where you’re using motion as a means of a memory technique. If you would, you can maybe dive into a little bit of that and if there’s anything else that you’ve drawn from your theater background that helps you memorize, I’d love to hear some of that as well.
Yeah. One of the big things for me when I’m actually getting down to learning the text is one I’ve heard lots of people who memorize talk about, it’s important to read it out loud, the importance of hearing yourself saying it as well as saying it. And it shouldn’t encourage your listeners, even if you’ve never going to perform it, say it out loud so that you can hear God’s word said to you. But one of the things I do also is I get up off my butt, I stand up and I move with the text. And the reason for that partly is because I’m thinking I’m eventually going to present it, but also I start that process of moving with the text, moving my body to express the text right from the very beginning so that it’s not an add-on. So I haven’t learnt it up here.
And then I’ve gone, okay, what gesture should I use for this line? It’s been sort of intimately, organically part of it. And then what you find is that your mind remembers or your body remembers some of the movements more than the text, more than the words that your movements are reflecting that journey through the text, your actions, whether it’s moving around in the space or your gestures or whether you look up or those sort of things, my body will remember that I did that or that I naturally feel compelled to move over there. And that tells me, especially it’s great with narrative, especially because you are using the space to sort of map out the story. And so I remember that after the prayer, then Jesus went through the Kidron Valley and into the garden, and then Judas came from over there and these people came from. And because you can see that in your mind’s eye, you can remember it in the space and your body remembers moving. The story just rolls on from that in terms of trickier things like epistles, when you using gestures, I find that I’ll remember some of the gestures and that will prompt the next word. And so it becomes a very much an embodied thing. It’s not relying on that. So when I’m driving, I don’t need to walk around and use the gestures or look up or close my eyes or something.
But it definitely becomes a more integrated, embodied experience of remembering and reciting doesn’t just become a connection between your brain and your mouth.
Yeah, it’s a whole body thing. I really appreciate you sharing some of that. Now, there are likely a couple people that are watching or listening to this that will someday stand up on a stage and recite a passage in front of thousands, maybe hundreds. I, who knows. But I’d probably guess that for the majority of us, and I would even include myself in that, the biggest group I’m ever going to stand in front of would be like my house, church, a couple of families, or even just reciting in front of my kids. And from what I’ve seen from you, I still think there is a lot of value in doing even those small things, whether it’s just one people or four people or whatnot in a way that inspires the listener, that gets them excited about what they’re hearing. And so I wanted to close asking you, what are some tips that you, as somebody who does this professionally, what are some tips that you would give to me as a dad if I wanted to recite this to my kids or me as a member of my house church, if I was going to recite a book in front of the members of the house church, what would you say to somebody?
Well, just as an encouragement that when I did Romans eight on that first time, it was in front of about a thousand people, and then I just did it last week for four people at a Bible study, and they’re going through Romans eight. And it is a different, you perform appropriate for, or you present appropriate for your audience. If you were sitting down, like, I’ve got a friend who’s recently become a quadriplegic, and I was thinking I should go and share Romans eight with her just due to the message of that our bodies are a groaning waiting for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies and Christ’s return. That for me, it’s not actually any different. So if I was sharing a recitation to you or to my kids or to a friend over a coffee, the heart of it is not about the outward big performance things.
People often see that and see some of the things that I do, and I understand that they do feel intimidated thinking that’s what I’m wanting people to do. But as I was saying before, the heart of it is about connecting on a deeper level with the text, remembering its truth and its reality, and pouring that into your reading, that it’s not just a memory exercise. So when you share it, if you did a recitation to your friend or your spouse or your kids or your Bible study or just to yourself, the heart of it is that and believe it to be true, and you care about communicating it’s truth to people. It’s not about dramatization, it’s not about performance. It’s about seeing the drama that’s already there often really dislike when people say, oh, you’ve really brought the passage to life. Because for me, the goal is not that it sort of implies that it’s a dead text and that I’ve resuscitated it from its boringness, but for me, it’s about seeing that the life and the emotion and the passion that’s already there and reading it or presenting it or reciting it in a way that’s faithful to that emotion and passion and life.
So yeah, so I encourage people to take that attitude to the text, whether they’re doing it on a big stage or over a coffee with a friend.
Thanks again to Simon for such an inspiring conversation. If you want to learn more about him, you can go to public bible reading.com or you can also support what he does. You can go to patreon.com/simon camal. You can see that right here. I’ve also got links to both of those below the video. Here’s the challenge that I want to issue to you. Alright, sometime over the next few weeks or months or whatever, I want you to find one person or a group that you can recite scripture to. It doesn’t have to be on a stage, although if you want to approach your pastor and see if there are any opportunities for you to recite scripture before a sermon, go for it. I think that would be amazing. I know many people who’ve done that, but even if it’s just your Bible study or it’s just one friend that you take out to coffee, I want to challenge you to recite in front of somebody.
And here’s why. If you noticed from Simon’s story, and then if you’ve listened to many of the interviews, this happens so many times where people memorize scripture because they’ve been inspired by hearing somebody else do it. And I want you to be that inspiration for somebody. And so that means getting out of your comfort zone, asking somebody if you can recite and then reciting that passage. It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be a book or a chapter. It can just be a few verses or a story that you’ve memorized. But see if you can sit down with somebody and do that and then let me know. You can either let me know in the comments of this video, or you can contact me, bible memory goal.com/contact. I’d love to hear how it goes for you, and if it was as rewarding for you, as I’m pretty sure I know that it will be. Thank you for taking this time with me. I hope that you enjoyed this interview. You can watch even more interviews from the Memorize What Matters podcast or you can learn some other techniques for how to memorize the Bible here. Thank you for joining me and have a wonderful rest of your week. God bless.
More Bible Memory Resources
Are you interested to memorize more of God’s Word? Check out the various resources we have available on Bible Memory Goal: