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Why do Catholic charities and Methodist congregations repeatedly ask a Latter-day Saint man to come recite scripture to them for ninety minutes straight? What events might unfold after you memorize a stretch of 14,874 words taken from 810 Bible verses? How did a one-man show without costumes or set become so moving that the public has requested roughly 200 performances over the past thirty years?
In answer to these questions, LDS actor Bruce Newbold shares the beautiful fruits that are still growing out of the prompting he received thirty years ago—to take scripture memorization seriously.
While a graduate student at BYU in 1985, Bruce Newbold attended a one-man show at the Provo Tabernacle in which an actor from New York recited the entire Gospel of Mark from memory. He said to himself, “You know, I think I could do that. But the Gospel of Mark is kind of the leanest of all the gospels…I wonder if I could put together something that would combine all the gospels?”
The idea began to weigh seriously on him. At the time, Newbold worked with Stephen Covey, converting audio into video recordings. He asked Covey for advice. Would the required months of memorization be worth the effort? Covey replied, “I’ll tell you what; You will find your revelation in the quiet corners of the temple. You go to the temple and you pray about something like that.”
Newbold recalls: “Sure enough, I went to the temple, and happened to be sitting in a corner, and I had this most amazing experience there. And I said, there we go. I’m going to start memorizing this. And so I did.”
“I went through the four gospels, picking out pieces that I felt would be memorable and interesting to listen to. I tried to reveal the details of conversation. For example, one of the gospels talks about Judas approaching Jesus after Gethsemane, and Jesus saying, ‘Friend, wherefore art thou come?’ And that’s the extent of the conversation. But another gospel says ‘Judas, betrayest thou the son of Man with a kiss?’ When we put those two phrases together, we hear a tone of love in Jesus’ voice, despite the bitterness of the betrayal.”
Newbold worked carefully over a month to create a harmonized composite that contained the unique phrases found in each of the four gospels. For example, the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and John each contain separate details about Jesus feeding the 5000. When the verses are blended together, the story is more complete and personal.
“This was before the day of word processors,” Newbold laughs. “So I was actually cutting things out and literally pasting with tape or glue to be able to see on the printed page what I wanted to see and hear. At first the script was close to two hours. So, unfortunately, I cut out the Sermon on the Mount and few other sections. Action stories held an audience more than doctrine. I tried to be a little more conscious, aware of the audience’s endurance.”
Newbold titled the finished presentation “In Him was Life,” from the scripture found in the first chapter of John: “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” In Him Was Life focuses on Jesus’s words and actions from all four Gospels. The subtitle is: “The Story of the Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ.”
Three months after finishing the script, Newbold had it completely memorized. It combined 810 verses of scripture into a presentation 14,874 words long—all straight from the King James Version. Years later, when Newbold was able to update it as a Microsoft Word document, it would stretch 38 pages, complete with lighting and sound cues for short music clips that set the tone for specific passages.
Newbold’s acting career (check out his imdb profile) provided a flexible schedule so he could spend a chunk of time each day in rigorous memorization. He used only a few mnemonic devices, like noting the alphabetical orders in certain sequences. Mostly, he says, “It was just a lot of hard work. I used one of those little tape recorders that had a repeat, a loop mode, to tape what I had memorized that day. Then I’d put the headphones on and go to sleep listening to it. Sometimes I’d wake up at 2 or 3 o’clock thinking, ‘man, I’ve been hearing this go through my mind all night long!’”
Newbold began presenting the one-man show, “In Him Was Life” with small audiences. “The first times I did it,” he says, “I gathered literally 150 paintings of depictions of the Savior and I would show those behind me on a large screen as I would do the presentation. But then I had people come up to me afterwards, from whom I sought constructive feedback, and they said, ‘you don’t need that stuff, just give it to us straight. Let our imaginations run with it.’ Since that time, which was probably twenty years ago, I stopped doing any kind of pageantry or theatricality or photos with it, and have just gone with the spoken word.”
“When I introduce the piece, I say, ‘Folks, this isn’t like a movie; this isn’t a visual adventure around every corner kind-of-thing. You need to use your imaginations. This stage needs to become Galilee, and Golgotha, and Pilate’s palace, and Bethlehem. You’ve got to bring that to life into your imagination.’ And I think for the most part, people have been amenable to that. I’m always amazed when I get to the point after the crucifixion where the line says, ‘and he bowed his head and gave up the ghost.’ I could stand on that stage for 30 seconds and say nothing, and it would be one of the most powerful moments in that whole presentation.”
As audiences loved it and word got around, opportunities multiplied for Newbold to perform. Education Week audiences and stake firesides came readily. Mission presidents in Georgia and Texas invited Newbold to perform it for their missionaries. Young Men and Young Women presidencies purchased the audio CD’s of the presentation for all of the youth in their wards—one particular Young Men president telling his youth, “You have to listen to this presentation six times; can you commit to that?”
Newbold was amazed at the response. He relates: “I thought, Wow! To listen to it once is something, but to listen to it six times! I think they were really trying to, push the spirit of the scriptures down into the heart of those young men and young women, and I hope it worked.”
The performances began in 1985. Some years Newbold would perform it a dozen times. Some years only twice. In those early years, Lisa Newbold (Bruce’s wife) remembers, “Being married to an actor was not easy. The Hollywood scene was so contrary to the spiritual way of life we wanted for our family. So, to go with Bruce to his performances, and hear the stories of Jesus, reminded me of what life was really about.” At first the audiences were composed primarily of Latter-day Saints, but that soon began to change. “I got a call from a group in Saint George” says Newbold. They said, ‘would you be willing to do this performance to raise money for a Methodist church?’ I said, ‘I’d love to!’”
“So I went down and did the performance in a high school. LDS Public Affairs was involved in it, just trying to build bridges with other churches. We raised about $6000 to assist in the completion of a new wing for a Methodist church down in Saint George. Well, they liked that, and they said, ‘Can you come back next year and do the same thing?’ We did. The next performance raised money for school supplies for needy children.”
Soon Newbold got a call from Phoenix, where the temple was under construction. The local stake leaders felt a need to improve interfaith relationships and decided to help raise money for a Catholic women’s shelter. They called Newbold with a request: “People here think we’re growing horns….we’ve got to do something to improve relationships. Can you come down and do two performances of In Him Was Life?”
Newbold agreed. He later heard stories about how some of the non-LDS folks had needed convincing before they would authorize such a performance. The reported conversations went something like this:
–What? We’re bringing a Mormon in to teach us about Jesus Christ? That seems to be the antithesis of our religion, doesn’t it?
–Well, take a listen to this CD. This is exactly what he will do.
–That’s all scripture.
–Yeah, King James translation.
–And he’ll stick to that script?”
–Yep, he’ll stick to that script. You can follow along if you want.
–He’ll come and help us raise money?
Permission was granted, and Newbold fondly recalls: “It was so fun to meet the Catholic leadership and the Protestant leaders down there who were all raising the money for the Catholic women’s shelter. It has been really rewarding to hear, in the middle of the performance, a sincere ‘Amen! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!’ You won’t hear that from an LDS audience, so it’s really sweet to hear that these people are enjoying it just as much as any LDS audience that I’ve presented it for.”
“In Him Was Life” has now been performed for an estimated 200 audiences, as well as distributed by CD to thousands of listeners, who love the ways it differs from standard audio scriptures. There are no chapter headings or chapter summaries, so the story flows without interruption. Newbold seamlessly incorporates several slightly altered voices, so it’s easy to follow the flow of dialogue, and the recitation typically includes much more feeling and expression than is found in standard audio renditions of scripture.
Newbold is quick to appreciate the need for both types of audio. He has since also provided one of the voices behind the Church-produced audio recordings of the Standard Works. He says both projects involved a special kind of immersion in scripture and brought a similar spiritual focus into his life: “To dig into the scriptures to that extent was such a marvelous blessing, to see kind of from an epic perspective, the hand of God in the lives of His children, from Adam to our day…[it], bore testimony to me of the goodness of the scriptures…. I think we underestimate the power of those scriptures and how they keep the light burning in our lives. I just was released as bishop a little while ago in our ward. While I served, I found the pattern was that when people got into trouble, you could go back and inventory basic spiritual priorities, Are you reading the scriptures? No. Are you saying your prayers? No. Are you having family home evening? No. And then people wonder why the light goes out and why their lives are in trouble. The scriptures are truly that iron rod we need to hold to.”
Newbold says sweet scriptural insights continue to come frequently over the years, even though he has repeated the lines thousands of times. In trying to describe the effect of scripture memorization in his own life, Newbold often refers to a passage from Elder Richard G. Scott’s Oct 2011 conference talk, “The Power of Scripture”:
To memorize a scripture is to forge a new friendship. It is like discovering a new individual who can help in time of need, give inspiration and comfort, and be a source of motivation for needed change…. A memorized scripture becomes an enduring friend that is not weakened with the passage of time.
Newbold adds: “I can say exactly what Elder Scott said: that mass of memorized scripture has become a dear friend to me. It’s a companion. To be able to review it constantly is a real blessing. I use it in connection with talk preparation, church callings, personal pondering, and so forth. It has really helped me with remembering covenants and coming to know the Savior; to understand what He’s done for us.”
“When I began to memorize it that I had no idea where it would lead me or what kind of impact it would have on people’s lives. And though I don’t realize to the fullest extent how it has impacted people, I get a glimpse here and there when people come up to me out of the blue and say thank you. That means an awful lot to me.”
“I am so, so grateful that I memorized this large chunk. It’s like you describing to me what childbirth is like. You can explain it all you want, but I’ll never know what it is. I guess that kind of how I feel when I try to describe to someone what it’s like to memorize the equivalent to one of the Gospels. I invite them to do it—to know what it’s like to memorize this massive amount and then just have it in your brain constantly—so that when you need it, it’s there to draw from—to tell a story to a child or to a grandchild and know the details of it word for word. What an amazing blessing that is! So I’d say: while you’ve got a brain to do it, memorize an awful lot of scripture, and rehearse it constantly, and present it to your family, share it with people, so that it stays in your mind and never goes away.”
Newbold says he’d be willing to share the script if someone else would commit to memorizing it and running with it. His overriding emotion related to this project is gratitude that “Heavenly Father’s given me a voice and some talents in these last days that I’ve been able to use to help build His kingdom, which is what I think those talents are there for.”
Bruce Newbold can be contacted through his Facebook page.