Faith comes by Hearing? About Oral Societies

Faith comes by Hearing? About Oral Societies

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Bible translation, Audio recordings and the missionary task

by Graydon Colville

As important as the task of Bible translation is, if we think that the task of communicating God's truth is achieved by translating and distributing the Bible, and by teaching people to read it, then we are sadly mistaken.

However, it is a mistake frequently made by Western and Western trained missionaries. Despite our training in cross-cultural communication, anthropology etc we frequently bring our very western, literary mindset to the tasks of evangelism and teaching. This is a generalisation and there are exceptions - some very good ones.

For many Westerners, the most common strategy for evangelism that leaps to mind is to give a gospel or a tract. This thinking sometimes is carried across even in a cross-cultural context. It is a method God has used, but is it the best way of communicating God's truth?

To preserve God's word, there is no substitute for translating, printing it, but when it comes to the communication of God's word we need to broaden our thinking.

The best strategy for communicating God's truth is that method which communicates most effectively into the target culture.

Peter Wagner tells this story:

Missionaries worked for 25 years with the Tiv tribe in Central Nigeria and saw only 25 baptized believers as a result. Their medium of communication was preaching, which they had learned in Bible school was the way to evangelize. A few years ago some young Tiv Christians set the Gospel story to musical chants, the native medium of communication. Almost immediately the Gospel began to spread like wildfire, and soon a quarter-million Tiv were worshipping Jesus. The Tiv were not as resistant as the missionaries thought. A change in method brought abundant fruit. (Strategies for Church Growth 1987 pp. 91-92)

In this particular instance the difference is not between written and oral communication but between two different styles of oral communication. But the point is obvious. The method or style of communication can have an enormous impact on the effectiveness of that communication.

There is more to effective communication than the right methods. If the Holy Spirit is not active then no method will work, but methods are not insignificant. And for those of us committed to the task of mission, whether we are translators, recordists, teachers or pilots, we will be interested in the communication of God's truth, not just its production.


Published literacy data can be very unreliably and misleading.

  • Many countries, for political or other reasons, inflate their literacy statistics.
  • Usually male literacy is higher than female literacy.
  • Literacy figures usually refer to national language literacy as opposed to mother tongue literacy and
  • What level of literacy is considered literate anyway?

Some of this inconsistency can be seen even in the literacy data for Australia and the US. Both countries officially claim about 99% literacy, yet both countries acknowledge that something like 10% of their populations are non-literate, and have implemented special programmes to encourage the reading development of these people.

As communicators of God's good news, the level of literacy we are interested in is the level required to be able to read a Bible with comfort and with understanding. That is quite a high level of literacy.

Out of a world population of 6 billion, numbers between 1 and 2 billion are suggested as being the number of people who are totally illiterate - basically no education at all. (Many of these are young children.)

Up to another 2 billion people are considered to be literate, but their literacy is not sufficient for reading a Bible with understanding (even if a Bible exists in their language). Even among the well educated there are those who do not read at a level higher than that of newspaper lead articles or sports/women's magazines.

Possibly more than 2/3 (or 70%), but easily 1/2 (or 50%) of the people of our world do not have the ability to make good use of a Bible because they lack the necessary reading and comprehension skills.

For these people, some kind of non-print medium is necessary for them to receive and learn the Word of God.

It may even be that for many who are indeed literate, some kind of non-print medium is the most effective way to communicate the truth of God's word to them both for evangelistic and teaching/discipleship purposes.

Oral Societies and Communicators

Harry Box in his doctoral thesis of 1992 (Communicating Christianity to Oral, Event-oriented People) contends, "The great majority of people in the world today are oral communicators."

The term 'oral communicator' is preferred, as often the alternatives of 'non' or 'pre' literate carry a negative, Western perspective. Frequently there is an assumption of inferiority either at an intellectual or cultural level.

Oral communicators however, are best described as people whose cultural perspective is primarily oral, and event-oriented.

Oral communicators are sometimes referred to as members of a 'non-book' culture. One author writes, "By 'non-book culture' I am not primarily referring to those who are functionally illiterate or have lower-than-average reading ability. I am principally meaning those people who, although they are literate, are at the same time 'habitual non-readers'. The printed word does not shape their thinking to any significant degree. It is not the principal means whereby they gather information."

Box writes, "When we consider the cultures that are exclusively oral, or which contain a high residual of orality, and if we also include the people described in Gibbs' 'non-book culture', we are probably looking at more than 70% of the world's present population. This is an enormous number of people who are best described as 'oral communicators'. This number also represents a high percentage of the non-Christian people of the world and includes a high percentage of the unevangelised people of the world. In the light of these facts, if we are at all interested in having an effective ministry of communicating the Christian message to these people, then understanding oral communicators, their characteristics and their methods of communication, demands our serious consideration.

Characteristics of Oral System

1. It is a worldwide system

Until the invention of the printing press, all societies were predominantly oral societies. Reading and writing, where they existed at all, were the domain of the specialists. Many societies are still predominantly oral. It is not a superficial system used only for the communication of simple messages. It can cope with complex communication and communicate to all levels of the culture.

2. It is a Traditional Method of Celebration

Oral communities usually have many reasons for celebration where the use of drama, dance, singing, chants accompanied with music and rhythm form an important part of their life experience.

3. It is a Traditional Method of Teaching

For many societies, oral communication is used to give all their instruction about religious beliefs, their kinship systems, their social structure, and the obligations required by their community. Their cultural values and moral code, and practical things like hunting, fishing and house building are also taught this way. This oral instruction is usually accompanied by personal example and modelling.

4. There is a Wide Diversity of Oral Communication

There are many different ways of using the oral communication system. These include many types of story-telling, drama, poetry, singing and music. Some of these oral media are unique to a particular group; others are shared by many groups. Oral people are not stereotyped in the sort of communication that they can produce, nor are their oral skills limited.

5. Oral Communication Needs Live Performers and Audience Response

Oral communication systems require a live performer or performers who can use all kinds of facial expressions, gestures and sounds, and may also have musical background. In many cases the person who is skilled in oral communication has an important position in his society.

Oral communication also needs an audience, and in most cases active participation by the audience. The performer of a story or poem or song, looks to the audience for an appropriate response - to participate in a chorus line, or in some other way to become involved in the whole presentation.

World-View Characteristics of Oral Societies

There are two characteristics which appear to transcend cultural differences and are very evident in all oral societies. These characteristics relate to communication and are a 'group orientation' and an 'event', rather than 'time', oriented focus.

1. Group Orientation

This is perhaps the most obvious of all the characteristics of oral communicators, as the very nature of oral communication demands the presence of more than one person, and in many cases demands a group of people to participate. But this does not mean it is well understood.

It is essential to understand well the group orientation of an oral society in order to know how one can communicate effectively with them.

Walter Ong has written,

"Primary orality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates. Oral communication unites people in groups. Writing and reading are solitary activities that throw the psyche back on itself...
... When a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker. If the speaker asks the audience to read a handout provided for them, as each reader enters his or her own private reading world, the unity of the audience is shattered, to be re-established only when oral speech begins again. Writing and print isolate.
(Orality and Literacy 1982: pp69, 74)

This characteristic of group orientation affects every part of oral people's lives. It determines their cultural values as well as the social, political, educational, spiritual and economic activities of each person in the community. In all of these things the group is in focus, and not the individual. Also, and very significantly in respect to Christian communication, it affects their decision-making processes. Group decisions are usually regarded as more important and more binding on the individual than their own personal decisions.

For Christian communicators who are literacy-oriented, a proper understanding of this group orientation characteristic is essential if they hope to achieve effective communication to oral people.

I might add that it is not only writing and print that isolate. Audio devices devised for private listening have the same effect. Walkman cassette player, 'Discman' CD players and 'Individualised listening devices' can be very inappropriate in oral cultures.

2. Event-Oriented Rather Than Time-Oriented

For the westerner, time is a linear concept, marked off in precise increments and stretching from an historic but rather insignificant past into a rapidly advancing and highly focused future. For the oral person however, time is the ever present now and is measured not in linear terms, but in terms of his involvement in the events that are happening in his own community.

The oral communicator is not so concerned about whether those events begin and end at certain times, but rather that they are completed satisfactorily. Very often his time focus is on the past, and the people and events that are memorable; but only as these have relevance for the present. Sometimes he looks to the future, but again only as it has relevance to the present and this is usually in terms of preparations that need to be made for anticipated events, such as weddings and festivals.

This 'event' rather than 'time' orientation needs also to be kept in mind when communicating Christian truth to oral communicators.

There are many other features of oral societies and the worldviews which characterise them. After reviewing these, Box concludes; "there is a marked contrast between the worldview characteristics of oral communicators and literacy-oriented people." This difference in worldview characteristics makes it very difficult for anyone to shift from one framework to another. The implications for communicating God's truth are clearly profound.

For any communication strategy to be effective among oral people it will need to give prime consideration to the characteristics of oral people in general and the particular communication forms that are appropriate to their specific, indigenous context.

Forms of Oral communication

There are several types of oral communication skills, and for each type a huge variety of ways in which that skill can be applied. We will list them briefly. Many examples of each could be given.

Story telling is common to most cultures but in literate culture it is primarily just for entertainment. In oral cultures, while entertaining, it is potentially much more. Story telling sometimes has a place in divination, healing or other spiritual/religious/mystical activities. In these contexts the professional storyteller may have a repertoire of several thousand stories. There are also many different story-telling styles.

Graphic and plastic arts such as paintings and drawings, carvings and sculpture are also widely used. Two interesting drawing forms are the iconographs of the Warlpiri Aboriginal people and the sandgraphs of the Vangangela people of Angola.

Singing and chanting are also widely used for a whole range of activities from special occasions to normal everyday activities, for celebration and for teaching, to recount history, preserve cultural values or play a part in ritual and religious purposes.

Poetry is particularly popular in Middle Eastern culture but many oral cultures delight in the way poetry uses their languages and adds colour and intensity to expression. Urdu poetry is hugely popular and significant in Pakistani culture.

Drama and dance, often incorporating music, singing, story telling, chanting, poetry etc. have been a part of human society since the dawn of time, particularly to recount the history and mythology of a people. Celebrations, religion and many other cultural dimensions also incorporate dance and drama.

Genealogies may also play a significant part in oral societies where some people are able to recite the names of thousands of ancestors going back hundreds of years.

The Ministry of Jesus in the context of an oral society

Jesus himself was an oral communicator who lived and taught in a primarily oral society. He used the oral communication techniques of his day and used them well. He used them not only to 'evangelise' the masses but also to teach and train his disciples so effectively that in a few years under the control of the Holy Spirit, they had 'turned the world upside down'!

Box argues that Jesus used an oral rather than a literary oriented system for the following reasons:

  1. Jesus' message could be communicated clearly and effectively to all levels of the oral society in which He lived.

  2. Jesus' message could be learned by everyone and transmitted to others in the informal context of everyday living. People did not need to have specialized training or skills to be able to do this.

  3. In an oral community such as that to which Jesus belonged, a person's message is closely identified with the person. Jesus' message was identified in this way with Himself, and indeed focused directly upon Him. In the same way Jesus wanted His message and Himself to be identified with living people rather than with a written document. His disciples were to be 'living epistles' (2 Cor.3:2-3).

  4. In the milieu of people, places and appropriate communication forms of His day, for Jesus to write a book which summarized His teachings, or to instruct His disciples to do so, would have meant a complete change in His communication procedure and strategy. The focus of His teaching would have changed from being non-formal, participatory and oral, to being literary or book oriented, formal and accessible to only a small percentage of the community.

  5. There were economic reasons which made it impractical for Jesus to consider using a book and a formal literacy oriented program as the basis for an ongoing, relevant teaching program.

We may suppose that some people could read or chant the Scriptures, but few people had books in their homes. Most of the use of Scriptures in the homes was done from memory. Christ could not think of reaching the masses with a new message in His century through books in Hebrew or any language. Barclay estimates that at the beginning of the fourth century the cost of having a scribe make a copy of the four Gospels would be about 91 British pounds [Barclay 1966:45]. That is nearly US$300. Similar costs in Christ's time would have prevented most people from being able to read our Lord's teachings [Klem 1982:67].

So it is not difficult to understand why Jesus chose a much more dynamic and effective means to deliver and to spread abroad His message for all people: He used the oral communication system of the people.

This should serve as a warning against the common assumption that oral communication is an inferior mode of communication and not suited to effective teaching and discipleship!

Communication Theory

This extensive topic can not be adequately addressed in this paper. Suffice it to say that effective communication will be receptor-oriented, not communicator-oriented.

For communication to be receptor-oriented there needs to be extensive research and understanding of the receptor culture and its communication, cognitive and behavioural processes, and, of course, their decision making processes.

Receptor-oriented communication will be in the language in which the hearer is most comfortable. This will usually be in the hearer's heart language and spoken in the hearer's own accent. A 'foreign' accent can severely detract from effective communication.

Impact of Literacy on Oral Societies

Already a great many oral societies have in some way been impacted by literacy development. Westerners will nearly always see literacy development as a positive development and there can indeed be great benefits from literacy. However it should not be assumed that oral societies always perceive the benefits of literacy in the same way that Westerners do, and it should also be recognised that not all of the impact of a literacy programme may be positive.

Oral societies may see literacy as 'foreign' and be resistant to it (sometime interpreted as resistance to the Gospel!). Where benefits of literacy are perceived they will frequently be in terms of increased prestige, and potential economic benefit. Sometime oral communicators learn to associate sounds with symbols on a page (i.e. read) but do not equate this with meaningful communication. Certainly they would not dream of communicating their own important information in this way.

Frequently Western missionaries perceive the value of literacy as being able to learn and teach the word of God. The example of Jesus and the many case studies that exist should be enough to demonstrate that learning and teaching can take place very effectively in oral communities without literacy development.

Literacy development can have a major impact on the cognitive processes and world-view of an oral society. This is not necessarily a positive impact. It can erode and ultimately destroy the highly developed oral communications skills and memory capacity of the oral society.

This is not to say that literacy can never be of value, but it must be implemented carefully and sensitively, on the basis of careful research that recognises the values of the pre-existing oral culture. It must be receptor-oriented and should also be implemented in a way that does not destroy or minimise the value of the oral traditions and skills.

Generally speaking the written and printed word should still be heard, not just read. Literacy should not be the priority in most cases. Communication of God's truth is the top priority. Where literacy is implemented it should not be done so at the expense of orality.

Joint Strategies for communicating and teaching God's truth

There can be no 'one size fits all' approach to the task of communicating God's truth. It is essential that all who are committed to the task share their skills, insights and expertise in a spirit of humble cooperation until the task is done. Anthropologists, translators, recordists, evangelists and many others can work together to communicate God's truth to every person in so that they can receive it, understand it deep in their hearts and then, under the Spirit of God, respond.


Much of the material contained in this article comes from the dissertation presented to the Faculty of the School of World Mission and Institute of Church Growth, Fuller Theological Seminary, by Dr Harry Box entitled "Communicating Christianity to Oral, Event-oriented People"


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