HOUSTON, TX (ANS – August 8, 2016) – As the Orality Movement gains momentum and importance in the Church and Mission World, there are still many people who are hearing about it for the first time. Others may think of orality as just oral storytelling, storying, puppet shows or drama.
Still others may connect orality to recording devices or some technological communication media, like radio, television, cell phones or the internet. All of those of course are aspects of the Orality Movement and all are useful in their proper context. However, with the growth and maturity of the movement, there is a greater understanding of the depth and breadth of the overall Orality Domain.
While the pure definition of Orality (or Oral) is simply using speech rather than writing, there is much more to the modern Orality Movement. Actually, the word Orality is not even found in some dictionaries. However, the following is what Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, has to say about it: “Orality is thought and verbal expression in societies where the technologies of literacy (especially writing and print) are unfamiliar to most of the population. The study of orality is closely allied to the study of oral tradition. However, it has broader implications, implicitly touching every aspect of the economics, politics, institutional development, and human development of oral societies. The study of orality has important implications for international development, especially as it relates to the goal of eradicating poverty, as well as to the process of globalization.”
Furthermore, the important lessons we learn from Biblical and Church history, as well as Oral Traditions and Oral Cultures, are extremely valuable for us today in relation to communicating the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus to everyone and making disciples among all people groups. Dr. Thomas O’Loughlin, professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham, in relation to Orality, has said, “In a way it (Orality) is the ideal type of communication, because it’s what makes us basically human, we’re talking animals.”
An important aspect of Orality methods is related to memory and behavior change. Throughout history most people have learned and remembered important things very differently than in modern Western text-based cultures. Today, with all the technological resources, libraries, reference books and websites, we don’t have to remember so much, we can just look it up. So, as a result, in many cases our memories are not as highly developed as in past times, with Oral cultures and Oral traditions. However, there are ways of recovering these important methods of communicating, learning and remembering.
One Fall morning in 1974, in Murfreesboro, TN, when I was a student at Middle Tennessee State University, I was driving to class and heard a Bible teacher on the radio tell a story. The story was about four prominent Bible scholars (theologians) discussing their favorite Bible translations. One man talked about why he liked the (authorized) King James Version — its poetic beauty and rhythm. The second scholar shared some of the attributes of the Revised Standard Version. The third theologian told why he appreciated the New American Standard Bible and its modern vernacular. The forth scholar was silent, so the others turned to him and asked which was his favorite translation of the Bible. He thought for a moment, and said, “I think my favorite is my mother’s translation of the Bible.” The three were quite surprised and said, “Oh, we didn’t know your mother translated the Bible.” He replied, “Yes, she translated it into her life.”
I can even remember the very road I was driving on that day. Now, how could I remember such a story for more than 40 years? You know, we tend to remember what we hear, visualize, has action, and is important to us. What do you remember most? And, how does what you remember affect your life on a daily basis? Memory is very important to all of us. Throughout the Bible, the word remember, or some form of, it, is used between 200 and 300 times, depending on the translation you’re using. Much of the Psalms, and especially Psalm 119, is structured in such a way to be remembered. Actually, a psalm is a poem. In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis emphasized the importance of studying the Psalms as poetry, with its unique forms and characteristics.
If a Psalm is a poem, it is also a song. The Book of Psalms, while it is many things, is also a hymnal or psalter. Throughout Hebrew and Early Church history, most people did not receive the messages of the Psalms by reading, but by hearing or singing them. The Old Testament Psalms are not just poetry, but Hebrew poetry. They have a unique style and structure. And, we see this especially in Psalm 119. This chapter has lots of insights about how we can best internalize the Word of God. While there were those who had the Psalms in written form, historians estimate that only 1 to 2 percent of the population at that time would have had access and could have read them for themselves. So, the majority of people received and learned the truths of the Word of God by hearing, singing, discussing and processing in community. The style and structure made it easier to remember and pass on. Think about how much you remember and how you best remember important things.
Orality methods of communication and learning are amazingly effective in enabling people to remember and pass on the truth of God’s Word. It is not just about the transfer of information, but about experiencing the Word of God. Some Bible scholars would say that this is the most important Psalm. Almost every one of the 176 verses is about the Word of God. Reference is made to the Law, the Word, Judgments, Testimonies, Commandments, Statutes, and Precepts. When we think about the Word of God, many would think of the Bible. However, in most cases throughout Scripture, the Word of God, or the Word of the Lord, His commandments, precepts, or instructions, is not referring to a written document. The Word of God, in spoken form, was around a long time before anything was written. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” we read in John 1:1. God spoke the creation into existence.
Actually, we could say that God is the originator of the Orality Movement. He spoke the creation into existence, and He upholds the universe by the Word of His power. We can have confidence that as we learn and internalize the Word of God,
He will renew our minds and transform our lives. Furthermore, as we share His Word with others, He will use each of us to advance His Kingdom.
Photo captions: 1) Orality is better experienced than explained. 2) Importance of cross-cultural and reproducible. 3) Participatory learning that sticks. 4) Sharing, listening and learning. 5) Jerry Wiles.
About the writer: Jerry Wiles is President Emeritus of Living Water International and serves on the advisory council and leadership team of the International Orality Network. He can be reached at: [email protected].