If you heard a great story, how long would it be before you shared it with someone else? Probably not long. You’d be even quicker to share it if you were from one of the world’s oral cultures.
Oral cultures place a high value on storytelling, and communicate differently to Western cultures – important ideas, knowledge, art, etc are shared verbally rather than in writing. Bible storying is an aspect of Bible translation tailor-made for oral cultures – short passages of Scripture are translated orally and don’t need much of a push to start circulating.
The idea is not just to provide Scripture in a format people will engage with, but also to allow a people group to engage with the Bible in their language from the beginning of a Bible translation project, and prepare people groups for the rest of the Bible. Bible storying gives oral cultures the word of God in an authentic local format and as a result, stories spread quickly.
Ethno-communications consultant Durk Meijer recalls a man he met at a Bible storying workshop from the Himba community in northwestern Namibia. ‘He was educated, spoke English and uses Facebook – he’s a modern guy. He learned four Bible stories immediately to retell.’
Durk has tried another, slightly different approach – of teaching principles rather than stories – and has found that oral learners struggle with this. Somehow, the key is not just in the fact that it’s verbal rather than written, but in the story format.
‘We’re helping people…engage with God’s word in their own way,’ explains Durk.
Though storytelling is an age-old tradition, modern technology only serves to support this way of engaging with Scripture. Southern Africans living in remote areas, including many San people, have embraced the mobile phone as a perfect method for doing what oral cultures love: sharing stories.
Sebastian Floor, director of Wycliffe South Africa’s Regional Translation Services, reports that even without widespread access to electricity, people find a way to charge their phones. They also climb mountains or travel long distances to get a network signal. Such obstacles are no match for a desire to communicate.
‘It’s amazing!’ exclaims Sebastian. ‘We are finding that stories done orally spread very quickly.’
While oral storying is a startup strategy for Wycliffe South Africa’s Regional Translation Services, it isn’t necessarily a substitute for written translation. It often prepares a community for a full Bible translation project.
‘But the main advantage,’ says Sebastian, ‘is that it gets God’s word out to communities very quickly.’