by Chuck Madinger
The ongoing Evangelical discussion of orality relates to engaging all peoples with the word, especially those with a high orality reliance (HOR). It is first a discussion—an interaction of scholars and practitioners trying to unlock doors that reveal ways and means of communication and learning.
Best Practices in the Orality Movement
The ongoing Evangelical discussion of orality relates to engaging all peoples with the word, especially those with a high orality reliance (HOR). It is first a discussion—an interaction of scholars and practitioners trying to unlock doors that reveal ways and means of communication and learning. This conversation simply reflects the current state of our understanding. Every generation sees things by the light of their present understanding, and hopes to learn from the past and adapt to the present and near future.
In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), Walter Ong articulated some critical points that rekindled a fire and heated up a discussion percolating throughout the ages. His work reflected the modern era and his research and study at The Toronto School (University of Toronto) with Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, Jack Goody, and company.
A Roman Catholic scholar, Ong’s roots provided insightful connections with orality-reliant audiences, who for centuries learned church dogma without the direct use of textual ways and means. Gregorian chanting of the fifth and sixth centuries reduced church teaching to memorable transmission as the world plunged deeper into an even less literate era during the Dark Ages. The rosary gave believers a tangible means to remember and pray for what the Church deemed important.
Since the discussions resurfaced in the mid-twentieth century, the Global Christian movement began asking important questions about how people best receive, process, remember, and pass on truths and information, especially as it relates to communicating the good news. These fresh winds came during a season when we were locked into the Guttenberg-inspired frame of reference to the neglect of those living in another reality. It was an oral reality, which seemed alien to the worlds of textuality that dominate the values and power structures of the world.
Created in God’s oral image. To clarify the discussion further, by ‘orality’ we begin with the biblical worldview and theological foundation. God by nature is an oral communicator. He created us in his image to communicate with and connect to him by our shared capacities, and everyone shares that orality nature. Our communication differences come as a matter of degree from how we learned to rely upon that oral nature based on our culture of origin. It’s not really a question of if we are oral communicators or ‘oral-learners,’ but a question of to what degree have we learned to rely upon that oral capacity.
A conceptual definition. Orality is “a preference for and/or a reliance on oral communication.” We’re no longer talking about earlier dichotomies like oral vs literate (or even more harmful terms: literates & illiterates) or even primary and secondary oral cultures since few, if any, purely primary oral cultures still exist. The reality is that some cultures and people function with a high orality reliance (HOR), and depend heavily upon oral ways and means of communication. Others have a lower reliance (LOR). They tend to rely less upon oral ways and means and more on their print/text orientation and expressions.
Beginning with inner speech. In our early cognitive and social development, every time our environment consciously stimulated us, we had a craving to name things, initially through a cry or babble, but eventually given to words and other expressions. The long-haired thing that barked was a “dog” we were told. Every time we saw one, we pointed and excitedly verbalized that new inner word…dog!
This “inner speech” described by Lev Vygotsky, the twentieth-century child developmental psychologist, helps us understand that everyone functions primarily with orality from birth. We eventually learn to express that inner speech in a variety of ways that build upon or serve as an extension of our orality. Verbalizing the inner speech (saying the word), drawing a picture of the inner speech, physically acting it out with body motions, and writing it out with descriptive impressions represent just a few ways we socially extend our orality or perform it.
Educated away from our inherent orality. We all typically begin our life with relatively equal oral communication capacity. As we develop, our culture of origin shapes our reliance upon oral ways and means. Children developing in HOR contexts stimulate their skills in oral memory, storytelling, singing a message, and all those things we’ve been hearing about for years. Children developing in LOR contexts prepare early on for reading, sorting, classifying, and storing important information in textual forms.
This leads to the hidden orality gap. Those educated in LOR systems learn and communicate in low orality ways and means, then teach and communicate at the level of orality reliance they learned to value in their own education. Those with whom they try to communicate or teach cannot completely connect with the messages because of low orality-reliant principles and methods. We need to get back up to their level.
Worse, we assume that LOR principles and methods are superior. We take notes on lectures, outlines, general principles, bulletpoint-ladened PowerPoint presentation, etc. (Note: We are not devaluing literacy skills. We promote them since text is an extention of our orality.) More recently, we learned to reach out to those in HOR contexts by adding oral principles and methods to connect our message. At the core, however, the message is primarily low in orality (highly textual patterns for receiving, processing, remembering, and passing on information).
Not just an academic discussion. Those engaged in this discussion share a common goal: bring kingdom transformation among the unreached by ways and means that best connect with their hearts and minds. Applied orality attempts to communicate any message with power not limited by our textual ways of thinking or processing information. The questions for all of us are What will I contribute to the discussion by adjusting my principles and methods of communication? and How do we design more appropriate curricula for evangelism, discipleship, leadership, health & wellness, etc.?
Two case studies stand as examples of communicating important messages among those with HOR.
Case Study One: Holding Esther: Training for Caregivers of Exploited Children
Susan Vonolszewski loves children, especially those who suffer the worst injustices the world has to offer. She lives with the conviction of scripture that we, as God’s chosen, bear the responsibility of caring for the oppressed and especially the widow and orphan.
She learned that there are more exploited children today working in sweat shops, trafficked for sex and drug running, and forced into child soldiering and household slaves than there were children living in the time of Jesus.
After consulting with experts in the field about the trauma these children lived through, she discovered that after they escape the immediate horrors of abuse, they have a very short window of time for real healing. If they do not experience gentle love and care within two to three years of their release, the chances decrease dramatically for their ever knowing the loving Father. Moreover, the direct caregivers in rescue homes and orphanages must build those bridges.
This moved Susan to take action. She learned all she could about orality (and the research that had taken place in the last decade) and came to the conclusion that the majority of caregivers were Africans and Asians living in HOR contexts. They had limited formal education, yet most of their training came through seminars and workshops deeply ingrained in textual ways of receiving, remembering, and practicing the principles.
She tenaciously pursued the best script writers, production managers, and actors in African media outlets.
Her solution was to develop a radio-drama (Holding Esther) about children caught in the grips of loss and exploitation. She tenaciously pursued the best script writers, production managers, and actors in African media outlets. They composed seven episodes around learning goals, objectives, and outcomes agreed upon by several thought leaders and practitioners in the field. After the final editing, her team adapted the program to forms that could be used as stand-alone radio broadcasts or used in small groups and training.
Then came the field testing. One hundred caregivers and volunteer workers interacted with the messages in a workshop venue that measured pre- and post-intervention knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of the participants. The independent third-party mixed-methods research included an orally-communicated survey with those participating in the workshop and a second group that had not heard the program. Ten focus group interviews gave workshop participants an opportunity to articulate more specifically the value of what they heard and a means to discern if they really learned the information and skills.
The results of the study showed a dramatic change in knowledge and attitudes about how to think of the children and the common attitudes that must change in their culture. They recognized the harsh words spoken when a child seemed ‘rebellious’ or the harmful physical responses (slapping or pointed blaming finger) they used. They learned more gentle ways of helping the children through their momentary or recurring outbursts. Those in the test group (workshop) demonstrated a far deeper awareness of the principles of good care as well as better intentions to put them into practice than those who did not listen to the programs.
Realizing the nature of the African collectivist culture, all the sessions grouped listeners to discuss and apply the content. At the conclusion of the workshop, the entire group decided to form two social networks to continue their discussion about gentle caregiving. This unsolicited response clearly demonstrated that the radio dramas and workshop interaction made a deep impact. But this is just the beginning of the story.
The workshop leaders and a few key participants made a site visit to a cluster of homes organized to care for orphaned and/or exploited children. After interacting with both resident caregivers and the children themselves, the team received an audience from the regional chief who wanted to hear about the program. He and his wife listened to one of the episodes with someone translating into his local language. What happened next was simply an act of God.
The chief told the group that the problem of abusing children was not isolated; instead, it was everywhere, including in his own region and village. He told of a nearby ‘orphanage’ that simply served as a covering for a brothel and slave labor not far from where the team sat listening. He said it would not be stopped by conventional means, because if someone was to report it to the police, then the person telling the police would be arrested instead of the criminal.
The chief told the group that the problem of abusing children was not isolated; instead, it was everywhere, including in his own region and village.
The man who owned the brothel owned the police who protected him. Additionally, the police were protected by the provincial government since the police fixed the elections. National leaders would do nothing since the provincial leaders secured their seat in Parliament. It was a corrupt system from bottom to top.
However, the group devised a plan. The wise chief recognized the power of radio and drama and asked that we translate the episodes into local dialects so that all the people would hear the message of turning the tide of child exploitation. It simply meant getting the local community radio stations to take on the project.
It just so happened that one of those in the entourage worked for the national organization that trained community radio programmers. This man committed his department to train all 125 community radio stations on how to contextualize the seven episodes and broadcast them as a recurring series built to stimulate community discussion and action. He determined to make it a program broadcast nationally in the trade language (English), regionally in English and the appropriate major languages, and locally in the common dialects.
Those who abused children would have no place to hide and those who protected the perpetrators would be dealt with accordingly. More importantly, a whole nation blind to its own unintentional harsh treatment of children (or sometimes quite intentional) might hear the kingdom message of how Jesus valued children and responds to those who abuse them.
The media trainer is now writing a grant to make this a national program. This man is African and grew up in a HOR context. It took a HOR radio drama/workshop to move him out of his learned patterns of communication (low orality reliant/textual) practiced in his profession. RiverCross (a ministry of TWR, www.rivercrossorg.org) is now planning a 10-episode series for use among exploited children.
Case Study Two: And They Sang a New Song
In the early 1970s, the Christian Missionary Fellowship Ethiopia team assigned my parents, Ray and Effie Giles, with the immense task of reaching the Kazza people. The Kazza, now referred to as the Gumuz, had a strictly oral culture with no written language. Before an airstrip was cleared and established in their region, the only access to the Kazza was on foot.
When I was home from boarding school, I always enjoyed making the one-day trek into this area with my dad. Dad did not wait until we were able to be well established in the region before engaging the people with the gospel. Instead, he used every means possible to introduce God’s word even as we lived in tents overseeing the construction of our bamboo home. This is the context in which the below article, written by my dad, Ray Giles, was first penned. He wrote it from Yasow, Ethiopia.
—David Giles, Christian Missionary Fellowship
A New Song for a New Faith
This valley has been our home for twenty-one months. It is satisfying to start with nothing—no house, no believers, no scriptures, no songs—and see the changes come slowly. Building a house, gaining a place of acceptance within the society, developing some facility in yet another language, establishing a church—all of this is a privilege to participate in. No one thing has been more satisfying (or more early sought) than the emergence of Christian songs in the language and rhythm of the Kazza people.
For me, there has been one underlying conviction: unless we have songs in the local language and rhythm, the Christian faith cannot be meaningful or lasting. Nor will it spread. They are not interested in long sermons and many texts, at least not yet. They do not have the Bible in their own tongue. They are an oral people. And with non-literacy comes the inability to listen to a long monologue. The attention span is short. But songs of Christian truth, repeated endlessly, convey meaning. The women, usually inattentive in the extreme, capture the words of the song quickly. But these songs must be their own.
So we set ourselves immediately to the task of finding a new song for a new faith. That task was not easy. Our Ethiopian Christians from the highlands, who shared with us in the evangelism, love to sing, but to sing their songs in the Oromo language. The local people said, “It is impossible to write our language. And it is even more difficult to sing our words.”
Where do we begin? The first attempt was merely a translation of a short chorus in the Amharic language. In English, it is the chorus, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” Short, easy, but not much to start with. Similar efforts with translated songs were met with, “We would rather sing the Oromo songs.” I continued to insist, “But if we keep trying, we will find a song that is meaningful for you.”
The first real breakthrough came when I was recording a traditional story as a woman told it. In the middle of the story, she broke out into a song (almost like a lullaby) about a boy going to a far country. But first, the song had to be translated to see if it was associated with immoral practices. No, it was a neutral song and tune. Quickly, I was able to put new words to the song, this time about another who left home to go to a far country:
He came, God’s son, Lord Jesus;
He came, God’s son, Savior of Man:
Born of virgin,
For our sins
He died and rose,
He ascended to heaven;
He is coming again.
Believe Him now.
Now to use the finished product. I gave the new song, along with a recording of the original song, to Negeri, a young Christian from the village nearest our home. He was asked to put the new words to the old tune. He and his two sisters mastered it immediately. A new song for a new faith!
The next step was to have someone compose a song without my help. It was Sunday night. We were present for the usual prayer and Bible study meeting. Even though he could not read, Begalow had learned many of the existing songs and would sing them perfectly from memory. In his quiet and reserved manner, he said, “I have a little song.” It was his own composition, composed while working alone in the fields. No one else had heard it before. But everyone sang this new song immediately with great feeling.
Please, man, leave Satan’s way.
Believe our God, He has come now.
He prepared a good place, everlasting.
There is no sorrow there.
We will be happy every day.
A new song for a new faith!
Other songs followed. Our first songbook has been duplicated, but I still have one dream. It is not unusual for the people on occasions to sing and dance without a break all night long. The subject might be the killing of a lion or a wedding. Nearly all are filled with language that even they are ashamed to repeat. My dream is this: that the time will come when a new song and a new faith will be this firmly implanted in their hearts, that they can sing tirelessly long after the foreigner has gone home to rest.
Post Script: The valley home to the Gumuz looks much different today than it did many years ago when Ray wrote this article before he went to be with the Lord in 2010. All-weather roads run into the area, and the small village of Yasow is now a government center. The transformation most celebrated are the nearly fifty churches in the area which grew out of CMF’s work among the Gumuz. Christianity is now an established faith and a familiar song. The churches function under national leadership and local leaders carry on the original vision of reaching the unreached. Moving into new areas, they teach others to sing a new song that will transform lives and communities, as people embrace a new faith in Christ.
Author’s note: This article is dedicated to the ministry and legacy of Ray and Effie Giles, who shaped my understanding and passion for the mission.
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Chuck Madinger served twenty-five years in discipleship and global missions in congregational leadership. Since 2003, he has specialized in orality strategies from Appalachia to Afghanistan and is finalizing a PhD in Oral Instructional Communication. He also serves as the associate director of ION and the vice president of the Center for Oral Scriptures.
EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 1. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.