by Edward Erickson
About 30 pairs of eyes were intently focused on a photograph. The eyes belonged to church leaders who were crammed into a classroom on the mission station at Tossay.
About 30 pairs of eyes were intently focused on a photograph. The eyes belonged to church leaders who were crammed into a classroom on the mission station at Tossay. I flipped the pages in the symbolic picture book to a photo of a roaring fire. The photograph had been taken at night and the flames leaped up clearly – I thought – against a dark background.
"Who can tell me what this photo shows us?"
There was silence. Then came a tentative answer, "It looks to me like a light."
Another voice intruded, "No, that’s not right. It’s a picture of darkness."
From the corner of the room someone cleared his throat. "You’re both wrong. Obviously that’s a picture of a cloud."
How was it possible to get three different answers to a question about a photograph that was so "obvious" – and two answers as far apart as darkness and light? Part of the problem, I immediately realized, was inadequate pre-testing. Because of lack of time, the learners in this particular situation were also functioning as a test group. From them I would be learning what they perceived in each of the photographs of the teaching series.
Previously I had asked some of the other missionaries here in Ethiopia what they saw in the same photo-and got the correct answer every time. But these friends from a Western culture knew how to "read" pictures. Most of the church leaders in the classes in Tossay, however, had no such experience.
Why are these church leaders learning to read pictures? They have never had the opportunity to learn to read words so they can’t read the Bible. We are devising another medium-picture reading-through which they can learn the truths of the Bible.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND THE ILLITERATE
The course that I was pre-testing on these church leaders was on the kingdom of God. Each of the photographs had been enlarged with the background eliminated so only the subject remained.
Contrary to the evident confusion over the picture of the fire, most of the photos in the series were readily perceived. For example, there was immediate recognition of the two shackled hands with a broken chain dangling in front of them. This symbolized what Jesus did as He set free Satan’s captives and established His own kingdom (Luke 4:18-21). Nor did they have trouble perceiving the meaning of the photograph of a boy washing a man’s feet in Ethiopian fashion.
The same was true of a photo of a snake over which stood a cross. In fact, the spontaneous response to this symbolism was a lifting of hands and faces and a murmur of "Geleta Wakayoll" (Praise God).
SYMBOLS AND COMMUNICATING WITH THE ILLITERATE
The use of symbolic photographs to communicate spiritual truth presupposes that the Bible is God’s Great Picture Book. The Bible is filled with stories, dramas, parables, proverbs, events, symbols and signs. The Holy Spirit uses the concepts and word pictures in the Bible to lead the reader or hearer to an encounter with the living Christ. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is able to take visual pictures which symbolize the truths of Scripture and use them for the non-readers to have an encounter with Jesus and God’s Word.
Because abstract concepts are difficult for the nonreader to grasp, the use of photo-symbols can help bridge the gap from a theological abstraction to a concrete truth which is perceived to have relevant value in life situations.
How did Jesus visualize the growth of God’s Kingdom? By using the symbol of the mustard seed and tree. In Ethiopia it is an easy transition to the huge sycamore tree (werka), its branches spreading to cast their shade over an area sometimes as big as a basketball court. It is a rewarding experience to be able to point out, on the basis of Jesus’ words, "Take heart, my Ethiopian Christian brothers. You may be a small band now, but the spiritual kingdom of which you are a part is like the sycamore that stands behind your house. You may feel that you are a minority here. But remember, you are a part of a vast and powerful spiritual kingdom that extends around the globe."
LEARNING AND THE ILLITERATE
It is exciting to see nonreaders explore for themselves the wonders of God’s Word. Because familiar objects are used, the nonreaders are able to learn about the Bible in ways that are closely tied to their culture. The photo may remind someone of a personal experience which helps him to see how to apply spiritual truth to his own life, or it may elicit a story or proverb which helps to clarify the truth for others.
For example, through the use of an Amharic proverb I had tried to teach the way a Christian should deal with anger- ". . . speak little, and not become angry" (LB). I showed a photograph of a man with his hand over his mouth – the cultural equivalent of saying, "Be quiet, don’t speak." We discussed the photo and the Bible verse it represented in terms of its implications for members of God’s kingdom.
Following this interaction, one person in the class quoted an Oromo proverb I had not heard before: "The one who cuts long and the one who thinks before he speaks will not have to feel sorry." This means that the builder who cuts timbers longer than what he needs will not be sorry for it. In the same way a person will not regret what he says if he thinks it over first. There was much head-nodding as well as verbal response to this proverb among the church leaders present. Here was truth presented in a concrete way that made sense. And there was a bonus for me too. The truth became more vivid to me, reminding me that I was a learner as much as anyone else there.
SOME VALUES OF PHOTO-SYMBOLS
Though this approach to communication and learning has limitations, I have found the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.
Here are some of the values I have discovered:
1. Discovery learning. The teacher no longer needs to give an extensive lecture because the members of the group are discovering, with the Holy Spirit’s help, truth for themselves. The teacher’s role becomes that of a guide or catalyst.
2. Learning through participation. The photo-symbol provides a concrete object as a focus so all can participate in the group discussion.
3. Scriptural association. Specific Bible verses can be portrayed with the photo-symbols and can easily be memorized.
4. As an aid in recall. An Ethiopian, who had seen several of the photo-symbols used in another context, remarked, "You know, these people will not have to try to remember the teaching they have learned. The symbol has become a vivid image in their minds, so whenever they see the object during their daily routine, their thoughts will turn to the teaching from the Bible that they have come to associate with that symbol."
We are learning that biblical truth taught through photosymbols can be a potent means of bringing illiterate church leaders into vital encounter with Jesus and God’s Word. Since this approach emphasizes both concreteness and relevancy, it helps these church leaders share what they have learned with other illiterates. And this, after all, is what leadership training in Oromo churches is all about.
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