by Thayer Salisbury
Although narrative preaching and teaching seems highly effective in Africa (as it does in most of the world) some Africans consider it a mark of immaturity or lack of education.
Ralph and Gregg Lewis introduce the problem with a true story from an American seminary. Before one of my students left his home in Africa to come to the United States for seminary training, he was inundated with “good advice” (the one commodity in the universe where the supply exceeds the demand).
“Go to America and learn to preach like the white man preaches,” his denominational leaders admonished him. “Don’t come back here telling stories like the untrained tribal preachers and the Pentecostals do.”
John, this bright African student, told me about that advice one day. “I’ve thought a lot about that,” he admitted. “But I keep remembering how some of those uneducated national pastors can hold a congregation entranced with parables and stories shared from life and their hearts.”
Other evidence for this strange contradiction would not be hard to find. Dyer has noted that some Africans were embarrassed if a missionary came upon them while they were using their own methods of instruction. He says, “… I got the impression that they were embarrassed because I had seen a part of their culture that they felt was not worthy of Western viewing.”
Although narrative preaching and teaching seems highly effective in Africa (as it does in most of the world) some Africans consider it a mark of immaturity or lack of education. Perhaps the schooling model inherited from colonialism has prejudiced Africans against a method that is both biblical and African. It often seems that Africans are trying to be Western while the missionary is trying to be African.
How might we signal to Africans that it is all right to use traditional parables and to do narrative preaching? What kind of narrative is suitable for Africa? Will it be the same kind of narrative presently popular in America?
In September and November of 1999 I conducted research in Zambia and Ghana to determine the practicality of introducing narrative textbooks into Bible College/Seminary education in Africa. The research consisted of an experiment which pitted four booklets against each another. Two of the booklets were on sexuality and two were on bribery. One of the sexuality booklets was written in the essay style normally used in textbooks; the other consisted of selections from Walter Trobisch’s book I Loved a Girl. One of the bribery booklets was a chapter adapted from an ethics textbook by Norman Shields, a long-time missionary to Nigeria now teaching in Belfast. The other bribery booklet was a narrative entitled Augustine and the Police.
These booklets were submitted to ninety-three students at George Benson Christian College in Zambia and thirty-five students at Ghana Baptist Seminary. Three days after they read the booklets they were asked to respond to a series of questions comparing the essay style booklets to the narratives. The comparisons fell into four categories: memory, comprehension, communication and affinity.
Memory was tested in two ways. The subjects were asked which book they remembered more clearly and they were asked to predict how well youth in their society would remember the booklets. In the memory self test, 65.1 percent of the subjects indicated that they remembered the narratives better than they remembered the essay style booklets. When asked if youth would remember the narratives a “long time,” 76.8 percent responded affirmatively, while 53.1 percent believed that youth would remember the essays for a long time. Clearly these subjects perceive a memory advantage for the narrative booklets.
When asked which booklets were easier to read, 63.8 percent chose the narrative booklets. When asked if the narrative booklets would be understood by secondary school students, 75.9 percent indicated that the narratives would be understood “very well.” Only 49.7 percent felt the essay style booklets would be understood “very well” by secondary school students. They felt there would be less difference in understanding in their congregations, but there was still a difference. The narratives would be understood “very well” in the congregation according to 53.8 percent, while 46.2 percent expected their congregations to understand the essays “very well.” There is a slight advantage to narrative. The subjects found the narratives easier to read, and they felt that significant portions of their society would also find the narratives more understandable than the essays.
Three days after they read the booklets the subjects were asked how often they had discussed the booklets with others. In Zambia the subjects were given one day to read the booklets and then were left for two days without them. The Ghanaians, who had the booklets in their possession throughout the three days, discussed the narratives and essays equally. But the Zambians discussed the narratives 3.9 percent more than the essays. This is not a statistically significant result, but it gives some indication that narrative may be shared with others more than essay. This indication was supported by other portions of the research, such as the section of the questionnaire where the subjects were allowed to comment freely on the books they had read. Further research in this area is needed.
A number of questions were asked about which booklets would be useful in various situations and which booklets the subjects would like to keep. These questions were intended to reveal a feeling of affinity toward a given style of learning or teaching. After noting that the subjects found the narratives more memorable, more understandable and that they discussed the narratives more than the essays, it might have been expected that they would choose to keep the narratives and that they would describe them as more useful. This was not consistently the case. In questions related to youth they did seem to favor the use of the narratives, but overall their preference seemed to be for the essays. This was especially clear when asked which booklets they would prefer to keep. The essays were chosen over the narrative by 61.5 percent of the subjects.
Why would subjects who have identified narratives as more memorable, easier to understand and more likely to be communicated to others choose to keep essays? There may be a number of factors involved. Some of these are related to the particular narratives used in this experiment, but others may relate to a more universal perception.
One factor seemed to emerge clearly from the comments section of the questionnaire. Several of the subjects considered narrative beneath them. One Ghanaian subject commented that the narrative bribery booklet was more interesting and more understandable but chose to keep the essay saying, “…as a theologian this one [the essay] is more important but Augustine and the Police [the narrative] is the most interesting book.” A Zambian called the essay the “more mature” form of writing, and a Ghanaian called it the “intellectual approach.” Another Zambian said “…at my age, twenty-two, I need things which I can prove, not stories.” While 56.7 percent say they would assign the narrative booklets to secondary school students, they do not want the narratives for themselves. They evidently do not consider the use of narrative a proper means of communicating among adults.
A second prominent reason for choosing the essays seems to have been the perception that the essays were more grounded in Scripture. Within the narratives, Scriptures were alluded to, but in the essays the Scriptures were given center stage. Within the context of theologically conservative schools, which both of these were, there may be a need for more overt use of Scripture in narrative. The presence of Scripture in the essays, or the lack of clear reference to the Scriptures in the narratives, was mentioned repeatedly in the comments section. Replication of this study should be attempted with revised narratives making more explicit reference to Scripture.
A third factor in the preference for the essays seems to be a low tolerance, on the part of these subjects, for any ambiguity. The use of Embedded Figures Tests with these subjects indicated that they, like African theological students tested in the past, are field dependent learners. Field dependent learners are known for their dislike of ambiguity (Bowen 93-95). They tend to be very good at memorizing information if it is provided in a clear manner, but they tend to have trouble picking out the main concepts for themselves if there is any ambiguity in the lessons.
The type of narrative currently popular in North America is often ambiguous, but it is possible to make narratives as unambiguous as any essay. Some of the later parables of Jesus were perfectly clear, even to his enemies (Matt. 21:45). We sometimes use unambiguous narratives to teach morality to children, but, in the North American context, narratives which are openly moralistic are not considered suitable for use with older students. With the mature we tend to prefer ambiguous and thought-provoking narrative.
This was also once the case in Africa. A Bemba proverb states, “The person who is not clever enough to understand allusive speech should not sit at the meeting of the elders” (Maxwell 6). But the African Bible college students tested in this experiment seem to have been acculturated into the “pour and store” schooling model. The teacher is expected to make clear statements. The student’s task is to memorize these for regurgitation during exams. The teacher who does not “spoon feed” may spark a rebellion among the students. Teachers who expect the students to discover truth on their own are thought to be shirking their duty (O’Donohue 304). The textbook that demands interpretation, as these narratives did, or the textbook that does not present facts to be memorized, is perceived as a failure.
THE WAY FORWARD
Whether the current classroom situation at African Bible Colleges is the result of socioeconomic forces, colonialism, neocolonialism, or poor teacher training is a historical question beyond the scope of this article. The question is “What shall we do? How shall we teach in the situation currently faced?”
In view of the memory and comprehension advantages, I believe, we should introduce more narrative into the textbooks used in theological education in Africa. Such narratives must be handled carefully, however. I offer these suggestions.
1. When writing narrative intended to convey information or morals to African Bible college students, the point should be made explicit. Avoid ambiguity.
2. Include explicit references to Scripture in narratives intended for African Bible college students. Show various characters within the narrative quoting Scripture and applying it to the events developing within the narrative.
3. A model interpreter within the narrative may be the most advisable way of making the point of the narrative clear, and a helpful way of training the students in the interpretation of both narrative and their own life situations.
4. Leading questions after a narrative, especially questions suggesting Scriptures which help to interpret the narrative, would be another means of making the point clear and of training the students in the task of interpretation.
5. If ambiguous narrative is going to be used to help develop reasoning skills, it should be used only after the students have become familiar with the use of explicit narratives in informational courses. In other words, move them slowly into active learning of this type. They may have had some experience with active learning in apprenticeship situations, but it is likely that their experience of classroom learning has been of the “spoon feeding” variety. African Bible college students may not be comfortable with what may seem to the missionary a very low level of ambiguity. Ambiguity must be introduced gradually.
6. It is advisable to hold seminars to introduce the teachers to the use of narrative textbooks, or at least to provide teacher’s manuals that will help them make use of narrative textbooks.
DELIMINATIONS AND OBJECTIVES
These recommendations will not apply equally to all Africans or even to all Africans involved in theological education. What proved true in these two schools may not prove to be true everywhere, although the correlation of my findings with research by Bowen and Buconyori, and the anecdotal evidence from Lewis, O’Dono-hue and others tends to suggest a broad geographical distribution of students with a similar learning style.
Urbanization did not have a great impact. Some of the literature on the Embedded Figures Tests predicts that rural subjects will be more field dependent than urban subjects. Bowen did not find this to be true in Nigeria and Kenya (62-67), and this research did not find it to be true in Zambia or Ghana. One experiment in the Central African Republic suggests that rural hunter gatherer tribes may be likely to produce field independence (see Berry, et al.), but none of the subjects of this research came from such a background. Bowen found that Africans trained in the sciences were less field dependent, but with Bible college students the learning style seems to be constant whether the subjects are from rural or urban areas. Subjects of my research, whether they came from urban areas or rural areas, responded in much the same way, although rural subjects were more pronounced in their reactions.
Since all of my subjects were from conservative theological backgrounds (as Bowen’s may also have been) theological orientation might be a more significant factor than urbanization. That might be a good topic for future research.
Several people have suggested that what I found to be true in my research might be equally true in America or Europe. I cannot comment with any certainty on that hypothesis. This research was not undertaken to compare Africa with the West. In regard to memory, comprehension and communication I would expect the results might match, but my affinity results contradict what I would expect in the West. From all I have read and observed, Western theological students desire narrative (including ambiguous narrative) in their textbooks. Perhaps most of the suggestions made above will apply in the West, but I do not claim to have proved anything on that point.
While in Zambia preparing for this research I was visited by an elderly Zambian, Dominick Moonga. He is a highly respected Zambian preacher and a retired educator. He had recently returned from his first visit to the United States. In the course of conversation he outlined the advice he gave to Americans planning to travel to Africa on short-term mission trips. His most emphatic point was that Africans must be taught using stories. “We are a storytelling people,” he said. This comment, made before he was aware of my reason for returning to Zambia, gave me cause to expect that the research would produce unambiguous results in favor of narrative textbooks.
The quantitative data confirmed that narrative was more memorable and easier to understand. It was natural to expect that narratives would be desired. Unexpectedly the subjects did not feel the degree of affinity toward narrative that had been expected. Unlike Dominick Moonga’s obvious love of storytelling, the subjects of the research considered narrative appropriate only for the immature. Something has gone wrong with our schooling system. Bible college students are being schooled into an approach that is not beneficial to them or the congregations they serve.
A Ghanaian colleague, Isaac Gyampadu, recently quoted a common West African saying, “Book no lie!” Goody notes the same tendency. He writes,
But with compulsory schooling there is an increasing tendency at the popular urban level to see proper knowledge as coming from books alone; it is they that tell the truth, not the knowledge we obtain from our parents (i.e. the elders) or from our peers, nor yet directly from nature itself. (163)
If this is the case, and if the books use essay exclusively, then students will be schooled away from a most biblical and effective means of communicating the gospel.
Authors like Dretke and O’Donavan have made preliminary attempts at using narrative in textbooks intended for use in Africa, but much more needs to be done. If we want the congregations to receive the benefits of narrative we must teach with narratives ourselves and the textbooks used in Bible colleges and seminaries must use narratives as well.
Berry, J.W., J.M.H. Van de Koppel, C. Senechal, R.C. Annis, S. Bahuchet, L.L.Cavalli-Sforza, H.A. Witkin. 1986. On the Edge of the Forest: Cultural Adaptation and Cognitive Development in Central Africa. Berwyn: Swets North America.
Bowen, Earle Andrew Jr. 1984. The Learning Styles of African College Students. Unpublished dissertation, Florida State University.
Dretke, James P. 1979. A Christian Approach to Muslims. Pasadena: William Carey Library.
Dyer, Paul D. 1994. The Use of Oral Communication Methods in Health Education, Evangelism and Christian Maturation. Unpublished dissertation, Bethel Theological Seminary.
Goody, Jack. 1987. The Interface Between the Written and the Oral. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, Ralph L. and Gregg. 1989. Learning to Preach Like Jesus. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Maxwell, Kevin B. 1983. Bemba Myth and Ritual: The Impact of Literacy on and Oral Culture. New York: Peter Lang.
O’Donohue, John. 1985. “African Students Resist New Methods of Learning.” AFER 27:303-305.
O’Donovan, Wilbur. 1995. Biblical Christianity in African Perspective. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press.
Shields, Norman. 1996. Christian Ethics, volume Two. Abak, AKS, Nigeria: Samuel Bill Theological College.
Trobisch, Walter. 1987. The Complete Works of Walter Trobisch. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.
Thayer Salisbury is assistant professor of Bible and Missions at Western Christian College, Regina, Saskatchewan. He has previously taught at Manzini Bible School (Swaziland), Nigerian Christian Bible College, and as a guest lecturer at George Benson Christian College (Zambia) and Ghana Bible College. Dr. Salisbury wishes to acknowledge the assistance of the staff of Concordia Theological Seminary (Ft. Wayne, IN), and especially of Dr. Eugene Bunkowske, in designing and carrying out this research.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 86-92. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.