by John D. Wilson
Participation in oral communication opens the way for wide acceptance of our message.
I have lived and worked among the Yali of Irian Jaya, Indonesia, for 18 years. For a major part of that time I did Bible translation and, almost inevitably, literacy. As I sought to understand the culture and traditions of the Yali, I gradually began to realize the significance of the fact that these people are members of an oral culture-one of nearly 900 in New Guinea, and of hundreds more throughout the Pacific, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
If it is right to communicate the gospel in the vernacular, and if it is right to use other culturally appropriate means to ensure that the gospel is understood and applied within a society, then it is important to appreciate oral skills and to use the attributes and capabilities of people in an oral culture. But Christian missionaries, particularly evangelical Protestants, have entered oral cultures with some assumptions about Scripture as a book.
It was no accident that the Bible came to us as a book. Although much of it had its origins in oral form, it was God’s desire that there be a written text. Moreover, this written text has been historically regarded as the canon of divine revelation.
When the Protestant Reformation unfettered the Bible from the bondage of the Middle Ages, and gave it back to the people as their rightful heritage, it was assumed that everyone should have both the right and the obligation to read the Bible for themselves. Thus, we tend to assume that oral skills and media are incapable of and inappropriate for the transmission of Scripture. But this assumption can limit or hinder the effective communication of Scripture, and even impede the quality, dynamic, and purpose of its translation.
We need, therefore, to understand the nature and function of oral skills and media, and evaluate their potential and validity for the communication of scriptural truth, and also their relevance and significance for Bible translation. (I do not expand on the implications for translation here, but refer readers to Kilham, Klem, Noss, and Wilson.)
ORAL CULTURE DEFINED
Oral cultures are usually defined as those that lack writing: those that exist prior to the introduction of script, or those without writing in any form. However, this puts oral culture on par with illiteracy, thus imputing the stigma of the inadequacy or deficiency of "learning" that illiteracy implies.
But oral cultures have their own devices and media which foreshadow literary ones. Yet these are often overlooked or undervalued because of preoccupation with literacy and literature. Print is not the only means for storing knowledge. Without it oral societies store a great deal in lists and genealogies; in myths, fairy tales, and other narrative forms; in songs, poetry, recitations and formulas; and in proverbs, riddles, and other memorable sayings. What distinguishes oral societies from literary ones is their refined oral skills and media which enable them to memorize, recall, and transmit various forms of knowledge in particular situations.
Oral skills at work Participation. Oral communication is the interaction between a speaker and his or her audience. The personality and skill of the speaker (or singer) is complemented by the participation of the listeners). It may be passive participation in which the listener is incorporated in the event through shared experience or common understanding of the words and "paralanguage" (intonation, non-verbal signs, gestures, etc.); or it may be active with vocal or other responses. It may occur in a formal or informal setting: transmission of knowledge within a ritual, or singing songs and story-telling around a fire. But through participation, storage is taking place by listening, repetition, and memorization.
Memory. Memory is clearly the crucial factor in the preservation and recalling of oral traditions, information, and knowledge. But it is a developed skill, not an inborn or inherent physiological trait or faculty exceeding that possessed by members of technological societies. Moreover, memorization is not necessarily by rote; rather, essential content and meaning are fixed in the memory by oral memory aids. There may be varieties of vocabulary from one narration or recital to another.
While memorization skills are reputedly refined in oral societies, absolute verbatim recall does not generally occur except in short expressions, usually in religious contexts. Verbatim memory belongs within a literate culture where we have the misconception that if one has the exact words of an utterance, by that very fact one has the meaning. Recorded words alone lose meaning outside the original, verbal, parainguistic context. Written words are not a remembrance, but an aide memoire-a memory prompt.
Mnemonics. In oral cultures, memory is developed and enhanced by the use of mnemonic devices or techniques. In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to think in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thoughts roust come in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns; in repetitions or antitheses; in alliterations and assonances; in epithetic and other formulas; in standard thematic settings, in proverbs that are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and ready recall.
The rhythm and patterning created through connotative and emotive verbal sounds is further enhanced by paralinguistic sounds, symbols, and other stimuli, such as vocal or instrumental music, drumbeat, touch, smell, artifact, ritual, and body movement.
Mnemonics capitalize on the fact that memory can be physiologically prompted through the senses, by the juxtaposition of acoustic, visual, tactile, and other stimuli.
LIMITATIONS AND POTENTIAL ORAL SKILLS
Although oral societies clearly have certain skills for transmission, storage, and recall of oral tradition and other texts, from a literary perspective, there are inherent limitations. Oral cultures generally have no verbatim memory, and recall normally occurs with considerable variety of vocabulary.
The question may be asked: Are oral skills capable of communication of what has largely been a literary tradition-a message and text that for centuries have been regarded as communicable only in literary form and through the introduction of literacy?
These reservations reflect the prejudice of our literary viewpoint. We must be aware that written records are not as reliable as we tend to regard them, and they-like oral skills-have a limited function. Therefore, we need to note the respective functions and different values of literary and oral skills. Instead of viewing written forms of communication as basic, or more valid than oral forms, we must appreciate the potential of oral culture as having alternative means of communication of different, not less, quality.
To overvalue and thereby depend totally on literary skills can diminish the value of the receptor culture, and cut it off from the Christian message.
LESSONS FROM ORAL CULTURES
To be memorable is to "think memorable thoughts," which is only possible by using oral mnemonic devices and stimuli indigenous to the culture. Therefore, when we teach or prepare lessons to be taught (whether Bible lessons, or health lessons, or whatever), the more patterned and rhythmic they are, the better. (These principles help in a literate culture, too. How much of prosy sermons is remembered, unless people take notes?)
Even without learning, or being able to learn, the particular oral "literary" styles, we can be sure we will be more effective if we try to be memorable, by using memorable forms.
Be repetitive. Repetition assists memory. Repetition can be in the same, synonymous, or antithetical form. It can be by the speaker or by the audience. It can be formulas, or prose, or poetry and song.
Be context oriented. It is said that anyone who was alive when President Kennedy was assassinated can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. This shows how memory and events tie together. If we want something to be really memorable, make an event out of it-an occasion. Memorable meaning is rooted in the occasion and place, and is intensified by sights (visual aids, movements, symbols, etc.), sounds, touch, and smell.
Also appreciate the value of repetitive events; i.e., ritual and festival. Protestants tend to shy away from ritual, but ritual of itself is not bad, and is full of memorable meaning. The Old Testament is full of theology as oral tradition enshrined in ritual. That’s why we have the Lord’s Supper and baptism.
Be receptor oriented. Communication of meaning is more important than the use of specific words with a view to verbatim memorization. Be aware of how the meaning is being perceived by the audience. Appreciate their world view, because they will be filtering everything you say through their understanding of the world.
Sometimes the Christian message (or health talk) will challenge the local culture’s world view. This will make what you are saying less memorable, and even non-memorable. Therefore, as well as ensuring that it is a valid (biblical) challenge, take special care to be understandable and memorable for the receptor.
Be participatory. Participation assists learning, and in most face-to-face societies, learning is by participation-by observation and apprenticeship. Participation is a type of repetition, since it enforces a kind of patterning between speaker and audience.
Singing is one of the best "participatory didactic" media, because it includes not only participation, but repetition, rhythm, patterning, verbal and other acoustics-and every other oral mnemonic device. We should compose songs in the indigenous style, or better, encourage local people to compose their own. Indigenous songs are very effective for reinforcing a lesson, whether biblical, or medical, or whatever. Songs frequently occur in myth and storytelling and function as mnemonic prompts per se as well as reinforcing the communication through participation.
In an article "Learning health through song and story," in Together (Vol. 15, 1987) it is noted that "many … quickly learned simple health concepts …by singing songs and hearing dramatic stories."
Indigenous hymns embed Scripture and Christian teaching within the culture. The "participatory didactic" feature of hymn singing was obviously in Paul’s mind when he wrote to the Ephesians to "address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" and to the Colossians to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another…and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs."
In face-to-face societies, the immediacy and warmth of speech, and the social and participatory characteristics of oral communication, are inherently understood, esteemed, and enjoyed. As indigenous media they prepare the way for wide acceptance of the message, whereas using foreign literary means may stigmatize the gospel as alien and irrelevant. As receptor-oriented and participatory skills and media, they assure effective communication. As oral skills cultivated to enhance memorization, they facilitate transmission and recall, and enhance the availability of the biblical message for all, not limiting it to the literate or prestigious members of society.
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