Orality in America
Orality is a field of study, a way of thinking, and can be described as a learning preference. Audio, on the other hand, is neutral, having to do with sound and recording something for playback. Orality and literacy are often shown in contrast because of the two very different approaches to learning that they represent. According to Walter Ong,
Today, primary oral culture in the strict sense hardly exists, since every culture knows of writing and has some experience of its effects. Still, to varying degrees many cultures and subcultures, even in a high-technology ambiance, preserve much of the mind-set of primary orality.1
Although literates, such as the Scribes, existed in Jesus day, they were a small percentage of the population. We can learn from Jesus that while he was literate (reading the scriptures in Nazareth, for instance), he choose to communicate through poetry (Sermon on the Mount), parables (Good Samaritan), agricultural metaphors (Wheat and the Tares), and concrete images (blessing children).
No stronger dichotomy between oral and literate approaches has emerged than among black churches. Black orality—and the influence it used to carry—has been all but lost in contemporary society. In the now-classic Black Church LifeStyles, Ella Mitchell lamented the loss of “oral tradition” contributing to a serious decline in today’s black churches. Slaves that once communicated Christian doctrine and morality through narratives in the regular course of life have been lost to the once-a-week literate learning style imposed by white missionaries.2
In the move toward Sunday Bible lessons, a type of what Mitchell called “mediocrity” was tolerated because it brought recognition to some black teachers. Meanwhile, “teacher self-esteem may have prospered, but pupil learning languished.”3 Mitchell pointed out in that Sunday School provided relational bonding opportunities apart from the instructional periods.
However, she depicted the contemporary black church Sunday School as falling on “evil days” as churches were unable to keep up with entertainment, movement, and wide ranges of relationships that they had once held strong among American blacks.4
At least half of all Americans prefer what is called an “oral” approach to communicating and learning. Several characteristics serve as indicators for disciple-makers:
- Reading abilities for continuous prose, like that found in the Bible.
- When people use printed text when not required by work, study, or leisure activities.
- Discipling at the heart language addressed by both Bible availability and worldview issues.
Indicator #1: Reading Abilities in America
In 2004, Dana Gioia, chair for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), held a press conference at the New York Public Library. “America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted,” she stated.5 She then reported on a reading-related research project of adults in the United States. Only one in three American men is reading literature of any kind. Over the past twenty years, twenty million people have completely stopped reading.
At this rate, we are losing the capacity to communicate with one million people a year using literate means. The largest drop in reading rates was among young adults, age 18 to 24, compared to the rest of the adult population. Overall, less than half of all Americans read literature such as the Bible.6
While twenty-five to thirty-three percent of the world is truly illiterate, only four to five percent of Americans have not been to school. That has lulled us into overlooking the statistics that show more than one out of two Americans and two out of three of the world’s population do not read proficiently enough for handling prose found in the Bible.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education divided literacy into four groupings: below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient. (These terms replace the terms illiterate and functionally illiterate, which were used in the 1992 survey.)
- Below Basic—fourteen percent (one in seven)
Signs name, finds medicine dosage
- Basic—thirty-six percent
Compares ticket prices; reads pamphlet
- Intermediate—thirty-seven percent
Reads novels; scans the Internet for information; connects through social media, such as Facebook; reads maps and charts, such as checkbook, when required
- Proficient—thirteen percent
Finds, maintains, and uses information from continuous paragraphs (like this!)
The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) surveyed 18,500 people in their homes or in prisons. NAAL estimates that one in seven adults (about thirty million people) fall in the “below basic” category for handling basic prose in English (like that found in the Bible).
Similar to what the Department of Education reported in 1992, the 2003 interviews confirmed that about half of all U.S. adults (about ninety-three million people) fall into the “below basic” or “basic” reading categories. Although there were more college graduates in 1992 than in 2003, fewer were reading at the proficient level, falling from forty percent in 1992 to thirty-one percent in 2003.
Indicator #2: Using Printed Text When Not Required
The oral approach includes both primary and secondary orality. Primary orality communicators rely primarily on narrative and oral approaches. They cannot read. Secondary oral communicators can be defined as “people who depend on electronic audio and visual communications (multimedia). It is said that in some developing countries people are moving directly from primary orality to secondary orality without passing through an orientation to print.”7
In writing about learning preferences, Grant Lovejoy states, “Secondary orality depends on electronic media and the literate people who operate it. Secondary orality uses television, radio, film, and the like to communicate the staples of oral communication: story, song, poetry, proverb, drama, and discussion.”8 He points out that when reading diminishes, then the ability and desire to use that methodology decreases or is replaced by other non-literate learning preferences.9
The NAAL report concluded that “literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.”10 This reflects a significant shift, especially among younger generations toward non-print media for entertainment, information gathering, and education—and not one at a time, but engaging several at once.11
Situations like this in the U.S. and other countries have led to a “digital divide” resulting in declining prose literacy and comprehension rates while demand for electronic (non-print) media access increases.12
People scan written material for items of interest. They evaluate them quickly. They scan for a summary or hyperlink to a related topic. Then they’re off to another aspect or possibly a new topic. How do you think such skimming over scripture affects spiritual development?
Churches with a literate approach use a linear, analytical thinking pattern based on print media. It impacts virtually every aspect of church life, imposing learning styles alien to the culture around them. However, the reality is that Christians and non-Christians are just not responding.
Churches increasingly reduce or even stop their disciple-making efforts and focus instead on the worship “experience,” with the full intention of using twenty minutes of preaching on different verses scattered around the Bible to impact disciple making.
According to a Barna report, evangelicals are viewed as out of touch with the reality facing the very people we should be impacting. The 2007 study showed that only three percent of 16 to 29-year-old non-Christians in the U.S. gave favorable views of evangelicals.13 Yet, our leaders, evangelism and missions efforts, and ministries miss the opportunity by insisting on a literacy-only approach.
The cultural trends for the “digital age” drive people apart rather than joining them. We are increasingly a generation of “tweeters” and loners. Shane Hipps writes,
If oral culture is tribal and literate culture is individual, the electronic age is essentially a tribe of individuals. This is a confused state of being in which we are thrown together from far-off places. We desire connection and community in our increasingly nomadic existence—yet we wander the globe, glancing off other digital nomads without ever knowing or being known.14
Learning-style preferences of secondary oral communicators have clearly shifted and have not yet finished. Electronic media are alienating those with Christ from those without Christ. The majority of the youngest generations clearly prefer learning through oral means mediated through electronic channels rather than the printed word and its structures.
Indicator #3: Discipling at the Heart Language Addressed by Bible Availability and Worldview Issues
Just telling Bible stories is not the same as storying the Bible. Bible storying is an intentional way to make disciples based on the objective of a single witness or a small group leader. It involves creating a matrix of Bible stories that when told over time work together to allow the Holy Spirit to bring spiritual transformation.
Spiritual transformation can only take place at the deepest part of our beings, our worldview. We often start off addressing beliefs—getting the facts right. Or we attempt to address values—getting life choices right. Or possibly we attempt to address behaviors—acting right. We often think if a person is serving as a deacon, tithing regularly, and knows his or her Bible, that he or she is a follower of Jesus. This is not necessarily so.
Storying addresses the worldview to bring about spiritual transformation. A specific Bible story is chosen because it is a preferred way to learn and because it addresses some deeply-held issue that can be a barrier to discipleship. Truth That Sticks15 outlines a spiritual development progress that helps small group leaders identify progress being made from infant to child to young adult and parent stages.
Establishing credibility for God’s Word is important. However, it may or may not be available in the heart language of the people with whom you are working. Out of 6,900 languages in the world, only 451 have been translated. There are 1,185 New Testaments considered adequate in today’s context. Keep in mind that it takes nearly fifteen years to produce a new Bible.16
The Bible is a Christian’s sole authority. The following digested accounts provide a good perspective on how Bible storying works in a variety of settings:
- Michael Mohler, a Southern Baptist missionary and founding pastor of Trinity Point Church in Easley, South Carolina, has taken his church from one small adult Bible study with less than a dozen attending to fifteen small groups with more than one hundred weekly participants by using narratives in small group settings. They began with a “redemptive arc”, providing a biblical timeline upon which other biblical narratives may be positioned.
- Stephen Douglass, president of Campus Crusade for Christ International, said he knew that Bible stories worked to make disciples who were illiterate around the world, but he discovered their power among college students. In 2005, he helped a group of students at the University of Central Florida (Orlando) to latch onto Bible storying and transform their Bible studies. Today, Campus Crusade uses storying on forty campuses with new additions every year.
- When the Navigators began working in the Angola prison in Louisiana, Paul Krueger and Chuck Broughton found that Bible stories provided a way to help prisoners discuss their own problems and come to faith in Christ. They had difficulty memorizing a Bible verse, but they could tell Bible stories accurately that covered several chapters.17
We can use stories from the Bible as we witness with people and then disciple them, regardless of their reading abilities. The same Holy Spirit that works through a famous preacher or curriculum writer can work through the small group leader. When leaders are genuine about their walk with the Lord, the group will more easily become transparent and hold each other accountable for spiritual development.
Bible storying is a very enjoyable approach for small groups that are intentionally relational, supportive, transparent, and accountable. As oral-preference learners participate, their involvement on a number of learning levels will facilitate their maturity as followers of Jesus, baptized in not only water, but in the ways of Christ, and become equipped so that they can entrust it to others as well (2 Timothy 2:2).
1. Ong, Walter J. 1982. Reprinted 1991. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 11.
2. Mitchell, Ella. 1986. “Black Nurture.” Black Church Lifestyles. Compiled by Emmuel L. McCall. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 59-61.
3. Ibid, 65.
4. Ibid, 66.
5. Gifford, Sally. 2004. “Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline, According to National Endowment for the Arts Survey.” National Endowment for the Arts. Accessed 30 May 2009 from www.nea.gov/news/news04/ReadingAtRisk.Html.
7. Defined in Making Disciples of Oral Learners. 2005. New York, Elim Printing, 86.
8. Lovejoy, Grant. Undated. “The Extent of Orality.” International Mission Board, SBC, 3.
9. Ibid, 3ff.
10. Results of the first tests since 1992 are available in the publication, “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century”. To download the report as a PDF file, visit nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2006470.
11. Roberts, Donald and Ulla G. Foehr. 2008. “Trends in Media Use.” The Future of Children 18(1):11. Accessed 2 February 2010 from www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storyage_01/0000019b/80/3d/cd/aa.pdf.
12. Lovejoy (“The Extent of Orality”) provides in-depth analysis of the basis for United Nation’s (UNESCO) global literacy claims.
13. The Barna Group. 2007. “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity.” Accessed 2 September 2009 from www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/94-a-new-generation-expresses-its-skepticism-and-frustration-with-christianity.
14. Hipps, Shane. 2009. Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 107.
15. Willis, Avery T. and Mark Snowden. 2010. Truth That Sticks: How to Communicate Velcro Truth in a Teflon World. Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress.
16. Wycliffe International Communications, November 2009. Accessed 21 January 2010 from www.wycliffe.net/ScriptureAccessStatistics/tabid/73/language/en-US/Default.aspex.
17. Snowden, Mark. 2009. “Case Studies in Making Disciples Using Storying.” In Storying in a Day, unpublished, North American Mission Board, SBC.