Appreciating Orality

September 17, 2013

Neville Callam, General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance recently wrote an interesting column, which is titled "Appreciating Orality." In it, he talks about the need for greater consideration of how to communicate the gospel message in cultures that rely more on orality than textuality. Since the U.S. and many European nations are now textual-focused countries, that approach to communication is often given preference without recognition given to more oral cultures. Callam wrote:

Many biblical scholars maintain that at least some sections of sacred Scripture existed in oral form before they assumed literary status. Indeed, is it not widely believed that the Gospels, for example, circulated in oral form before they were committed to writing? Furthermore, some scholars assert that at least some sections of Scripture were committed to writing primarily with public reading in mind.

Bearing in mind the difference between oral and written communication, which has been clarified by scholars like Walter Ong and Eric Havelock, it has become increasingly clear that, even in the process of interpreting the Bible, one may need to bear in mind the form in which the original storytellers conveyed the message.

Today, not only may we wish to bear in mind the dynamics of orality as a factor in the process of interpreting Scripture, but we may also want to reconsider any tendency to undervalue the cultures that focus more on oral, rather than on textual, forms of communication.

If it is still true that almost two-thirds of the world's population comprises people who are oral learners either by necessity or by choice, it is clearly important for us to consider the forms our evangelistic efforts take. Furthermore, the shift from sound to sight and the integration of both sight and sound in modern communications technology can hardly be ignored without a loss of influence.
Callam is absolutely correct! As another communication scholar - Marshall McLuhan - taught, "the medium is the message." Thus, one cannot ignore the medium - such as written text or oral speech - through which a message is transmitted without missing out on at least some of the meaning of the text. I am glad to see Callam drawing attention to these critical issues and hope it will cause others to think carefully about our communication efforts.