International Orality NetworkIn a previous post I highlighted the Cape Town Commitment’s inclusion of the key issue of communicating the Bible in oral cultures.

The Bible and orality is a theme I will be returning to with more frequency, not least because over the Summer we will be preparing a new final year module as part of Redcliffe’s BA Degree in Applied Theology in Intercultural Contexts on ‘Story, Song and Social Networks: Bible Engagement and Oral Culture’.

As a helpful orientation here are a couple of excerpts from the website of the International Orality Network. The first gives a definition of their understanding of ‘oral learners’ or ‘oral communicators’. The second gives some statistics and facts.

Those of us who have tended to learn through literate means simply must get to grips with what this stuff means. Not only will it make our efforts to communicate the Bible more effective. I would argue it would also enrich our appreciation and understanding of the Bible immeasurably.


An oral learner or oral communicator is:

1. Someone who cannot read or write.

2. Someone whose most effective communication and learning format, style, or method is in accordance with oral formats, as contrasted to literate formats.

3. Someone who prefers to learn or process information by oral rather than written means. (These are literate people whose preferred communication style is oral rather than literate, even though they can read.)


Statistics and Facts

1. Over 4 Billion people in the world do not read as their primary method of learning – either they cannot read; they do not read; or they will not read.

2. The vast majority of missions work has been done for a literate audience. Unfortunately the vast majority of the true audience is therefore not able to connect with the Gospel.

3. Oral cultures are very relational – they share their lives with one another.

4. Most oral cultures will communicate with one another in narratives, dialogues and dramas, proverbs, songs, chants, and poetry. When asked what he thought about a new village school headmaster, a Central African replied “Let’s watch how he dances”

This leaves us with some serious questions to answer: how different would our missionary efforts look if we truly took the phenomenon of orality seriously? What could we learn that would apply to a (if I can use this term) ‘post-literate’ society? How much to I base my efforts to communicate on how I would understand something, as if my preferred learning style is objective?

Lots to chew over in the coming months. In the meantime, check out ION’s website

2 thoughts on “Bible Engagement and Oral Culture

  1. Bible Engagement and Oral Culture

    Thanks for posting this Redcliffe!
    It seems that the skills needed to communicate the Bible orally are vital in all cultures. A recent article in the Guardian states that “17% of 16- to 19-year-olds [in the UK] are functionally illiterate – meaning they cannot handle much more than straightforward questions. It is unlikely, or even impossible, that they will understand allusion and irony, the researchers found. Their reading standard is at or below an 11-year-old’s.” A 1999 report by the ‘Basic Skills Agency informs us that “…as many as seven million adults in England have more or less severe problems with literacy and numeracy.”

    The main suggestion for dealing with these issues is better education both for adults and youth, and plans are being made for the future. Surely our challenge as Christians today is to learn to communicate Jesus on their terms and not just our own. Communicating with narratives, dialogues and dramas, proverbs, songs, chants, and poetry adds colour, and certainly seems a lot more fun…!

    1. Great points John; imagine the impact here in the UK if we really got to grips with engaging with orality!

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