Interaction with Don’t Throw the Book at Them by Harry Box
The church in Vanuatu (then New Hebrides) was first established on the island of Aneityum. Nova Scotian missionaries, John and Charlotte Geddie, arrived in 1848 and by 1849 they had produced the first ‘primer’ and then ‘book after book of literacy aids, scripture portions, catechisms and hymnals, until finally the whole Bible was available in Aneityumese in 1879 after Geddie’s death’ (Miller 1978, 80). In other words, the mission here was founded on a whole lot of book throwing!
This pattern continued on Aniwa, Tanna and many other islands until the work of the Geddies and countless others resulted in the formation of the Presbyterian Church of the New Hebrides in 1949, which in turn became the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu, with whom I work today. And that pattern, as far as I know, has never really been questioned.
When I arrived in 2013, I joined a church that assumes its members will read hymnals and Bibles. It has a written worship book, constitution, rules and documents. Reports are expected to be printed even though few people have a computer and fewer still have a printer – while fewer again have any ink for the printer. I took up work at a Bible College that had its curriculum written on a piece of paper that was … somewhere. Students are expected to have four exercise books and do something with them. If you want to be a church leader you really need to be literate, or at least very good at pretending you are.
I’m guessing Box’s title is deliberately provocative. Yes, it verges on being offensive in its implications of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ style mission and its assumption that the one who isn’t the ‘them’ is the book chucker. But then again, even the introduction makes it clear that Box is aware of the complexities of the twenty-first century and that he sees some benefit in literacy.
Box’s somewhat more docile subtitle is more encouraging: ‘Communicating the Christian Message to People Who Don’t Read.’ That’s what I want to do!
At the start of my second year a keen young student came who couldn’t read. Within a week or two he had disappeared. It transpired that his perception was that Bible College wasn’t for him because he was illiterate. Months earlier a highly literate graduate was recommended for further training even though she appeared to be unconverted and showed little or no fruits of the Spirit.
But Box’s book isn’t just about people who can’t read, but those who don’t read – a group which would encompass all but one-or-two of the students I have taught so far. Most of them can read and write to varying degrees but they would not choose to do so, and when they do read they do not tend to read for meaning. They are primarily oral people.
So, what I want to do is to get into the whole topic of orality and discuss how it can inform the way we do mission and theological education here in Vanuatu, and the way I want to do that is to kind of blog through and discuss this book. In order to be balanced, I then want to do the same with another little book called Is Hearing Enough? by Don Edwards.
Why not join in – wherever you are? Get your hands on a copy of Box’s book (and later Edwards’), read along and throw your two cents-worth in (it would be worth much more than two cents to me – but no pressure). I have read through Don’t Throw the Book at Them once and can recommend it to you. No, I’m sure you won’t agree with everything, but there are plenty of things there to sharpen us all. It may influence the way we evangelise, disciple, train leaders and even translate the Bible.
To give you a hint at where I want to go with this, I’m not planning on throwing out the pencils and paper. I have seen the benefits of literacy. I do however want to question the extent to which we rely on literacy and to better equip myself to teach oral people.
Both books are published by William Carey Library and are available through:
Don’t Throw the Book at Them
Is Hearing Enough?
If you don’t want to buy the book or you’re not into reading, join in anyway. I’ll go through chapter-by-chapter, write a short summary and make some comments about how that applies (or doesn’t) to the context here.
Hi Tom, we are training pastors for our church in Port Vila where a number of our students are from Tanna. We certainly faced both the issues of how to train the illiterate and the literate non-readers here in Vanuatu. I will be interested to hear your thoughts on Box’s book and the next one as well. Thanks for proposing the discussion!
Great David. We must meet face-to-face next time I am in Port Vila. It would be great to have you in on the discussion.
Thanks Tom, I work with Ni Van RSE workers (many from Tanna) while they are in NZ, doing all sorts of training from financial & business, to health, to ministry and would love to journey with you on how to connect & engage learning without leaning on literacy as a pre-requisite. MIght not have time to read the book (The Ni Vans arrive here this week so things will get busy) but look forward to your chapter summaries 🙂 PS- drove past your bible school in November – what an incredible base with incredible stories of the moves of God happening along that coast!
Great to hear from you Kylie. Make sure you drop in next time you come past.
I’m in! Let the posting begin.
I’ll join in. Oral storytelling is not new (think of Glady Aylward’s predecessor, Jennie Lawson, in China) and we ourselves have used oral storytelling in N. Tanna in the past in addition to other oral initiatives.
Glad you’re in Bethann. I’m sure any discussion is better off for your involvement. There are bits in this about storyteller, but it is more generally about orality with storytelling as one example. Actually, some one sent me the book because I wanted to reed more about storytelling, but it really didn’t go into it much in detail. Do you know of a book that does? I’m kinda interested to read up on the ideas/research behind it as well as of course the field trials.
Ok. I’ve only read the forward and the intro. The forward seemed to talk a fair bit about storytelling. I actually haven’t read a book about storytelling, though I hear plenty about it. I would like to say that oral Bible storytelling and the current movement are two different things. I’m not opposed to the general idea, but see several very concerning features in the current movement.
Our Tanna situation is complicated by many factors besides illiteracy or orality (which ever way you perceive it), and those will come up in the discussion as we go. I’ll reserve further comment til you post more.
Yep, great comment.
Yep, great comment. A lot of factors and hard to sift through them. The question we need to ask as we go is whether the differences between orally and literacy really solve the biggest problems we face.
Such an interesting topic, I’m not sure if I’ll read the book at this point but sure would be interested in reading your summaries and others comments!
Great to hear that you are reading.
HI Tom, I work with Amazon tribes who are coming to Christ village by village. We are equipping them to evangelize the next tribe. The Yanomami tribe have 200 villages. Only 3 have accepted Christ. The others are still waiting. All our training is oral sending them back into the rain forest with the Jesus Film in Yanomami, (recorded in Venezuela,) the wordless book with strips of cloth, and the audio solar Bible in Yanomami.
In Guinea Bissau West Africa, we have classes mixed with semi-literates and oral learners. We are using the Chronology banner designed in East Africa, using it’s 42 stories to teach Biblical principles, doctrine, and Theology. I would love to be included in what others are doing and how.
Your brother in Christ, Larry Buckman
Praise God for your work! It is so exciting. Thank you very much for letting me know.
Yes, I would love to keep in touch. What works for you? My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can find me on facebook, if that helps.
Praying for you now.
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isa 55:10-11)
God’s word works!