Interaction with Don’t Throw the Book at Them by Harry Box
I was surprised the first time that I supervised ‘homework’ at college by a low and constant whispered murmur. What was it? Was everyone just chatting rather than getting on with their work? Where they collaborating? No, what they were doing was reading aloud to themselves.
Now, I could put that down to the students only just developing literacy skills, like children who have not yet learnt to read silently, and to an extent that may be true in the sense that they are not ‘literacy people.’ But on the other hand, it indicates a difference in the way that they think about ‘text’ and words, and it is this difference that Box discusses in this chapter.
Surely Box is right when he says that ‘…there are many possibilities for misunderstanding and miscommunication between oral and literacy-oriented people’ (p19), and this chapter is foundational to the book in that it seeks to help us to better understand oral (non-book) people. What I will do is summarise the chapter first, and then offer some of my own comments by way of opening a discussion. What I really want to question is the degree to which the difference between oral people and literacy-based people separates us and how we can best think about those differences and (perhaps) similarities.
Chapter 1 Summary (you might skip this)
Box begins by defining oral communicators positively (as opposed to negatively with terms like ‘illiterate’ or ‘preliterate’), as ‘people who respond primarily to oral messages and to the people and events within their society.’ This group covers both people who cannot read and write as well as people who, although they might have literacy skills, choose not to use them (p1). Box estimates that this group represents about 70% of the world’s population and points out that much of the Bible ‘requires an advanced level of literacy’ and so these people will have ‘great difficulty’ in comprehending the Bible’s message through reading. That is why, for Box, ‘throwing the book’ will not have significance, whereas a well-crafted oral presentation will be ‘relevant and meaningful’ (p2).
Box does not simply mean that a literacy-based presentation will be unhelpful because the people can’t read it, but because oral people have different understandings, characteristics and methods of communication that cause them to interpret texts differently to book people.
These characteristics include:
Group Orientation: Oral communication demands that there is an audience to listen (as opposed to writing where the audience can be absent). Thus oral people have a strong orientation towards the group or community in contrast to the individualism of literacy-oriented people (p5).
Event-oriented Rather than Time-oriented: For oral people ‘time is the ever-present now, and is measured not in linear terms [as it is for western literacy-oriented people] but in terms of one’s involvement in the events that are happening in his or her own community.’ Oral people have a greater sense of the past as influencing the present rather than ‘rapidly advancing’ future (p6).
The Contrast between Aural and Visual Orientation: Aural rather than visual orientation leads to a very different perception of reality. Print-oriented people are visual people; they tend to ‘picture’ information or display it, and understand the universe in visual terms. This tends to lead to an outside objective view of the world around us, whereas for people based in sounds the universe is not something to be represented but something that is held together that we are to be in harmony with. Advances in understanding do not come from individuals who convey their ideas to others – something that can lead to giant leaps forward – but rather ‘progress is made slowly as everyone advances together’ [presumably because the process is held within the group rather than represented abstractly on paper] (pp6-7).
The Acquisition and Preservation of Knowledge by Oral Rather than Literate Means: ‘…the acquisition and preservation of knowledge is a primary value in oral cultures’ – it is just done differently to literacy-based societies. For example people learn by listening and repeating rather than ‘studying’ (p8). This can be done with proverbs, songs, poems, stories, and chants. One major difference emphasised by Box is just how good oral people are at memorisation (p9).
The Attribution of Power to the Spoken Word: Because ‘spoken words come from a living source…they are identified with that source and the whole context of that person’s existence and relationships.’ Literate people tend to think of words as abstract representations of an idea – the word is like a sign and its purpose is to represent something like an idea or emotion. But for oral people words are ‘dynamic’ and living and because of this, ‘it is almost universal that oral cultures consider words to have the potential of magical powers’ (p10).
Further Characteristics of Oral Thought Taken from Ong 1982 [there’s a fair bit of overlap here].
“Add-on,” “Build-up” Structures Rather than “Cause-and-Effect:” ‘Information is given layer upon layer rather than with a logical sequence: “And…and…and…” instead of “therefore”’ (p12). This helps to make things more memorable (p11).
Collective Descriptions Rather than Precise Analysis: ‘Oral people prefer the sound of a cluster of words to describe certain things rather than one precisely chosen term’ (p12). [I found this interesting because I had always assumed this was just a feature of Bislama rather than a feature of oral people generally.] Clichés such as ‘enemies of the people’ may strike a chord with oral people but seem cumbersome to literacy people. [Perhaps too, this a difference between a spoken text and a written text even within a literate society. Repetition of somewhat cumbersome but emotive phrases – “I have a dream” – might work when spoken, but would be less effective in a written form.] Box makes an interesting point here, arguing that the Authorised Version was a bit better at preserving the oral nature of some scripture than more modern versions are, and so would have been more accessible by oral people (p13).
Repetitious: Oral communication uses much repetition. Here, Box sees that this is also a feature of all oral communication even for literate people, but reminds us ‘book people’ that we must use repetition when communicating and resist the urge to remove it (p14).
Conservative or Traditionalist: Because preserved knowledge has been gained at much personal cost (i.e. the mental effort of preserving it), it will not be abandoned lightly or discarded when something new comes along (p14).
Closely Related to People’s Everyday Living: ‘Oral cultures must think of and express all their knowledge in reference to their immediate context. Everything must be explainable and believable in terms of present-day activities, events and language’ as opposed to ‘abstract, text-based forms’ (p15).
Graphic Description of Conflict, Struggle and Praise: Oral people tend to be more expressive in every-day life in a way that literate people would reserve for drama or poetry (p16).
Empathy and Participation Rather than Remote Observation: In a literate society, writing can be detached and objective rather than immersed in the surrounding events like in an oral culture (p16).
Economy of Preservation of Oral Culture/History/Literature: Before we saw that due to the effort involved in oral memory, oral people tend to hold on to ideas. For the same reason, people will only preserve what they see as important.
Focus is on Event/Situation/Action Rather than Abstract Concepts: People in oral cultures ‘discuss things in terms of actions and events to which they can relate rather than adopt abstract concepts or attempt to make a series of logical deductions … Guessing and supposing things that they have never experienced are foreign to their thinking process’ (p17).
I’m going to make three overlapping comments. These relate to: thinking through the differences between oral and literacy-based communicators; the line between oral and written communication; and the relationship between orality, literacy and worldview.
What Box is doing in this chapter is fantastic. He is making us aware of the difference between ourselves (literate people assumedly because we’re reading his book) and oral people. The chapter provides good insight into how oral people process new information and learn and so has practical application for people seeking to communicate the Christian message to non-book people (see below). However, without wanting to undermine Box’s fundamental point, I want to nuance the way that we think about literate people by asserting that we are all primarily oral communicators.
Even we literate people communicate more orally than we do in written forms, and I think that that ‘more’ relates not only to the quantity of our communication but to the quality of it. I think as a society (I’m thinking of ‘western’ people) we are moved more by speeches than essays, more by films and what they teach us about ourselves as people than by novels, and by music lyrics more than we are by written poetry. The latter two can be demonstrated in sales alone. In this sense I disagree with Box who seems to relegate these forms in western culture to the area of entertainment (p8). These forms can be agents of cultural change and powerful stimuli in moving people to action (think of protest songs at the time of the Vietnam War, for example).
As Christians, oral communication remains the primary means of conveying the Bible’s teaching and rallying ourselves towards greater faith and repentance. We are moved by sermons with their carefully considered oral techniques, we praise God and encourage each other by singing together and we express our dependence on our God by praying – orally. Even our bible studies are more dominated by oral discussion than by reading the text. I know the text is the centre of the discussion, but it is carried out in an oral way. When I was a minister in Australia, I would have had mutiny on my hands had I suggested to my Bible study group that we don’t talk so much.
This is not to say that I don’t think that written communication hasn’t had an enormous impact on our society nor that I don’t see it continuing to do so (I am, after all, writing now). It is just that thinking about things in this way helps us to consider two things
The first is, that if we think that we are all oral communicators, but that some of us are influenced by literacy, then we can consider the impact of literacy on our thinking and worldview – I will pick this up in my third comment.
The second is that if we recognise that we are all oral communicators (perhaps to different degrees), then it helps us to notice that there is not just a difference between orality and literacy, but vast differences between the conventions of oral communication. The first time I visited the Kimberley region of Western Australia I was traveling with a group of thirty people. When we were at an Aboriginal community, an elder told us the story of ‘Barramundi Dreaming.’ When the story was over, many people in the group did not realise that the story had been told. The problem wasn’t so much that we didn’t know how to interpret oral texts – the group was full of people with advanced skills in decoding oral texts – the problem was that we had never heard a text like that; its structures and conventions were unfamiliar.
A society’s oral conventions are driven by shared cultural understandings of things like dramatic structure (where the focus and meaning comes in the text), culturally embedded symbols, and also technologies. In the case of ‘western’ societies, our oral communication has been heavily influenced by radio, television (even speech-making has been influenced by our oral news service), film, now high-speed internet, and of course literacy – a technology that has been invented about four times across the planet. For Box, group orientation is a feature of oral communication, but that doesn’t apply (well, not as he meant it) to TV. Of course, I know what Box means: it’s a feature of oral communication in small-sale oral societies. It’s just that it might be helpful to think about how we communicate orally, and how that is different.
When we see that we are all oral communicators, but that all oral communicators use conventions that are driven by shared-cultural understandings, embedded technologies and other life situations such as the immediacy of a village meeting place, it causes us to focus on the conventions used. This is not in itself monumental, but it leads to my second and third comments.
Last year, Kevin Maney, writing for Newsweek (04/03/2016) speculated on what might replace email. For Maney the problem with email is that one can’t be sure if someone is writing or talking. The argument went that a letter is clearly writing, whereas a text message is more like talking in that it’s fleeting. The problem of email, according to Maney, is that it’s unclear which it is.
The future of email is not my concern here, but Maney’s point is relevant in that it alerts us to the fact that there is a blurred line between what is oral and what is written. Maney isn’t saying that all kinds of oral communication are fleeting, rather he’s talking about the kind of communication that we might call ‘chatting.’ No one’s likely to hold you accountable for a comment you typoed on messenger last year, because there’s a shared understanding that you were just shooting the breeze. Blogs are not the same as books. A personal conversation is not the same as a lecture.
When I was learning to preach at college, the teacher had to make the point that we can’t write our sermons the way we write assignments, because they’re written to be spoken. If a story begins, ‘Once upon a time…’ that keys us into the genre of fairy tale, but it also alerts us to the fact that we are being told a story. The story will be full of oral conventions, which are best enjoyed aloud even though it is a written text. Box gives numerous examples of oral conventions which are written (and there’s no way around that) in the Bible. So it is possible to write something in an oral sort-of-way, or to do something orally in a written sort-of-way.
This fact became apparent to me soon after I started teaching here on Tanna. I was doing things orally, but something wasn’t working. The problem was that I was doing things orally in a written sort-of-way. That is, I was lecturing, and the format of a ‘lecture’ was developed by literate people for other literate people with brains developed by the ordered nature of written communication. I had to do things orally, as done by this oral society, in order to get the message across.
There is another side to that, and that is that we can do book things (reading and writing) in a way that is sympathetic to a people-group’s oral conventions. When I taught indigenous children in northern Australia, I realised that one of the reasons that they were struggling to learn to read, was that the dramatic structure of the books they were given to read was entirely foreign to them – the meaning was locked away in someone else’s conventions. Even though the education office was trying to provide appropriate subject matter (yet another story about hunting), they were still struggling because of the foreign conventions. What the kids needed were texts that worked more naturally for them at the ‘meaning’ level while they got on with the problem of decoding at the sound and word level.
This realisation that we can do reading and writing in an oral sort-of-way might be very helpful for those of us who are kind of caught in a complex post-colonial situation (see part 1). I must confess that after my false start with lecturing, my own teaching has gravitated towards book-throwing not away from it. But I like to think that I am doing that ‘book-throwing’ in a way that has a low threshold for non-book people. I’m experimenting…
Before I go on and make my third point, I just want to make a side point about this blurred line between orality and literacy. When we record a written work (like an audio book) we are simply putting a written text into an oral form. But it’s still structured (even down to the sentence level) as a written text. The same applies when we record the Bible. We lower the threshold for illiterate people massively by the fact that they no longer have to ‘read’ it, but they still have to understand the structures and conventions of the text in order to comprehend it. While Box is certainly right in pointing out all the ways that the Bible employs orality, the fact remains that whether people are readers or listeners of the Bible, they really need to become familiar with the way that written texts work.
- Chickens, Eggs, Orality, and Worldview
I would previously have thought of many of the features of oral people discussed by Box, as simply features of (searching for a name) a ‘tribal’ worldview (worldview being the entire way that a person understands and interprets the world around them). Interestingly, Heibert (2007) refers to this group of worldviews as those held by ‘small-scale oral societies.’ So my question is about the relationship between worldview and literacy. Do people hold the worldview that they do because they are oral, or are they oral because of their worldview? At first, the second option seems a bit ridiculous, but as Box points out, many people who have learnt to read and write choose not to. Despite what we might assume about ‘development,’ the world is not moving towards being a literate place on the whole (at least not any time soon).
Probably, thinking in terms of these two extremes is unhelpful, as there is probably a complex ‘both-ways’ relationship between literacy/orality and world view. The helpful question really, might be, which is dominant in affecting the other. It is probably also helpful to consider what other factors contribute to the worldviews held by these societies.
I’ve never read any studies on that topic, but I would be interested to do so. It might be helpful to consider non-western societies that have been shaped by their different forms of literacy, such as Asian societies.
It seems that for Box, orality is a major factor in shaping worldview. In his conclusion to the chapter he says, ‘To move from an oral worldview position to a literary oriented worldview, or vice-versa, requires a major worldview shift’ (p19). When we see things in that light, we conclude that book-throwing is entirely unhelpful because of the potential for the misunderstandings that Box highlights. However, if we think of things the other way round – that literacy might influence worldview – we can see that it might also be the case that literacy is one thing that could help to shift or even transform a person’s worldview. This view is highlighted when we think of western people as being oral people heavily influenced by literacy.
Here we need to be very careful to define the task. Our task as people seeking to share the message of the Bible is not to help people to take on a literate western worldview – of course not. But it is our task to help people to develop a biblical worldview. So what we need to do is to think carefully about the interplay between literacy and the Bible in the context of the ancient Near East and first century Palestine – in other words we have to think carefully about the way that written text shaped the way that God’s people thought and how written texts were used in bible times. The place to do that is when we look at chapter three. I think the answer will be encouraging for those of us battling with literacy issues.
Another aspect of this issue worth touching on is to ask whether the difference between orality and literacy is really the decisive factor that makes communicating the Christian message difficult, or is it actually other aspects of worldview.
Again, in this chapter, it seems that to Box, orality is the primary obstacle. Of course orality and worldview are tied up together, but I wonder if the biggest issue, in my situation, isn’t ‘kastom’ itself (Vanuatu’s traditional animism), including both the framework of kastom (the system of how it works = equivalent to theology) and kastom’s system of knowing (how to attain religious knowledge and the nature of that knowledge = equivalent of the Doctrine of Scripture or Knowledge of God). Of course in kastom this system is oral. But is the biggest issue the fact that it is oral, or is it the system of knowing itself, which can be applied either in oral or literate ways? A question to be followed up in Chapter Two.
These three comments together really serve to blur the line between orality and literacy and between oral and book people. I do not do that to undermine what Box is rightly saying about the huge difference between the communication of a literate western person and a member of small-scale oral society. I am just seeking to find different paradigms through which to understand those differences. I feel that once we have established the most important point: the great difference between orality and literacy, what we need as foreign missionaries is a better ‘tool box’ for analysing the forms of oral communication used by our host culture and so understanding how to communicate God’s message. Box is well aware that he has just given us the basics here that are applicable to a range of oral cultures.
To summarise I will make some points of application arising from the chapter
- We must seek to understand the communication methods of our target culture; we need to have a good understanding of how the people communicate with each other and how their belief and plausibility systems are transferred. I think this point has been made clear by enough people in enough ways that we can no longer claim to be doing responsible mission if we don’t.
- When communicating with oral people, use repetition and ‘build-up’ structures that add to recurring ideas. Likewise, describe and define through repetition saying the same things in many different ways.
- Avoid abstract reasoning, which, although it might be ‘logical,’ does not relate to every day actions and experiences.
- Clear, memorable and powerful summaries and sayings can be effective e.g. “One pulpit, one pastor.”
- Who says something is important (not just what is said): it really, really matters who you are [This probably extends to the voice used for recordings]. Likewise the group is of paramount importance and communication relies on being a ‘we’ or ‘us.’
- Group discussion is important even if that discussion is really just giving people an opportunity to say out loud what has already been said.
- When we translate the Bible we can consider how it will be used: it is possible to bring out embedded oral features if we expect the translation will primarily be read aloud or listened to.
- I have also speculated that we can transfer conventions of oral communication into written word. In this way we can combine oral and written forms in repetitious, concrete, build-up structures which make our information memorable.
- I have argued that we need to teach people the literary conventions used in the Bible and that we need to do this regardless of whether people read the Bible or listen to a recording of it.
No doubt you have more points of application, personal experiences, anecdotes, thoughts, questions and points of disagreement. It would be highly valuable to hear them all. I don’t have much experience in these things; it would be great to hear from both other people who are struggling and those who have been able to make it work.
This foundational chapter will probably be my longest post in this series. Hang in there!