Response to: Book Throwing and the Mission of God Part 2

John Wilson was a resident missionary in Papua (Irian Jaya) from 1972 to 1991 and wrote his master’s dissertation on ‘Scripture in Oral Culture’ before orality was as trendy.  He was kind enough to add his thoughts to my application comments and I think they’re worth sharing.

Comments in italics by John D Wilson:

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.

This does not mean that people are incapable of learning a different communication method. They may use it in a different way—in terms of logic and structure of thought.

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.

This is 100% correct. Their thinking style is to add information into a picture and try to integrate it, like working on a jigsaw puzzle

Avoid abstract reasoning, which, although it might be ‘logical,’ does not relate to every day actions and experiences.

I have found that they are quite capable of abstract thought, but using concrete models. However, like consensus building in a group, where people talk about things from every which angle, so their logic is generally random but concrete and comprehensive. [Some Europeans prefer this, whereas most Americans are concrete sequential thinkers. This sometimes makes for narrow and exclusive or reductionist thinking.]

Clear, memorable and powerful summaries and sayings can be effective e.g. “One pulpit, one pastor.”

The power of proverb or pithy saying.

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.’

Very good point. That is why if you really believe the Bible is God’s Word, or that this is what the biblical “ancestors” taught, it will be more acceptable.

Group discussion is important even if that discussion is really just giving people an opportunity to say out loud what has already been said.

Yes, and no repetition is worthless. But it can also be significant to notice who is the one who repeats the obvious! (As above)

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.

Yes. This is what I referred to in keeping oral features in our translation. This can be as simple as so-called “redundancy”; clitics (seemingly meaningless parts of speech but some of which give pause or emphasis; significant use of a tense or mood of a verb; genre.  Genre is very important because it predicts how you interpret/understand what is spoken.

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.

Yes, you are right. We can write for listeners as well as for readers.

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.

And not just the literary conventions, but cultural conventions like going down on a knee as a sign of reverence/respect; the meanings and functions of different animals and sacrifices etc,; use of honorific titles and much more

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