Interaction with Don’t Throw the Book at Them by Harry Box
To live on Tanna is to live in the land of stories. Perhaps this is a familiar experience for other westerners living within oral societies. All people love stories; it seems we’re wired for them. But here, they carry out functions that are foreign to us. For example, stories can function somewhat like a title-deed for land ownership. Stories are also fundamental to all Tanna’s religious movements, conveying and reinforcing their ideals and values. When someone came to our closest village promoting a new movement, he came telling a story.
Box’s fundamental question in this chapter is: ‘Do oral societies have a system of communication that is adequate for receiving and passing on the Christian message?’ Box’s answer is, unsurprisingly an emphatic yes. I will summarize Box’s chapter and then add my own thoughts as to how we might answer Box’s question in relation to any particular oral culture with particular reference to oral communication on Tanna.
I will summarize the chapter under Box’s three main headings.
- Oral Communication Skills
Box begins by giving us a ‘glimpse of the rich and varied array of communication that is normally a part of an oral community’ by giving us real examples from around the world. These examples are:
- Storytelling: Box uses the examples of the Indian storyteller, the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. The main ideas are: that there are diverse forms of storytelling: that, although it is entertaining, it is an adult occupation and one means of preserving the cultural heritage of the people; and that these forms are capable of conveying huge amounts material – for example Yoruba diviners who ideally memorise 4,096 stories (pp21-23).
- Graphic and Plastic Arts: Box uses the iconographs of the Warlpiri people of Australia and the sandgraphs of the VaNgangela people of Angola to show that knowledge of social, family and religious life can be stored and transmitted via graphic representations which assist in telling stories (pp25-27)
- Singing/Chanting: Songs can be stories set to music and so can act as ‘oral storehouses’ of historical, cultural and religious information, with the added advantages that is it made memorable and the wider community can participate (pp28-29).
- Poetry: Poetry is an oral form which has its own techniques of ‘…rhyme and rhythm, imagery and metaphor, assonance and alliteration and give a colourful presentation of its material, and also to provide a structure for memorization.’ Box makes the point that in oral cultures, poetry is ‘…accepted as a normal part of the people’s cultural expression, and they delight in the way poetry uses their own language to provide colourful, emotional expression for their own cultural heritage, and for everyday experience as well.’ (pp29-30)
- Drama/Dance: Box gives examples of drama used in Asia and PNG and reminds us that, ‘In oral cultures because of their characteristic of participation, drama is often a very communal affair , with audience becoming involved in various ways, such as with instrumental accompaniment, singing, or set spoken responses.’ (pp30-31)]
- Genealogies: Box uses the example of PNG to make the point that some of the world’s cultures have a particular interest in and ability to recall their genealogies (line of ancestors). These people, unlike westerns, grasp the ‘true significance’ of the Bible’s genealogies.
- Preservation and Remembering of Oral Information
Box draws on recent research to demystify oral memorisation. Whereas ‘book people’ tend to assume that the often impressive memory of oral storytellers is ‘word for word’ or ‘line for line,’ this is in fact not the case. Rather, ‘Fixed texts are very uncommon in oral literature, and it is more probable that people will remember a number of slightly different versions of whatever they are leaning’ (p35). This memorisation is aided by numerous oral techniques including poetic structures (sometimes supported by song), key words, dance and ritual, the environment, art or drawing, or visual and physical objects like moving stones as the story is told.
Box does not include this to ‘detract from the oral artists’ skills and intelligence’ (he clearly holds them in high regard), but in order to recognise some limitations, stating: ‘In this context of oral learning, it is important for the undistorted preservation of knowledge that the content and mode or preservation of the material be kept conservative.’
- Oral People’s Resistance to Literacy
In this third section Box refers to research into low literacy rates, and in fact resistance to literacy, in West Africa. Klem (1982) found that the people were only ‘illiterate’ in a western sense, but that they were highly adept in their own oral forms of communication: ‘There was an indigenous communication system perfectly capable of being used to communicate the gospel effectively to the majority of people. They do not have to learn a new method of communicating’ (cited p37).
I should say that my summary lacks the colour found in this chapter and it is of course much richer to read Box’s work in full. Box provides us with a vivid account of some of the world’s communication systems and the skills of those systems’ users. I think anyone who reads the chapter would be convinced that these are valuable and perhaps, like Box, be grieved when these systems and skills are ‘…completely discounted or ignored and literacy-oriented skills are presented as the only ones suitable for learning Christianity’ (p23). I thoroughly agree that to discount these skills is both disrespectful and a wasted opportunity, but I think there might be more that can be said.
In this chapter Box set out to demonstrate that ‘…oral societies have a system of communication that is adequate for receiving and passing on the Christian message.’ He made his case by: 1) showing the ‘dynamic and exciting’ forms of oral communication in the world today, 2) describing the way that memorisation takes place, and 3) notes the resistance to literacy. What I am primarily interested in is noting the situation around me and considering whether the strengths and weaknesses of the particular oral communication system as used on Tanna is, as Box put it, ‘adequate for receiving and passing on the Christian message.’ When I attempt this, I find myself struggling with definitions of what constitutes an ‘adequate’ means of communication and what exactly is the ‘Christian message,’ so I will make my comments in relation to pursuing these two definitions.
- What is the ‘Christian Message?’
The book’s subtitle is, ‘Communicating the Christian Message to People Who Don’t Read,’ and then this chapter discusses the adequacy of oral communication systems to transmit the ‘Christian message;’ however, I’m not sure that I know what Box means by the ‘Christian message.’ Does he mean the gospel message, the things of ‘first importance’ (1 Cor. 15:3) which have the power to save as we believe them (Rom 1:16)? Or does the ‘Christian message’ include the ‘solid food’ which moves us on to maturity (Heb 5:11-6:1)?
When we come down to applying these ideas, we have to be clear about the specific scenario that we are using oral communication within. In Ephesians 4 maturity is brought about through the work of the prophets and apostles, who are the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20), and the evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11) (can we assume that these later three are ministering the Bible as laid down by the prophets and apostles since they are grouped as word-gifts? – I think so). It is when Christ’s people attain the whole measure of Christ’s fullness that ‘we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming’ (Eph 4:14 NIV). This is where I am struggling. Box gives the wonderful example of Emil Pearson using sandgraphs to evangelise effectively (p27), but then there is nothing more to the story. What happened ten years later? What happened in the next generation? I am convinced that the communication systems mentioned in this chapter are ‘adequate’ in relation to evangelism and initial discipleship – i.e. a previously unreached people-group scenario. I think that I’m convinced that they could be used for ongoing teaching where there is someone who is helping to create oral texts who is ‘reading’ the Bible – i.e. illiterate people group or section of society aided by the wider church type scenario. But I am not convinced that we could establish a church in an area, hand the church over to self-government and leave the word of God in oral forms other than the Bible itself (accessed by reading or listening). Here I am assuming that our goal of church planting is something like the ‘three-self model’ of creating churches that are self-governing, self-funding and self-propagating.
John Wilson was a resident missionary in Papua (Irian Jaya) from 1972 to 1991 and has had ongoing contact with the ministry there. He contacted me regarding a Papua-based second-wave cargo movement that had similarities to the ‘Unity’ movement here. Talking about the southern Yali people with whom he worked, he said, ‘we were the first tribe in Papua to have the Bible in the language plus we have an exceptionally high level of literacy, so (so far) we have a very Christ-centred and Bible reading church.’ That fascinated me because in the context of what he went on to say, he was suggesting that those people were less affected by this new and false teaching because they were able to access the Bible and understand it as a Christ-centred text. He has since clarified his comments on literacy saying, ‘I don’t think the high literacy alone was a key issue; but access to the entire Scriptures in their language, for which high literacy was important,’ and ‘…I don’t think literacy itself is the key; but the narrative of Scripture (not doctrine or systematic theology) is what touches people in an oral culture.’ So he is saying that two things were important: both access to the whole of Scripture and understanding the whole Bible as God’s plan of redemption through Christ.
The situation that we face on Tanna is that the church, which was planted over 150 years ago is established and is for the most part indigenous, however the church is continually challenged by local and imported cults, movements, false Christianity and unbiblical theologies. That doesn’t make Tanna an exceptional place; it makes it normal. The Bible predicts this as the future of the church. It does this implicitly in passages such as Ephesians 4, as already mentioned, and explicitly in places such as Matthew 24:24. It seems to me that in this situation, ministering the ‘Christian message’ will require the church to go back to the scriptures to find answers to each new challenge – challenges impossible to predict before handing over to a self-governing church. Someone, somehow will need access to the Bible and be able to interpret it. People also need to love the Bible and its teaching enough to shun things that contradict it.
- What is an adequate communication system?
The first problem I had with definition in this chapter was with clarifying what we are passing on, the second is with how we determine whether a system is ‘adequate’ to do that. In this chapter, Box shows us that there are many forms of oral communication that can transfer large amounts of information, although this is not ‘word-for-word’ information. He also shows that there is, amongst some people, a resistance to literacy, and so we are encouraged to make use of the existing indigenous communication methods.
Another way that Box could have constructed his case would have been to describe a non-Christian belief system that is taught and reinforced orally. By comparing the non-Christian belief to the ‘Christian message’ we could determine whether that oral communication system was ‘adequate’ or, at least, what exactly it is capable or transferring. I suggest that not all oral communication systems are alike and that we need to assess each culture that we work within.
Here on Tanna people hold to an animistic worldview referred to as ‘kastom.’ Kastom is pervasive on Tanna in both the sense that it effects every aspect of life and that this belief is held by people of all religious persuasions. Kastom is transferred 100% orally through stories, song, dance and ritual as well as through life, as children observe how their parents react and interact with the world around them.
Kastom provides a complex system of morality as well as a complete way of interacting with both the natural/spiritual environment and with people (both living and dead). In this sense, we could conclude, because of the complexity of kastom, that the same oral system that transfers kastom would be ‘adequate’ to transfer the ‘Christian message.’ However I have two major concerns.
Firstly, although kastom is complex it is not clear. I am yet to meet a Tanna person who can explain kastom in simple terms in the way that we might hope that people will be able to explain the gospel to another person. Even people who are able to explain aspects of kastom contradict each other as to the meaning and significance of things and in fact contradict themselves. I do not say this to belittle kastom. Clarity and consistency simply aren’t values held by kastom. One of the things that some people have appreciated about Christianity is how clear it is, even to the point of liking propositional information because it is clear.
The second challenge is that kastom does not hold purity within its stories as a high value, in fact I would say that it is rather the case that reinterpretation is valued. I started by saying that Tanna is the land of stories, but really it is the land of interpretations. Old stories are frequently given new twists and meanings. Stories are hybridised when they come into contact with others. The stories or Noah and the ark, David and Goliath and John the Baptist are now imbedded in Tanna oral culture, however rather than purveying the Biblical worldview they have been reoriented to take on the kastom worldview and support cargo movements and new theologies. These are supported visually by the physical environment (like kastom stories are) so that Jesus’ tomb and the Ten Commandments can be found on Tanna, meaning that both Moses and Jesus lived on Tanna.
Going back to the first point about clarity, it means that kastom isn’t unclear simply because it isn’t a consistent system, but because it is so open to continual reinterpretation. A kastom story is not a text which has a set meaning that is to be read out of it, but rather a platform upon which someone can construct a meaning (not to deny that a kastom story teaches and reinforces the kastom worldview). Bible stories can likewise be used (abused) in the same way. This is not a simple misunderstanding that can be easily corrected. This is a deeply held belief that could, I think, be described as a ‘right’ that is held to.
I would like to do a lot more research in this area, but for the moment I would simply suggest that if we take on a particular oral communication system we also take on the basic assumptions of that system. That is, if we were for example to use the form of kastom stories to convey the Christian message, it is quite unlikely that we would be conveying a clear and consistent message. It might be the case that instead of confronting and transforming the animistic worldview that the meaning of the story would become ‘fuzzy’ and in fact be transformed to hybridise with the animistic worldview. Note here that I am not just saying that the meaning will change over time because I don’t think that oral systems are incapable of preserving knowledge. Not at all. I do believe they are capable. What I am saying is that not all systems are alike and that this particular system does not value consistent interpretation, in fact the assumption is that the interpreter rather than the text fundamentally controls the meaning (although both are important).
My feeling is that in this situation, what we need to do is become very good at teaching the Bible as distinctly different to kastom not only in its content but in its form (this is my approach at college – we start by understanding kastom and noting how it is transferred before coming to how we can know God through the Bible). This does not mean that I think that all church members need to be able to read a written Bible, but I do think that we need to present the message in a way that gives all the signals that this is a unique and special form of revelation. Again I would like to quote John Wilson:
“…having the Bible as Scripture does make a statement. It was Yali people themselves who claimed this significance. They told me they were fully aware that traditions and rites and incantations passed down to them had become so corrupted over time, that often they did not know what was symbolized, and some of the words made no sense anymore. They did not want that to happen with the Biblical narrative; they wanted it in writing/print.”
This is a great chapter in that it makes us aware of the different forms of oral communication in the world today and helps us to value them. Clearly, it would be both arrogant and foolish to ignore these forms and the skills that those who use them have. However in the case of the oral communication system here on Tanna, I have not been convinced that it alone would be an adequate means of conveying the Christian message in a way that could sustain an independent church. Therefore, at this stage of my thinking, I am not advocating a wholly oral methodology, nor am I in favour of out-and-out book throwing, rather I think there might be a better third way. I also think that we can find this ‘third way’ in our history going back to the early church and to Israel.
- We should support oral teaching through the use of the various techniques mentioned to aid memorisation (pictures, poetic structures etc.). These might be found within the culture that we work within; i.e. we need to ask, ‘how do these people remember?’
- When we use oral communication we are limited in what we are able to convey. I suggest this will roughly correspond to the amount of information held by oral tradition in the culture we are working in.
- I have suggested that when it comes to the accuracy of the transmission of this information, that will depend on the assumptions and conventions of the particular culture that we are working within.
- I have further suggested that the world’s oral systems are not alike and that we need to study our individual cultures to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of those systems. When we do that we need to be attentive not just to how meaning is transferred, but the underlying assumptions of that system that dictate how it is understood.
Thanks so much for this insightful post Tom. Your words express my own sentiments—without the hard work of writing! I whole-heartedly concur with your observation that Tanna is really the ‘land of interpretations’, (even more than being the land of stories), and that re-interpretation of them is considered a ‘right’. I also agree that not all church members need to be literate, and look forward to hearing your proposition about a ‘third way’.
Thanks, Bethann. I’m glad you commented because I think I started thinking about reinterpretation as a ‘right’ because of a conversation with you in January. I can’t remember how you worded it at the time, but I suspect it was better than how I put it.
I agree with you Tom. God intends for his people to have access to his whole word, not just parts of it- and there are sections of the Bible which absolutely require high literacy skills (and a culture of literacy, with its emphasis on study, looking for the author’s intent, verifying comprehension) to understand those passages.
I appreciate that Box admitted that being in an oral culture does not make one better at memorizing- somehow people in literate cultures naively attribute this to pre-literate people. But it is the very fact that we live in a literate culture that makes us value “word-for-word” memorization. As Box said- before literacy, cultures value the transmission of certain themes or ideas, which Levi-Strauss called “mythemes”. But the actual “text” is not as important. It works for stories- doesn’t work for complex arguments like those found in the book of Romans.
Thanks for your comment. I really value your contribution.
Do ‘mythemes’ work at all like metanarratives in the sense that they govern or contribute to interpretation? Where can I do more reading on mythemes?