Biblical Interpretation for Vanuatu: Contextualizing COMA

COMA for Vanuatu, Talking About Tanna

A puzzle for Bislama speakers

I’m wrestling with how to teach Biblical Interpretation at certificate level and have been trialing teaching students the COMA method with some (but limited) success. I think the method is really good and sound and I’m going to persevere with it, but try to further contextualize it in order to better support Ni-Vanuatu students and ministers. I’ll do this in Bislama. Want to help? I’d love your input.

I’m also working through this with colleagues here who are offline and will be trialing things with my class this term, so I will try to combine any insight that comes out of that as I go along.

COMA stands for Context, Observation, Meaning and Application, and is really just showing us how we normally read any text, and getting us to be intentional and thorough about doing that when we come to the Bible. You can get a good feel for it by having a look online at David Helm’s One to One Bible Reading and checking out the free pdf sample. It can also be found in Six Steps to Reading the Bible, The Bible Overview and numerous other places that google could reveal.

I think the bulk of the work in enabling this to work better in this context, is to further breakdown the four steps to make it more concrete, and to consider how to teach it to oral people. But the first step would be to re-name and re-conceptualize the four points. It’s this that could make it appealing, catchy and memorable and so this stage is vital to transferring the information.

COMA is:

  • Context
  • Observation
  • Meaning
  • Application

This is all very well for English speakers but in Bislama there’s no one word I know of for ‘context’ and ‘meaning’ can tend to imply a hidden or allegorical meaning. The other problem is that if we did a ‘straight’ (one-to-one) translation it would have no zing as a whole (let’s face it, it’s a bit dry in English, and besides, who wants people to go into a coma while reading the Bible?)

So, what to do?

I’ve started thinking about how context and observation are really looking for clues inside and outside the specific passage. So…

  • Afsaed
  • Insaed

But I can’t think of anything relating to inside and outside for meaning and application. Maybe you can, so I’ll leave it blank…

The obvious thing for meaning would be ‘stamba’ or ‘stamba tingting’ as that is what is often used in preaching and other contexts. Application can be simply ‘aplikesen,’ which, it seems in the church context, can mean roughly the same thing as in the English COMA, but strictly speaking means a form to apply with (according to Crowley, 2003). Otherwise application can be hao hem i ‘kam long laef blong ol man tede,’ or various other phrases like it. So…

  • Afsaed
  • Insaed
  • Stamba
  • Aplikesen

But that doesn’t flow too well, so maybe

  • Luk afsaed
  • Luk insaed
  • Luk long stamba
  • Luk long laef (tede)

That might be getting somewhere. What do you think?

Another way to go might be to take the whole ‘stamba’ thing and run with it and try to do something with a tree. As in…

  • Luk long rus
  • Luk long ol han
  • Luk long stamba
  • Luk long kakae

The good things there are that:

  • Roots are a pretty powerful way to think about how it matters where in the Bible the passage is located (planted).
  • The analogy of the branches implies that all the parts of the passage relate to the stamba tingting (which is often but not always the case).
  • Kakae or frut might at a stretch be a ‘pija tok’ (metaphor) for application (that’s the bit we get to eat).

But I’m not really convinced by this because it doesn’t handle ‘observe’ too well, since there’s no tangible way that looking at branches leads to the stamba or fruit, or encourages you to look deeply into the passage. Plus, it’s also open to all kinds of misunderstandings and interpretations.

Ok, so you can see I’m struggling away. But maybe you have an idea.

6 thoughts on “Biblical Interpretation for Vanuatu: Contextualizing COMA

  1. Hey Tom. I love this sort of stuff and, though I’ve tried to come with something that could help, am so frustrated that I don’t have much to suggest.

    One thing I’ve used for context and observation is big pija mo smol pija. For instance, hang a large calico with a single design (a map of Vanuatu works well), cover up all but a small piece of it, and show how difficult it is to know what you are looking at. But remove the cover (i.e. look at the big pija or context) and it becomes clear. With the context in view, you can then benefit from observing the intricacies (smol pija) of the design.

    Of course, that still leaves meaning and application, and I just can’t think of a way to incorporate them cleverly. I do like your tree motif as well.

    All the best my friend. We are no longer in SIL housing, but perhaps next time you’re in Vila you all could come out to our new place at Teouma Bay. The kids would love it, and I have a particular cultural issue I’d love to talk about with you. Peace…

    • Hi Eric,
      Glad to hear that you’re playing around with this type of thing as well. I like your way of teaching ‘big pija mo smol pija’ – that’s really helpful. I have taught the same idea in the past by using a jigsaw puzzle – starting with one small piece and then giving the whole picture. It’s a good way to teach because it makes the point well and the students really got into it when I let them finish the puzzle (so it’s memorable), but it’s not transferable because few people would have access to a jigsaw puzzle. Your idea is transferable so much better. Thanks so much for sharing.
      Yep, keen to catch up in Vila.

  2. Hi Tom,
    Great to see your thinking in this area. It has been 20 years since I tried to teach biblical interpretation to certificate students in Vanuatu. I had to do it in English – easier for me, harder for the students.
    Here are a few thoughts to throw into the mix:

    I like the idea of using the COMA approach as a simple yet effective guide to good bible interpretation. It strikes me that being a verbal culture they are used to making interpretations of stories and other messages that are presented, say by the chief or elders. Without thinking about it they are using skills that need to be used when approaching the biblical text. So it may be helpful to get them thinking about how they do it already when they hear a story and then how they can use those skills when approaching a piece of text.
    Here are some thoughts on Bislama equivalents:
    Context: Ples blong tok ya
    Observation: Fasin blong tok ya
    Meaning: Stampa tingting blong tok ya
    Application: Tok ya i stikim laef olsem wanem


    • Hi Robert,
      Thanks so much for commenting and for your continued interest in the work in Vanuatu. Great to see you back in the saddle!
      I agree with what you say about starting with oral culture and how ‘texts’ (speech/stories) are interpreted. In fact I’m getting more and more interested in doing some study in this area to try to identify exactly what is going on. What interests me is that people do not interpret what is said as such, but what they think the person should have meant. In other words, truth and interpretation aren’t static but dynamic. The way I see it, we need to start with the way that people interpret things and then draw a distinction between that and the way that we need to interpret the Bible, and thus try to reduce the tendency for metaphorical interpretations.
      I like your spin on COMA. I’m not sure that ‘fasin’ really captures the full scope of ‘observe’ but it’s still very helpful. No matter which contextualization of COMA I go with, each contribution provides options on how to teach or better explain what is meant. I a week or two I can start playing around with my class to see what ‘clicks.’

  3. Pingback: COMA and the Small Issue of Order | Talking About Tanna

  4. Pingback: Spaeglas: Luk Insaed | Talking About Tanna

We would love to hear your thoughts...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s