Orality and Storytelling

Orality and Storytelling

November 2, 2007

At the seminary this week we hosted our annual Missions Fest.  The focus has been on the fact that a majority of the world's peoples connect with oral telling rather than print medium.  Of course, it would be wrong to refer this trait to only non-literate peoples because many in our North American culture, though not illiterate, also respond to visual and oral media better than to print.Our third son, Aaron, struggled in school through high school.  In college he was on the honor roll.  He told me once that if his education could have come through the "Simpsons" he would have done a lot better.  Indeed, he has memorized every line of dialogue of every episode without trying to do so.  He is probably correct.  His vehicle to learning requires two components: an oral/visual component and an experiential component.  Aaron responds to story and oral telling.

One of our speakers, John Walsh, shared that some oral cultures will memorize up to 175 stories from the Bible.  They will be able to tell the stories and provide appropriate applications and implications that match any Biblicist or theologian.  They do not read at all.

When I was in grad school at UCLA I shared the classroom with colleagues from rabbinical backgrounds.  Many had learned the whole Hebrew Bible by memory.  They could quote from almost any passage we referred to (and in Hebrew).  Some could do so on many passages from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) or from the targums (and more than one tradition of targum, too).  Telling and re-telling the stories as a central part of their upbringing led to such prodigious feats.

We also had a presentation from a drama team from Northwestern College (

Iowa) under the direction of Dr. Jeff Barker.  Jeff believes that many of the Old Testament stories were used in ancient times as drama.  It would be impossible to defend this thesis without more exact evidence.  However, telling the stories through creative methods in today's world makes a lot of sense in all kinds of cultures.  He offered several ways to bring the presentation to life for a congregation.  We could do so much more to make God's word come alive for people.

Two of the biblical stories presented by the drama team came from the Elisha cycle in 2 Kings.  Since I wrote my dissertation on these stories, I resonated with the presentations.  Sometimes the biblical stories are viewed as simple and short.  I found that in fact they are quite complex in their brevity.  Scenes shift from one verse to another.  Time speeds up and slows down at key moments of the telling.  Characters may not dwell on interior thought to a huge extant, but they do display complex traits fitting to full characters.

Even literate people forget that writing is simply a mnemonic device, a means to help you remember.  What looks brief in biblical telling is so because the original peoples knew the stories and filled in the details in their telling or in their remembrance.

A whole world awaits the telling of the greatest stories so that they may come to a saving knowledge of our God.