Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Shhh! Listen Up!

When Paul first wrote his epistle to the Ephesians, he was not expecting that it would be printed and passed out to the audience to be read in their leisure before they went to bed. Nor was it meant to be fed piecemeal verse, by verse. He didn't even have verses. It was meant to be read aloud and in large quantities. When Moses first taught the Israelites, when young King Josiah read the Law to the people, when the prophets gave their admonitions, it was always done orally.

When I was in college, my friends and I continually puzzled over this concept—if the Word of God historically acted powerfully in the lives of people during oral presentations, then why not in our churches today? Of course the intrusion of literacy into our Western culture makes a difference, but still we wondered...what would happened if we tried an oral presentation of Scripture?

One of the Word of Witness teams presenting at a local church
Out of the curiosity of some college students,  a Scripture-use ministry was born. Striving to bring the Bible orally to local colleges and churches, we used a variety of methods, from a short weekly chapel of reading the Bible to the Tent of Meeting a week-long push of reading aloud that took a listener from Genesis to Revelation in 98 hours. But, our focus was on a presentation we called Word of Witness, where we created dramatized, memorized 30-minute Scripture presentations without any external commentary, involving up to twenty-five people. Topics spanned anywhere from the story of Hosea to that of David in the Psalms to the life of Paul to the birth of Christ. (you can learn more here about the ongoing ministry, now called Josiah‘s Gift, here and see videos of the presentations here)

After hearing us, one student exclaimed, absolutely incredulous, “Wow! Was all that actually Scripture?“ We started handing out the multitude of Scripture references to prove it. Many of these people had heard these stories since two-year-old nursery, but their responses were almost always the same. This Word—it is

Could Jeremiah be...sarcastic?

Could David be...crying?

Could Jesus actually...exaggerate?

Little did I know that my involvement in leading and orchestrating the various oral Scripture presentations in college would be an echo of my involvement in Bible translation here in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

While telling stories in our English-speaking world is often reserved for children‘s bedtime, in many other places around the globe (like here in PNG), stories and proverbs are the primary means of preserving history, teaching lessons, and communicating eloquently with the audience. These are no mere once upon a times that are discarded with a laugh, but are serious tools of communication within the culture.

When translators come in and begin communicating through the written word, the oral culture makes a leap into the literate world that is more akin to a headlong dive than a gentle wading pool. The transition Western culture made through nearly two-thousand years is done in decades and the reaction is rough. Why read?  they say. We haven‘t needed to yet.

For us English-speakers, those questions seem incomprehensible—it‘s hard to imagine life without the printed page, which has been a part of our lives long before Gutenberg first pulled that sheet off the printing press. But this is not the case for much of the world. Wycliffe and other organizations are working to utilize traditional oral methods and what is called Bible storying to teach people how to memorize and share Bible stories accurately, reaching people in a way that is often more meaningful in their culture. Rather than replace the written word, it‘s meant to complement it and provide context, as well as provide access to Scriptures for people who may never have a chance to read.

This month, I've been involved in doing just that in the Oral Bible Storytelling workshop here in Wewak, Papua New Guinea, where 30 participants from seven languages have been learning the stories of Moses (read more about it here). As the third module in a series of four, one of the aims of this course is to train these participants as future trainers such that this workshop will be able to multiply throughout the country and God‘s Word will continue to impact more people who have not yet heard the story of His love in their own languages.

This week, the workshop is wrapping up and the participants are heading back to their villages to share about God‘s faithfulness and redemption of the Israelites through the sacrifice of a lamb. Pray that through these stories, more people will hear of the sacrifice of another Lamb that reaches straight into their hearts.