By Marcus Choo
It is believed that two-thirds of our world’s population are oral learners. Oral learners are not necessarily illiterate but are people who prefer to learn through oral form. This means that the majority of the people in our world today learn and communicate best through means that do not involve printed texts. Studies and research tell us that people learn better through songs, proverbs, stories, and visual arts. This is where Orality and Bible Storytelling come into the picture. Orality simply means a reliance upon the spoken, rather than the written word, for communication. Bible Storytelling is simply the vehicle and media by which we communicate God’s Word to oral people groups; so that instead of reading God’s Word via the printed Bible, people hear God’s Word in the form of Bible stories.
Can God’s Word be communicated through Bible stories? Of course! It is not a coincidence that the majority of the Bible is made up of genres that appeal very much to the learning styles of oral peoples. Consider this: approximately 60% of the Bible consists of stories, 20% is prophecy, 10% is wisdom, songs and poetry, while the remaining 10% are epistles.
It should not be surprising that most of what God wants us to know is meant to be communicated through the presentation of stories, songs and poetry.
Hearing and telling oral Bible Stories breathe life into Scriptures. We are drawn into the narrative of God’s Word and details become meaningful. Characters and events from history become real and relevant to our lives. Words in Scripture are now full of life in the manner they demand us to either laugh or cry with the story, to be angry, or compassionate, bewildered, or disgusted.
Oral stories demand attention and invite a reaction. It’s relatively easy to put a book down and continue reading later. It’s harder to pause in the middle of an oral story being told and it’s difficult to remain neutral to a well told story.
A look at two different Storytelling and Story-crafting methods
We are part of a team that works to craft oral Bible Stories into local languages. In our years of working together, we have the privilege of learning different ways to apply Bible Storytelling to people’s lives; each with their individual strengths and usefulness depending on different contexts.
Simply-the-Story (STS) presents an oral approach to studying the Bible. Participants are taught how to tell oral Bible Stories from a print Bible and to use questions to guide a participatory discussion to study the narrative. Participatory discussion means that everybody is invited to engage in the Bible study by sharing views and thoughts on the story and learning together. This is a characteristic in most – if not all – oral people groups. Learning is done in the context of a group and knowledge is kept and shared collectively as a whole.
Story-crafting may not be the emphasis in STS; but it has a fantastic method in conducting oral-based Bible studies. One of the principles guiding STS can be summed up as “slowly and steadily”. Participants are encouraged to discuss the Bible story section by section asking questions such as, “what can we learn from what was said/done?”, “what were the choices made – what can we learn from them?”, and “what were the results and consequences from each choice that was made?”. The key here is to go slow and to dig deep. STS believes that there’s a lesson to be learned from every Bible story if we would just spend a little longer time in the story.
OneStory projects usually have a goal to craft a set of Bible stories that introduce the Christian God beginning from Creation and ending with Christ. This initial storyset may be a language group’s first ever encounter with the Good News. So the team takes special care in selecting Bible stories that listeners will be able to relate closely to with minimum resistance or misunderstanding. In Story-crafting parlance we call these “bridges and barriers”. A “bridge” story might be a story of “Jesus calming the storm” crafted for a group of sea-faring people or islanders. An example of a “barrier” story that happened in real life is the story of Jesus calling Peter to follow him. During that encounter, Peter falls at the feet of Jesus declaring himself to be a sinful man following the miraculous haul of fish. After hearing the story a Buddhist monk remarked that of course Peter was sinful. Why? Because he had killed all those fish!
A OneStory crafting team typically consists of a facilitator role and a crafter role. The crafter needs to be a mother-tongue speaker of the language that the Bible stories are being crafted into. The facilitator prepares the source material from which the crafter will “receive” the story – either by listening to audio from Scripture, or by viewing pictures or video about the story. From these, the crafter then tells the story. It may take multiple tellings, but eventually an oral Bible story is crafted. The facilitator also has access to Scripture aids such as dictionaries and commentaries; and ensures that the crafter understands the meaning of the story correctly before crafting the story. Oral Bible stories are then tested, revised if necessary and consultant-checked to ensure the basic principles of good translation still hold: accuracy, clarity, and naturalness.
A strength in OneStory is its documentation process which allows for a project’s knowledge base to be recorded and maintained for posterity. This is helpful where a project might want to move on from crafting oral Bible stories to a traditional Bible translation project. Any documentation done during the OneStory project could then be utilised by the Bible translation team. These would include background research on “bridges and barriers”, decisions on key-terms, word choices, recorded audio of crafted stories, and other useful material.
For the past two and a half years, our Story-crafting group has met weekly to craft and tell oral Bible stories. Throughout our time together, we’ve seen remarkable changes and heard some incredible testimonies coming out of our Storytelling experiences. Here are some:
Y is an evanglist. He joined our group for a few months learning to tell Bible stories. During one of his regular ministry visits to a bedridden old lady, he decided to tell the story of Jesus healing the bleeding woman while praying for her. The old lady miraculously began to walk because of her faith after hearing that story.
NT works as an accountant. She’s never been to bible school or received any formal theological training. She would never be one to share the Good News out of her own initiative. Learning to tell Bible stories has empowered her to share the Good News. Now she goes on hospital visits telling Bible stories about Jesus to patients. When people ask about her faith, she tells them Bible stories in response.
Finally there is AJ. Two and a half years ago, he had never even heard about Bible Storytelling. Today he says that he can’t think of a more effective tool to minister with. He tells Bible stories almost exclusively when he preaches or leads bible study groups. He says that people pay more attention whenever he tells Bible stories. He’s gotten so good at telling Bible stories that he now goes around training others and raising awareness about Orality and Bible Storytelling.
Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. Ever since God spoke creation into being, our entire history has been one big story that’s been told and retold through the generations. In fact telling stories is almost a primal characteristic of being a person. We all have stories to tell and we all long to tell them. Exchanging and telling stories is a basis from which we build relationships. When we invite others to follow Jesus, we’re inviting them into a relationship with Him. What better way is there for people to relate to Jesus than by hearing His stories.
Footnote:  Lausanne Occasional Paper (LOP) No.54 “Making Disciples of Oral Learners”. Issues Group No.25, 2004 Pg.6