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Orality and Media

Orality in Christian Mission
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

World developments since the 1980s have emphasized a new awareness of the special, sophisticated nature of oral cultures around the world.  This new awareness drew upon the extensive collection of oral traditions in the 1970s and early 1980s in many countries of Africa.  Academic trends since the 1970s have reflected this new interest and a seriousness about the characteristics of oral cultures and the related concrete-relational worldviews, in contrast to the linear, analytic western worldview.

The discipline of Orality as an academic focus derives primarily from Walter Ong.  Walter Jackson Ong, Jr, was a Linguist and Philosopher, who wrote his extensive dissertation on the French logician and educational reformer Peter Ramus (1515-1572).

Ong developed an analysis of orality and literacy that is used virtually universally now as the basis of understanding the roles of oral communication and literature in human cultures.  Almost every reference to the role of Orality or Literature in society references Ong's philosophical and linguistic work.  There is an extensive public and academic discussion of the interplay of orality and literacy in the modern movie industry.

A Growing Discipline
Orality is a growing field of enquiry and the growing insights into the characteristics of oral cultures have redirected many areas of modern academics.  A quick search on "Orality" on the Internet will produce links to literature and cultural research, cross-cultural training programs, and university programs in Orality.

The Greek Classics have been re-evaluated in light of the growing understanding of the role of oral literature and oral tradition in human culture.  Many universities offer emphases in Orality.  Oral literature and oral communication patterns in human cultures have received extensive attention in various disciplines in the last two or more decades.

Orality in Missions
The Christian Mission movement has given great attention to the topic of Orality, arising out of anthropological insights into oral culture, oral traditions and oral literature.  The current approaches and programs have been developed on the basis of the extensive cross-cultural expertise gained by the missionaries, many of whom are anthropologists, from the various cultures they live in, communicate with and relate to in the mother tongue of those peoples.

We find an extensive use of the technical term "Orality" in Christian missions in recent decades.  That complements the academic focus on the topic of Orality.  Orality in the Christian Missions movement is an academically sound, culturally sensitive, anthropologically based attempt to take seriously the cultural communication patterns and preferences of all ethnicities of the world.

Conceptually, the Orality movement in the Christian Mission Movement is based on the concepts of Walter Ong.  The foundations of Ong's concepts had been laid in the 1970s, though his landmark text Orality and Literacy was not published until 1982.  Ong made distinctions between Primary Orality and "Secondary Orality", providing a perspective from which to approach the societies which have orality but which operate as Oral Societies.

New Orality
This perspective fostered investigations and triggered insights that revealed that many societies where literacy has been introduced since the 1800s, and especially in conjunction with the Christian missions movement, in the 1900s, are really still oral societies.

The insights of Ong's perspective have led to a broad re-evaluation of the role and validity of literacy in the deep worldviews of most societies.  The growing body of knowledge about more societies and traditional cultures around the world indicates how unusual literacy is, as a way of approaching and managing life and knowledge.

Most societies of the world operate as oral, relational societies, not just the societies once considered "primitive."  Much attention has been given in the last two decades to the role of literacy in the growing visual-oral society of the modern technological West.  The West has now become a "New Oral" society.

The computing industry has developed icons and other visual cues, diminishing the need for primary textual literacy as the main focus of learning and interaction with information.  The whole internet, while information oriented, is highly oral in focus and format.

Primarily Oral World
The Internet is oriented toward multi-sensual, but primarily visual, description and delivery of information.  This fits the category of an oral-relational culture.  The relational character of the youth culture and the Internet further fit the characteristics of an Oral Culture.  The modern "X" and "Y" generations of the West (the latter now being termed the Millennium Generation) have also become very relationship-oriented and activity-oriented, characteristics of primarily oral traditional societies.

I am an anthropological linguist with about 40 years experience in studying, analyzing and teaching languages, and developing language learning programs for cross-cultural communicators, primarily in Africa.  Most cultures of the world are primarily oral.  Literacy is at best a support to the oral worldview and social patterns of most cultures of the world.

The Orality "Movement"
From about 1985, as a worldwide trend, Christian mission agencies have developed a strong emphasis on oral communication.  Systematic investigations have catalogued the unique characteristics of oral-culture worldviews.  Various agencies, school and field training programs have developed extensive training and orientation programs for literate westerners to overcome their literate limitations and learn the thought-forms and practical skills of oral cultures around the world.  This has included sophisticated investigation of worldviews and indigenous communication formats.

Missionary anthropologists study the worldviews of ethnic groups and assist missionaries to understand these and become competent in indigenous communication formats.  Linguists analyze unwritten languages and design in-community programs for missionary language learning and cultural orientation.  This includes oral literacy and story-telling skills.

Christian universities and seminaries, and mission training programs expend considerable resources to train their personnel in anthropology and cross-cultural communication.  This usually includes the requirement to learn at least one indigenous language in the field where they work.  Communication is conceived in the oral worldview context of the indigenous cultures.

The orality "movement" in Christian mission is an academically sound, culturally sensitive, anthropologically based attempt to take seriously the cultural communication patterns and preferences of all ethnicities of the world.

Also related:
[review] Capturing Hebrew Orality
[TXT] Different Literacy — Different World
     (Are Older Bible Manuscripts More Reliable?)
[TXT] Eye Learning or Ear Learning?
[TXT] God and Literacy
[TXT] Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
[TXT] Literacy — A Modern Phenomenon
[review] More Oral than We Knew:  The Oral Nature of the Gospels
[review] Oral Greek Styles in Paul's Writings
[TXT] Oral Foundations of the Gospels
[text] The Oral Kingdom
[TXT] Orality and the Post-Literate West
[TXT] Orality, Literacy and the Bible
Paul, the Gospels and the Ancient World of Orality: A Theology of Reading
[TXT] Stories and Storytelling: Reclaiming our Oral Heritage
[TXT] Storytelling for Learning and Teaching
[review] Worldview in the Disciplines

View [PPt] Orality and Post-Literate Culture, my Power Point Presentation on this topic
View [PPt] Oral and Literate — Contrast of Oral and Literate Perspectives

Related on the Internet:
Chronological Bible Storying — Wikipedia
Communicating God's Message in an Oral Culture, Dr Rick Brown
From Orality to Literacy
Orality: A Bibliography — Rice University
Orality: A Bibliography — Michigan State University
Electronic Secondary Orality & the Primary Orality of Antiquity
Secondary Orality — term developed by Dr. Walter J Ong
Medieval Orality and Literacy — Seminar resources and links
Orality and Literacy in Greek Iconography of the 5th, 4th and 3rd Centuries BCE
Orality, Colonialism and Postcolonialism
Orality, Literacy and the Net (Characteristics of Internet Orality)
Orality And Storytelling - Matters Of The Heart
Orality to Literacy in Plato
Secondary Orality — term developed by Dr. Walter J Ong
Traditional Storytelling Around the World
Walter Jackson Ong, Jr

Reviews:  Walter J. Ong: Orality and Literacy (1982, republished 2002)


First written 10-11 August 2007
Finalized and Posted on Thoughts and Resources 14 August 2007
Last edited 18 February 2015

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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