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Bible Engagement and Orality

According to the International Orality Network, 80% of people in the world don’t understand God’s Word when it’s delivered to them by literate means because they’re oral preference learners. Even in literate cultures, many people won’t read God’s Word, or prefer oral ways of connecting with God’s Word.

Strangely, even though most local churches are comprised of people who favour listening to the Word, the chosen approach is to ask people to read the Word. In a world that depends largely on verbal communications, shouldn’t the primary approach to Bible engagement be oral?

Before people connected with the Bible as a book that was read, the Bible was shared from mouth to ear (2 Peter 1:21). For centuries most people heard it. Maybe that’s why 80% of the Bible is narrative. God gave us a Story composed of many stories because stories are well suited for people who favour speaking and listening.

Interestingly, on the occasions when the Bible mentions the Scriptures being read, the greater context is usually about people listening attentively (e.g. Nehemiah 8:3, 2 Kings 23:2). In fact, when reading and listening are compared, there are far more texts that speak about listening than about reading (e.g. Psalm 85:8, Matthew 7:24, Luke 11:28, John 8:47, Romans 10:17, Hebrews 2:1).

I’m a prolific reader and love writing. That makes me different from most people. When it comes to Bible engagement, I don’t assume that others will enjoy reading the Bible as I do. Unfortunately, the readers and writers of the world, in large part, haven’t seen it this way. Since Gutenberg’s Press started printing Bibles, reading has been the go-to means for Bible engagement.

To see literacy as somehow superior to orality is problematic. Speaking and listening are ingrained in us. Even in the most literate cultures, orality is an enormous and inescapable part of human life. We should, therefore, see orality for what it is, and make the best use of it for Jesus and His kingdom.

In both pre-literate and post-literate cultures, rather than placing an emphasis on empowering people to read God’s Word, we should be placing the emphasis on empowering people to listen to God’s Word. There are many ways to do this. Consider the following:

  • Bible videos or movies
  • Podcasts
  • Social networks
  • Songs
  • Audio Bibles
  • Drama
  • Storying Scripture

Promoting an emphasis on listening to the Word is not suggesting that reading the Word should be dismissed. But it is an acknowledgment that reading, in and of itself, isn’t the holy grail of Bible engagement.

The reality is there are many people who have difficulty with reading or dislike reading. Equipping them to listen to the Word is an expression of love and common sense. We should meet people where they are, not expect them to meet us where we are. So if you tend to equate Bible engagement with Bible reading, it’s time to change your outlook. Bible engagement is multi-faceted. In a world where most people are oral preference learners, we should focus on helping people effectively listen to the Word in ways that edify, inform and inspire them to live for Jesus.

Your thoughts …

Recommended Resource:

Bible Audio App – https://www.biblegateway.com/bible-audio-app/

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5

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Receive the Word of God

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. James 1:19-21 .

The Word of God can’t work in our lives unless we take delivery of it in the right way. According to James 1:19-21 here’s how we should receive the Word:

Be swift to hear (v.19a)

God gave us two ears and one mouth – probably because He wants us to spend twice as much time listening over talking! Basic to receiving the Word is paying attention to what God says. “He who has ears, let him hear” Matthew 13:9. “Consider carefully how you listen” Luke 8:18. Listening is vital because “faith comes from hearing the message . . .” Romans 10:17.

Be slow to speak (v.19b)

We should know when it’s appropriate to speak or not to speak. “He who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19) and “a man of knowledge uses words with restraint” Proverbs 17:27. For the Word of God to work in our lives we must be careful to say only those things that both edify those who hear, and honours the Lord on whose behalf we speak.

Be slow to anger (v.19c-20)

Anger impedes the righteous life God wants us to pursue. “Whoever is patient has great understanding, but one who is quick-tempered displays folly” Proverbs 14:29 . If we have a hostile outlook to the Word or resent it when it exposes an ungodly lifestyle, reveals sin, upsets comfort zones, or challenges opinions and false ideas, we will not be able to grow in spiritual maturity.

Be submissive in spirit (v.21)

A selfless, willing, humble and teachable disposition is the final requirement for receiving the Word as God intended. “We might wonder why the ever-practical James does not proceed to outline schemes of daily Bible reading or the like, for surely these are the ways in which we offer a willing ear to the voice of God. But he does not help us in this way. Rather, he goes deeper, for there is little point in schemes and times if we have not got an attentive spirit. It is possible to be unfailingly regular in Bible reading, but to achieve no more than to have moved the bookmark forward: this is reading unrelated to an attentive spirit. The word is read but not heard. On the other hand, if we can develop an attentive spirit, this will spur us to create those conditions – a proper method in Bible reading, a discipline of time, and so on – by which the spirit will find itself satisfied in hearing the Word of God” J. A. Motyer.

© Scripture Union Canada 2014

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Hearing the Word

Since becoming a Christian 35 years ago I’ve lost count of the number of preachers who emphasized the importance of reading the Word (I’m one of those preachers). It’s good counsel. I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover many times and as a result, I have come to love the Lord more deeply, know Him more fully, and obey Him more gladly.

Surprisingly, the Bible emphasizes hearing, not reading the Scriptures. From the biblical perspective, it’s not the eye-gate; it’s the ear-gate through which we’re primarily invited to engage with the Word. The emphasis in both the Old and New Testaments is that God has spoken at many times and in many ways (cf. Hebrews 1:1) and that we should “listen” and “hear” God’s Word (cf. Proverbs 4:20-22; Luke 11:28; Romans 10:17).

An underlying reason why we may be more inclined to read the Bible could be individualism. Reading can be done privately, exclusively, and independently. It can be done in bed or on the bus, in the garden or in the gazebo. All we need is the text (printed or online), reading glasses (75% of adults), and we’re good to go.

Listening to the Bible isn’t as easy as reading the Bible because it requires two or more people. To hear God’s Word we need to be connected relationally – it can never be a solo affair. Someone has to read aloud in order for someone to hear. And the moment this occurs the process becomes more complex. For unlike reading; listening requires dependence, patience and humility.

Christian faith occurs in the context of community. Because we’re in a relationship with God, and others, we should make a concerted effort to create opportunities for public reading and listening to Scripture. Communal auditory engagement with the Bible shouldn’t play second fiddle to a private reading of the Bible. “Turn your ear to my words” says the Lord (cf. Proverbs 4:20).

Which begs a question: You may be reading the Word – but are you hearing it?

[Note: When the Scriptures mention the Bible being read it’s usually in the context of the community listening and hearing the Word, e.g. 2 Kings 22-23, Acts 15:21, 1 Thessalonians 5:27, 1 Timothy 4:13]

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Bible Engagement and Orality

© Scripture Union Canada 2013

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