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Am I hearing the Word of God?

June 3, 2013

I’ve been supporting my wife this week as she gets ready to facilitate a meeting at the ministry where she works for a group called “One Story”, which is a coming together of several mission organizations who are focusing on getting the Bible in oral, story form to cultures where the primary method of learning is oral, cultures we might describe as illiterate or semi-literate.

We don’t use those latter two terms anymore because they are derogatory, implying that these cultures are in some way inferior to we literate folks.  This change is not because we have a burning desire to be politically correct.  The reality is that people within these cultures often show mental prowess far beyond that of we privileged literates.  We, after all, know we can always go look it up so we never develop the capacity to absorb and retransmit knowledge.  The result is that these “unfortunate” oral learners are, on average, better and more accurate communicators than we are.

Oddly enough, the One Story folks have their critics.  It is important, the critics say, to accurately transmit Biblical truth and this requires the written word.  If we use an oral, story format we somehow leave ourselves open to distorting these sacred truths.  They view orality as a form of communication to be akin to the old game of Post Office where we whisper something from ear to ear at a party and get a hilarious warping of the original phrase at the end of process.

I will leave it to the One Story folks to defend their goal in this ministry cooperation; saying only that the people involved are passionately committed to accurate transmission of the Bible to all people, including those who cannot read.  But the whole thing has me thinking about the Bible and, in particular two points about it.

I recall first that the Bible first came to us in a culture that was scarcely literate.  Sure, Paul and some other writers probably were literate.   Jesus too read a scroll so He was literate but the majority of those they talked to were not.

I add to this the fact that we universally accept that the Gospels were not written until many years after the life of Jesus.  This means that the Gospels, which we revere as the written Word of God and deem to be 100% accurate, are in our hands only because oral communication.   In the case of Luke, and probably Mark, the stories recounted in the Gospels are, at best, second hand.  Even Matthew and John are touched by oral learning and communication.  I doubt seriously that these two disciples were furiously writing down the words of Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount or in other places.  Instead, they took it into their minds and, at some later date (In John’s case a much later date.) wrote them down.

What are the implications of this?  One is that maybe the One Story folks are on to something.  Maybe this oral learning idea is pretty good and not just a second-best option for the unfortunate.

More importantly it raises a question about modern theological efforts.  We read the Gospels, and indeed the whole Bible, using a fine tooth comb to parse out exact meanings and subtle variations in word translations to get to the “plain truth” of Scripture.  Is it any wonder that this plain truth often seems so elusive?  That various understandings of the plain truth keep popping up?

It is an unsettling concept.  We need a way to get around it.  Perhaps the chain of orality in the Gospels was inspired.  Perhaps whoever told Luke the parables of Jesus, or maybe even the person who told the person who told Luke, was inspired by the Holy Spirit with inerrant communication, unlike the One Story folks who are not inspired and should stop immediately.

Or perhaps our understanding of inerrancy is flawed.  I’ve always thought that current method of systematic theology is like shopping in a supermarket.  We pick a topic, let’s say the end times, and walk down the aisles of the Bible, although we call them “books.”  In this aisle, er book, we find a verse that appeals to us, that we think fits the topic, and put it in the shopping cart; in the next aisle we get a few more.  We end up in The Revelation where we load up the cart.  We then confidently proceed to the checkout sure in the knowledge that we have everything we need to bake our theological cake.

At the very least, the oral transmission of the Gospels forces me to be humble about my assumption that my understanding of Scripture is, in fact, the plain truth and more gracious to those who have come up with an alternate plain truth.  Even more troubling is the possibility that I am not supposed to sift through the parables of Jesus looking for hints about theological topics that have nothing to do with what He was actually talking about.  It makes me shudder.


From → Christianity

One Comment
  1. Very in depth. I liked how you mentioned that the gospels were adapted off of oral communication, something I think a lot of people forget about. The stories are so well written, I think a lot of people think a scribe was behind them the whole time with a notepad or something.
    I’d appreciate it if you’d check out my blog, specifically the “Two Important WordsofWisTIM” post. I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

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