The Literacy Conversation – Part 2

In last week’s post we were talking about what I have been perceiving all these years about two camps of people – literate and nonliterate – when the discussion of orality is had. I thought that mission groups were saying that orality works for the nonliterate and not necessarily for literate “book cultures.” I asked if that was really what the orality movement was saying. Because if that is really what people in the movement were saying then I had two choices: I could a) go with something else or b) reclaim the word “orality” in a way that honors all people, both literate and nonliterate.

But, over the years, a new question formed in my mind…

“Could it be that orality is not about literacy at all?”

Six years later, this is what I have learned from experiencing it as a practitioner:

“No, orality is not about literacy. It’s not about literacy at all. Orality is about STORY.”

In fact, we at Freedom to Lead believe in this so strongly that we use the word “storycentric” to describe the cultures we work with. We recognize that “orality” has connotations- real or perceived – that can cause confusion. But it is story that captures the heart of both the nonliterate and the literate. It is both biblical stories and current, personal life stories that inspire all people to embrace the God of the Bible.

If we start with the notion that orality is about story, there are a few clarifying areas of conviction that I’ve needed to address.

Points of Conviction

First of all, the purpose of orality and storycentric communication should not be about keeping nonliterate people nonliterate. It goes without saying that we aren’t about denying people the value of literacy that improves quality of life, economic opportunity, political voice, social security, legal rights, and education for the welfare of individuals and communities. We can champion the oral traditions and champion literacy at the same time. If done well, story can actually enhance literacy.

Secondly, orality is also not there to accommodate “complicated” theology for “simple” people. I would even go far as to say that theology can be framed in the context of a story. But, futher, in order to preserve the dignity and value of people, we need to operate under two assumptions: 1) the context these storycentric people live and work is complex and hardly simple and 2) people from storycentric cultures have something incredibly valuable to add to the conversation about leadership and the global church.

Mercy has had 27 years of leadership experience in her community in East Africa. Mercy comes from a culture that values community. Stories and songs and art are what have brought her community together time after time, generation after generation. Mercy hasn’t been to bible college and she doesn’t hold a degree in theology. She probably can read, but reading doesn’t interest her much. But Mercy has had a personal encounter with Christ and has hidden God’s word in her heart. She is no stranger to pain and hardship, and she has led a faithful remnant of believers for almost three decades. Do you think maybe she has something to add to the conversation about Christian leadership? Or will she be overlooked like our friend Antoine in West Africa and our brother Sanjay in South Asia who possess the intelligence, capacity, and trust of their communities to serve as recognized Christ-centered leaders but aren’t literate and formally educated? I should hope not. The global church needs voices like Mercy, Antoine, and Sanjay.

Thirdly, storycentric communication is not just for those who don’t read.The most literate culture on the planet is able to embrace story. At its core, orality is about story. Even literate peoples are moved and challenged and awakened by story. Story doesn’t just touch the nonliterate; it touches everybody.

A Look at South Asia

Let’s look back at South Asia as an example. As with many places in the world, people in this region are moving in droves to the cities to look for better opportunities and develop businesses. Urban centers are sprawling all around and many who are moving to the cities are millennials. To survive in the business world – particularly in South Asia – one has to be highly literate in words and numbers and in software and technology. Yet, at their core, these people are a storycentric people. At their core they are a people of Story. So, while they may read, write, and speak in more than one language and have high influence in the literate world of business, they still prefer to communicate through story.

These 150 million urban millennials in South Asia need Jesus, too, but you’re not going to find them in traditional churches. And admittedly, the church has not done a very good job of engaging urban millennials, whether in South Asia or elsewhere. Yet, there remains a remnant of the faithful. Even during the worst parts of human history, God always seems to leave a remnant. These Christians are young men and women in the business world. They want to know not just how to be Christians in the business world. These leaders also want to know how they can build redemptive kingdom-oriented businesses. They want to know how to impact a culture.

I believe the same can be said for people in the United States, too.

Freedom to Lead believes that the use of story in our leadership development program can reach even urban millennials in one of the most literate societies on the planet. We believe that this program is appealing in part because it offers value added even to non-Christian business leaders. In other words, this has the potential to change a culture. And if the church is not impacting the culture, what are we even doing here?

Closing Thoughts

As a global church from every culture, tribe, and tongue, we are brought together by a Story. We believe God’s story of Redemption and Fulfillment is the greatest Story ever told and we are participating in this Story even now.

In the beginning I confess that my understanding of orality and storycentric peoples was limited. But maybe with a new understanding the church can start reframing the conversation altogether.

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