dr. stan wafler phd
Stan and his wife, Pam, lived in Arua, Uganda, from 2001-2015. They served in a variety disciple-making roles, including Bible translation consulting, orality training, pastor training, marriage encouragement ministry, expository preaching training, and student ministry.
As I share this final selection from the article, I want to point you to a host of resources found on the website of the International Orality Network https://orality.net/. You can find journals, training, conferences, and connect with others who are on the journey with you to engage with the oral cultures of the world.
Orality opens windows of understanding to deep cultural values. I never ceased to be amazed at the creativity and expression of a small group of people working together on a drama. The Ugandans we knew seemed to be set free to enter the story fully when they were developing a drama. After a drama the group would learn new truths because they had lived the story. We gained some wonderful insights about culture from seeing Ugandans act dramas of Bible stories and then debrief together. We saw the proper way to treat visitors displayed in the drama about Abraham entertaining three visitors. In that brief drama we saw honor and hospitality vividly displayed. This indirect kind of learning gave us rich cultural insight about many topics. The use of drama helped us understand how to interpret the ways we were treated as guests in the village and ways we could show honor to visitors in our home.
Orality helps highlight the uniqueness and beauty of the local language. The process of crafting oral Bible stories with a group of nationals enhanced my appreciation of the beauty and uniqueness of the Lugbara language. During this process I learned about the tonal richness of the language and the uniqueness of the vocabulary within the eight dialects. These were treasured experiences which would not have been part of my journey into Lugbara culture apart my involvement with nationals in the oral story crafting process. For example, I learned that in Genesis 4:7 the written text of the Lugbara Bible said that “sin is crouching at your door” but this is a meaningless metaphor in the Lugbara language. After unpacking this metaphor, story crafters re-expressed this metaphor as “sin is near you and about to catch you.” This is a very serious warning that you might use if someone is about to step on a snake. When hearing the vocabulary about God’s covenant with Abraham I gained a new insight into relational terminology. In Genesis 15:18, God made a covenant with Abraham which is translated in Lugbara as “God joined mouth with Abraham.” This beautiful picture of face to face communication lays the foundation for the new covenant relationship provided through Jesus. I never would have known the words kici kici even by reading 1 Kings 18:38 in Lugbara which describes the fire that fell on the altar built by Elijah. When I heard the oral story in Lugbara and observed silence of the listeners, I knew the expression kici kici brought a unique expression of the dramatic and complete destruction of the stone altar, the wood, the bull and the water in the trench. The dramatic pause of the storyteller and the sound of kici kici captured the wonder of what God had done very differently than the words that were written on the page of the Bible. These examples illustrate that the oral expression is dynamic and colorful and will often be missed in a process that seeks to use only a literate process or read words on a printed page.
Orality encourages clarification. Another benefit of using oral methods is the methodology of questions and discussion. At first we did not realize how rare it was for individuals to be afforded the opportunity to ask questions about spiritual issues. There was a strong tradition of top-down authority based teaching in the established churches. In some churches people were told that it that was sinful to ask questions. The expectation of the church leadership was that people should come and listen quietly without asking questions. We often encountered people who carried lots of confusion about the Bible but were told that asking questions was not an appropriate response to the Bible. We never had much influence with the church leaders on this point. We chose not to publicly oppose church leaders or challenge their authority. However, we did train as many people as we could to use oral Bible studies, questions, dramas and debriefing. This new interactive paradigm for discovering truth from the Bible created opportunities for new disciples to grow in their knowledge of the Word of God and train others.
Orality is more than a tool for packaging the message of the Gospel. Orality offers
opportunities and tools for the beginning missionary even during the early days of language and culture learning for building relationships that allow you to learn the worldview of your target audience. As I back on our years in Uganda, what we learned about our people was just as important as learning how to communicate the message to them. I can see that we had many weaknesses and we made mistakes along the way. When it was time to depart Uganda the people said many wonderful things to us. Nobody actually thanked me for a specific Bible study, sermon or training I had taught. However, several people said they were thankful for us because they knew that we loved them. I will never forget those words, “we know you love us because you learned our language, you ate our food, you slept on the ground with us and you walked on the road with us.” I am very thankful for the trainers and mentors who introduced me to orality and mentored me in language and culture learning along the way. I have no regrets for the efforts I made to leave my comfortable, literate, expositional world and begin the journey of understanding another way of learning and communicating. I am richer because of this journey.