reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
In "Telling God’s Stories with Power: Biblical Storytelling in Oral Cultures,” Paul Koehler identifies and presents a solution to a problem that continues to plague many missionaries and national Christians worldwide. In short, traditional modes of Gospel communication in many so-called developing nations don’t seem to be working. Bible schools are churning out graduates and these graduates are preaching and teaching the Gospel but people are tuning them out. Converts are few. Discipleship and church growth are stunted. What’s gone wrong?
A Square Peg in a Round Hole: Literate Communication & Oral Thinkers
Koehler claims (rightly, I think) that Gospel communication often fails because literate forms of communication are being used with oral learners. People often think of literacy as simply the ability to read. But Koehler points out that literacy is an entirely different way of thinking that goes far beyond merely the ability to decipher marks on a page. This is a missing piece in understanding why the Gospel is not being understood. Literate people think and process information in a different way than oral people do (3-4). Literate people think in linear, logically ways. They use deductive reasoning to take apart and put back together units of information. Because they can always store and reference information in print or digitally, they feel free to postulate, speculate, and reach out for new knowledge. With print communication, you can lay out all your information on a page, look for similarities, differences, and causation. You can rearrange the pieces and look for patterns. And you never have to worry about losing your information because it is right there in front of you. Literate people can think in the abstract. They can think about ideas and principles. Inductive Bible study, expositional preaching, and systematic theology succeed and bless the church when people are able to think and process information in a literate way. But what if people have never learned to think like that?
Oral communicators may be able to read at a rudimentary level but they are not literate thinkers. Deductive reasoning and logic are foreign to them. They miss the point of an “if.... then” statement. New information needs to be memorable and take up little space in the brain because the only place to store stuff is “in your head.” Complex outlines with points and sub-points are difficult to remember. Abstract principles are difficult to grasp, and seem irrelevant to daily life. The way that they get, retain, and apply information is vastly different from the way that literate communicators process information. But the vast majority of preaching and teaching assumes that all people think in the same way, namely literately. But they don’t. The main problem is not the inability to read (or to read well), but the inability to think critically, logically, and abstractly.
The Church Needs Literate Thinkers
Although Koehler does not mention this, I believe that in the long run, if the church is to grow and mature to her full potential, all Christians need to learn to think and reason in a literate way, at least to some level. There are certain life and faith issues that are difficult to solve unless you can compare, analyze, and weigh different viewpoints. This is especially true for church leaders. However, it is unrealistic and unnecessary to think that people need to jump through the hoop of gaining the critical thinking skills that come with Western education in order to become Christians. So, how then do we communicate the Gospel to oral communicators. We do it with stories.
The Power of Telling Bible Stories
To educated Western literate communicators, stories seem like kids’ stuff. Koehler points out that the Bible is full of stories (28-30). The ancient Israelites and the people of Jesus’ time were oral communicators. Some could read, but many could not. The faith of the Israelites was communicated from one generation to the next largely through retelling the stories of Israel, particularly the Exodus. Well told stories are powerful, and can subvert the worldview of listeners without them even realizing that it is happening (29, 45). Stories activate the imagination (42-43) and the emotions (44-45, 57). Stories connect with people and bring out the truths of the Christian faith in a way that expositional preaching cannot, or at least it cannot for those who have not learned to think in a literate way. Stories draw people in and engage them in discovering the truth for themselves. They can be used to communicate doctrine to people who have trouble processing abstract expressions of truth. Koehler recounts LaNette Thompson’s story of a young Muslim man who through a story realized for the first time that maybe his good works couldn’t save him:
It wasn't until I was using the story of Jacob's dream with a young Muslim man that I realized the significance of this story to Muslims. When asked, "How can we approach God?" the young man said automatIcally, "By our good actions." I then said, "Name Jacob's good actions that encouraged God to come to Him." He thought and thought, then replied finally, "He hadn't done anything good." I saw on his face that first crack in a worldview that believes we have a relationship with God because of our actions (63).
The bottom line is that stories are powerful to communicate Gospel truth in a way that literate forms of communication and reasoning are not, or at least they are not for oral people.
Koehler’s Story Training Project
In the first six chapters of the book, Koehler lays out the theological and theoretical foundations of orality and biblical storytelling, which I have summarized above. In chapter seven through nine, Koehler gets really practical and tells readers how he organized and trained local Christian workers in storytelling in India. The remaining chapters (which I have not yet had time to read) deal with the findings from his research on biblical storytelling, based on the training project he ran in India. Although I have already taken one class on orality and bible storytelling, it was helpful to see exactly how Koehler set-up his training. In Thailand, I would like to tell more Bible stories and equip others to tell Bible stories as well, so I appreciate the way in which Koehler addressed story selection, organization, memory methods, scripting, performing, and story-songs. I also appreciate Koehler’s humility in talking about which parts of the training didn’t work so well, and why he thought that was so.
Is Bible Storying Like the “Telephone Game”?
On occasion, Koehler would raise and answer objections to biblical storying, some of which set my mind at ease. For example, he cites the objection to oral bible storying that it will become like the “telephone game” where people whisper something to each other and the message changes with each transmission so that the end product bears little resemblance to the original. That doesn’t happen, Koehler says, because of two factors (70). First, many oral people do have written Bibles in their own languages and when there are at least a few people who can read, the written Word will keep the oral Word from going off track. Secondly, unlike the telephone game, Bible stories are not whispered but told in community. In the training, Koehler instructed his students to correct each other when telling stories, and many groups of students kept their Bibles open while listening to a story to make sure that it was right. If someone changes a story, the checks and balances of the church community will correct those changes. This has been one of my concerns about oral bible story telling, so I am glad that Koehler addresses it satisfactorily.
“God will Heal You”
Overall, I appreciated Koehler’s points about literacy and orality, and the power of telling Bible stories. However, I do have some questions and concerns. Koehler recounts how the Indian Christian workers in his training project learned and shared the stories but there was not enough information about how they help people see the point of the stories, namely the meaning that the biblical author had in mind when he wrote it. Do the storytellers that Koehler trained ever move much beyond felt needs in applying their stories? Felt needs are often real needs, and it is completely valid for listeners to learn from a Bible story that God will meet their needs. That is an important part of understanding the nature and character of God. But how do they move beyond that to repentance from sin and trust in God? In a number of Koehler’s stories of people telling stories from Scripture, the story tellers promise listeners that God will do for them exactly as they see happen in the story. After telling the story of the woman who had the issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34), one storyteller said to a sick woman, “If you believe in Jesus, then God will heal you completely.” Fortunately, the story had a happy ending as the woman got healed, accepted Christ, and got baptized (24). It seems presumptuous however, to go around promising people healing. What happens if God doesn’t heal? Did this woman who accepted Christ have saving, justifying faith or merely a syncretistic faith that will evaporate when God decides not to heal? Koehler does not tell us the details and perhaps the details are not available since this is presumably a story that was related to him secondhand.
Should We Stop Preaching?
Another point that concerned me was Koehler’s attitude towards preaching. While I understand that he really wants to press home his points about orality and storytelling, his dismissal of preaching is unnecessary. It seems that most of the preaching that Koehler and his trainees have seen and practiced is strictly for literate communicators. Thus, it has not worked well among oral communicators. I readily concede the point that preaching must change to account for the fact that listeners are oral thinkers, not literate thinkers. But his characterization of preaching, and expositional preaching in particular, was one dimensional and does not acknowledge the fact that preaching can be done in non-literate ways. The vast amount of good that has been done through preaching through the centuries is unacknowledged. For Koehler, preaching is boring and ineffective but story telling is engaging and transformational. His oversimplification of the issue was unhelpful to the point of being unfair. Preaching is biblical and necessary, and ministers of the Gospel do not have the option to abandon preaching entirely. The mode and style of preaching, however, is up for debate. Preaching to oral communicators must be done with oral communicators in mind, not literate communicators. Thus, I think there needs to be some major modifications in the form and style of preaching and theological education in oral cultures. However, to throw out preaching altogether is unbiblical.
Overall, Koehler’s book was very helpful and informative. It helped me to further think through issues in literacy, orality, and Bible storying. I still have questions about the extent of biblical truth that can be taught through stories alone, and the relationship between storying and preaching. However, there is an enough evidence to convince me of the necessity of using more stories in my evangelism and discipleship, and to re-evaluate my current ways of communication with Thai people in light of orality. “Telling God’s Stories with Power” is essential reading for missionaries working among oral peoples.