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Review of Tom Steffen and Cameron D. Armstrong, eds., New and Old Horizons in the Orality Movement

Author: Michael L. Sweeney
Published: 2023

MD 14

Article Type: Book Review

Tom Steffen and Cameron D. Armstrong, eds. New and Old Horizons in the Orality Movement: Expanding the Firm Foundations. Evangelical Missiological Society Monograph Series 14. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2022. Paperback. $39.00. 308 pp.

In the late 1980s, while I was finishing up my doctoral studies, my advisor, Paul Achtemeier, was working on his 1989 presidential address for the Society of Biblical Literature. He had read Walter Ong’s groundbreaking work Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word published earlier that decade and became excited about its ramifications for the formation and interpretation of Scripture by the early church. Achtemeier’s address, published in JBL in Spring 1990 as “Omne Verbum Sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Later Western Antiquity,” caused a mild stir among biblical scholars, but like me, most were so involved in their literary-based projects that it didn’t move the needle very far for the discipline.

A few years later, while working in Papua New Guinea with Pioneer Bible Translators, I encountered some teams with New Tribes Mission, now Ethnos360, who were teaching the Bible using a method they called “Chronological Bible Storying.” I was fascinated, but again, so caught up in my own translation and consulting work that I didn’t have time or mental energy to give to this new (to me) approach.

Now, thirty years later, I am paying attention. Studies in orality have exploded, and its usefulness as a method in missions goes beyond conducting Bible studies. Indeed, it has become the basis for life-changing discipleship initiatives in several organizations.

Tom Steffen and Cameron Armstrong have assembled a wonderful mix of orality scholars and practitioners to help bring the rest of the world up to date with the missional impact of orality methods. Each chapter represents the work and thinking of its own author, apparently without any attempt to coordinate vocabulary or create a unified approach to the topic. The editors have divided New and Old Horizons in the Orality Movement into four major sections: “Measuring the Horizons,” “Horizon: The Classroom,” “Horizon: Bible Translation,” and “Expanding the Horizons.” If there is any criticism of the book, it is that the chapters in each section have no organic connection to one another. Especially in Parts 1 and 4, one senses that the editors had to be creative to find a heading generic enough to apply to all the articles contained therein.

Five of the eleven contributors, including contributions from both editors, were connected with the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention. All have had extensive experience using orality methods in cross-cultural settings. The end result is a compilation of chapters with a mix of theory and practical application.

Four chapters were extremely helpful for a person like me who is highly interested but only marginally informed in the subject. Both of the chapters written by Lynn Thigpen were outstanding. Thigpen spent 20 years in Cambodia working with people who were oral learners. That work prompted her to go on for a PhD in Intercultural Education at Biola University. Her chapters “Deconstructing Oral Learning” and “What’s Patronage Got to Do with It? Beyond Storying in Oral Learning” are full of insights on what it means to be an oral culture, how “orality” goes far beyond just listening to and memorizing Scripture, and how Christian educators need to adapt their methods in order to lead their students to transformative living. For those of us who need a good introduction to the subject, her first chapter is the perfect place to start.

Wiley Scot Keen’s chapter “The Metanarrative of Scripture” highlights the importance of understanding the metanarratives that inform the worldviews of a culture and helping the people incorporate the metanarrative of Scripture into that mix. While his chapter was oriented toward orality-based cultures, I believe that church workers in more literary-based societies could also benefit from his ideas.

Finally, Tricia and Stephen Stringer contribute an excellent chapter on using narrative as a tool for dealing with trauma. The Stringers have long worked with IMB. Stephen serves on the Global Executive Team of the International Orality Network, an organization referenced by several of the writers in this book, and Tricia serves as the Director of Multiplying Hope, a ministry that helps people overcome trauma as they progress on their Christian journey.

Many of the other chapters also give the reader practical tips in using different orality-based methods in teaching and discipling people in a variety of cultural settings. One does not need to move to a Majority World country to apply the insights of this book. Even in the West, there has been a shift toward greater orality. People are reading less and watching more as our electronic devices keep us informed and connected through audiobooks, podcasts, Tik Tok, Instagram, and YouTube. Orality, after all, is not just about a way of learning; it is about a way of living, relating, and thinking.

Michael L. Sweeney

Professor of World Mission and New Testament

Emmanuel Christian Seminary

Milligan University

Johnson City, TN, USA

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