Book review: Building Bridges to Oral Cultures

Mission Round Table Vol. 14 No. 2 (May-Sep 2019)

Reviewed by Iljo de Keijzer
OMF missionary serving in the Philippines

Carla and Jim Bowman began working in the 1980s among the indigenous people of South America. Their initial focus was on Scripture engagement. When they realized many people could not read well, their logical response was to teach literacy. At some point, they realized the more honorable thing to do would be to facilitate Scripture engagement according to the oral culture of the people.

This book is an account of their journey to orality and all the challenges they faced along the road. This book is an easy read, written as a story in short chapters. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from the Bowmans’ diary, followed by stories of their struggles and discoveries on their journey, and ends with some specific lessons learned. The authors are honest about their mistakes and also show how their local effort led to a worldwide network.

There is an estimated population of four billion people in the world who prefer to learn orally. This includes those who cannot read or barely read, and also educated people who can read well but prefer oral ways of learning. This book teaches the importance of encouraging local leaders and equipping them to continue the good work and bring it further than any foreigner ever could. And though the book is set in South America, it highlights the danger that the syncretism observed there can also be found in Asia or anywhere Christianity exists where there is little discipleship and few are willing or able to learn from written Scripture.

The Bowmans’ cultural observations pinpoint the need to be wise when using video presentations that may be oral but are Western. For instance, when the Jesus film was shown in South America, some people asked questions like, “How did they get the cameras up there exactly as Jesus was dying?” This was a clue that the movie might not convey what those showing it thought was being conveyed. The authors further wondered, “Do the listeners understand that an echo in the voice means that God is speaking?” They also felt that the invitation at the end of the movie to accept Jesus as a personal choice might not be helpful in a culture where standing out from the crowd is to be avoided. While people came to believe in Christ through this video, potential dangers were noted and a search began for more culturally appropriate ways to communicate the gospel.

In chapters 8–15 the authors describe their journey in Mexico. Stories tell of excited people learning stories by heart, the gospel spreading quickly through these stories, and of the people’s selfesteem being raised through discovering their gifts. These showed the authors that people have an amazing capacity for memorizing Scripture and exhibit great creativity in passing it on.

There is an appropriate emphasis on training people how to dialogue after telling stories and how to select stories. I believe this is essential for the oral movement to develop further. Also, it is important to learn how to address worldview through stories: witch doctors, sickness, barrenness, etc. The authors also show the importance of helping people decide if they have earned the right to tell stories, which story is the right one to tell in each situation, and what specific stories pave the way for the gospel. Had this last element been worked out more deeply the book would have been even more useful.

In Chapters 16–20, the Bowmans’ ministry unfolds as the oral movement spread into other parts of the world, including Africa, South Asia, and Central Asia. In all these areas, the responses  and way of working are very similar. Cultural issues are different, but the way of resolving them is similar. Local participants were encouraged to value their own culture, discover new gifts, and continue training others.

In Pakistan, by engaging a highly educated group, they discovered that orality can also be used at this level. They were even invited to teach parables about forgiveness at a Muslim university. They thus engaged the power of stories, without the stigma of the black book called Bible.

I was encouraged to read of the specific care given to selecting oral stories for certain people as these stories open doors that the Bible and preaching cannot. The authors explain how specific stories can open discussions about the way, discipleship, and leadership training.

In the last part of the book—chapters 21–26—the discussion between the roles of those from the West vs. the East are explored. Many places in the majority world cannot be reached by Western missionaries. But missionaries often make good trainers and coaches. What better role is there for Western missionaries than to train and equip local believers? Even if they are frustrated at not being able to become good storytellers in one week, Western missionaries can spark a movement that will reach way beyond where they could ever go.

This book is very practical and easy to read. While the authors give a good overview of the different processes in using stories, I would have appreciated more instruction on how to choose stories for particular settings and times. At times, the authors tend to look down a little on other Western missionaries. I also found that the organization of the chapters can be a bit confusing with titles not quite covering the content. Even so, the book is generally well written and really helpful for the Asian church to reflect on evangelism and discipleship within its own culture. This book can help us evaluate whether our practices are biblical and whether they are Asian or Western. The book helpfully touches on elements of syncretism, the need for good discipleship, and the importance of addressing world view. And while it does not give the answers on how to build bridges to oral cultures in specific Asian countries, it raises questions that we need to ask ourselves in order to find the right answers for each of the cultures in which we serve or are from. This is not an easy process, but it needs to be done if we want to move towards true Asian biblical discipleship.

Building Bridges to Oral Cultures: Journeys among the Least-reached
By K. Carla Bowman with James Bowman
William Carey, 2017

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