Ministry in an Oral Culture

Tex Sample (1994), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The concept of oral culture hit Sample at university when he realized the contrast between everyday oral culture and philosophic analysis of the world around us, the difference between the worlds of discussion of Will Rogers and Socrates.  Oral culture, of the everyday living, was ‘not one of discourse, systematic coherence, the consistent use of clear definitions and the writing of discursive prose that could withstand the whipsaws of academic critique’ (p 3).  An oral culture makes use of proverbs, sayings; lives by storytelling (the family traditions); thinking in relationships ( an issue that comes up will be considered in terms of the family and communal ties; religious beliefs will be understood much more in relational than discursive ways’ (p 5).

Sample writes compellingly that ‘literate clergy and laity may become far more appreciative of and adept at working with people who face life and death, morality and faith, and G-d and the world with a traditional morality’ (p 6).  This means that a significant part of the ministry and mission of our churches needs to be done in an apprenticeship way….  The teaching occurs through hands-on mission’ (p 19).  Churches need to be both literate and oral, utilizing the strengths of each:  forming small communal groups telling their stories to each other, to work (in ethical formation) on a morality that is concrete, operational and contextual, eg the AA model.  A study I did with palliative care level patients identified the most useful and helpful of those they were involved with as being not medical or religious (chaplain) people, but the cleaning staff!

A wonderful book to understand better the church’s mission.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.