"Less Literate Are Safer": The Politics of Orality and Literacy in Biblical Interpretation

Article excerpt

A fascinating report in our local newspaper, The Natal Witness, of June 6, 1996, was entitled "Less literate are safer."' A scientific poll of taxi drivers in South Africa showed that illiterate people, even though they may have gained their licenses by fraud or not have them at all, have fewer accidents and are able to navigate and understand the road signs without difficulty. This seems to challenge some of our fundamental presuppositions about the advantages of literacy. It also pinpoints nicely the issue of why some people may opt out of the system of formal literacy altogether, even though they are clearly competent and enterprising people.

In a series of previous studies (Draper and West 1989, 1991; Draper 1996), partly in cooperation with Gerald West, I have explored the puzzling gap between white and black Anglicans in South Africa in the matter of Bible study. Whereas white Anglicans most often conduct a Bible study by close attention to the text, usually going through a short passage line by line, often in conjunction with a commentary, black Anglicans are unaccustomed to reading the Bible in this way and have resisted attempts to get them to do this. Instead, even though they have a strong "Word of God" understanding of the Bible, they widely use the format of the revival service in which the Bible is appropriated by retelling (with additions and subtractions; compare Mazamisa 1991; Mijoga 1997), repetition, song, prayer, and performance. In this use of the Bible, even completely illiterate members of the community participate, sometimes knowing the Bible very well indeed. My observations led me to see connections between the techniques of this use of the Bible and the characteristics of oral or residual-oral communities as described by Foley and Ong, and this was strengthened by data gathered by field researchers working with oral communities (1996: 63-75). There is still no doubt in my mind that this kind of "performative" Bible study owes much to African oral tradition. Nevertheless, the suspicion aroused by our attempt to introduce a text-centred Bible study in the community, together with the "apostasy" of trained black readers of the Bible when faced with this phenomenon, leads me to think that my first conclusions may have missed something important. Perhaps "illiterate is safer" in some fundamental way and perhaps orality is a defense against Western literary hegemony. If so, this would be an important aspect of the use of the Bible as a vehicle for development in South Africa today, as envisaged by the Institute for the Study of the Bible and other Christian NGOs.

This niggling suspicion has also interacted with a growing uneasiness with what is being done in the teaching of Biblical Studies in the University. There is a lot of evidence that students gain only a superficial competence in biblical literacy,2 enough to pass exams and get their qualification, so that they can strip it off like a Savile Row suit in the tropics when they get out into the community. Worse still, could it be that what we are teaching is actually incapacitating our students as agents of development, disempowering them in their future leadership role in the community?

Literacy Studies

Some theories of orality posit a "great divide" between the oral world and the literate world. Orality is found in small, loosely organized, face-to-face communities, where language is used in a direct, personal, mnemonic, performative, and cumulative way (that is, communication is developed by adding one thought to another, and often various people will contribute one after the other in ways partly repetitive but partly new to develop a communal understanding of a Bible passage under discussion). Literacy not only provides a substitute for memory, enabling material to be stored for retrieval, but according to Ong, restructures consciousness, enabling the development of analytical skill and logical, sequential reasoning. …