May 12th, 2016
So there was probably a time in your childhood when you played that game known as “telephone.” You’d sit in a circle and someone would begin by whispering a sentence into the ear of the person beside them. Then one by one the message would travel around the circle, each receiver then becoming a sender, all in hopes that the message originally sent would make its way fully intact to the end of the “line.”
Inevitably, though, a message like “the pearl is in the river,” was transmogrified into something like, “Earl never eats liver.” And everyone would laugh at how easily a story gets changed. When you’re relying on tittering kids whose listening and language skills are still developing you can’t hope but expect a distortion of original meaning. Oral transmission in that kind of environment makes for poor transmission.
You’re not a Christian for too long before you hear the argument from some of our “cultured despisers” that we are the heirs of texts plagued by the same propensity for distortion we find in the aforementioned child’s game. In an ancient world without a printing press, where information must travel vast distances across tribes, tongues, and diverse cultures, you can’t, so the argument goes, hope to receive any credible account of a story. It will have had to pass through too many ears and tongues to arrive intact.
On its face the argument sounds credible. If stories get changed, sometimes profoundly, in a digital age, how can ancient cultures possibly preserve pristinely a story or historical account?
The problem with the logic of the argument is that it projects a modern sensibility onto an ancient one. We who mainly, but not exclusively, receive and send our information via the written medium do not often possess a capacity to relate events or stories with utmost precision unless we forward the article to another by email. I will have to go back and review that email, or Google a few keywords, in order to recall what I may have read last week–to say nothing of last year.
But that is not how it has always been. And assuming the “telephone” phenomenon to be at work in the ancient world is at best grossly anachronistic. Why? Just because you can’t remember what you read last week doesn’t mean others couldn’t preserve orally transmitted information across centuries. So goes the thesis of Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament professor at The Ecumenical Institute of Theological Research in Jerusalem (HT: CtK’s assistant pastor).
It’s a fairly technical read, but liberally sprinkled with remarkable anecdotes–both hilarious and poignant–about how oral cultures came to develop features that ensured stories would be preserved across time, distance, and even historical upheavals. The long and the short of his research is that communities in which oral transmission was the dominant form of cultural preservation, something called an “informal controlled oral tradition” emerged–a feature still present in many locales.
Literary cultures look to publishers both to determine what messages are worth conveying and to be the means by which they are. Stories are therein preserved in written record on paper or digitally in the almighty Cloud.
Oral cultures on the other hand preserve and communicate stories by listening, remembering, and then reciting. But rather than let just anyone convey those stories of import–stories which often attach to the very identity of the culture–these communities look to approved reciters. Only those who’ve heard the stories for a long time, and who can recount the stories with sufficient clarity and integrity are permitted to be that community’s storytellers. What makes them an example of “informal” storytelling is that the reciting role can be fulfilled by anyone who demonstrates the requisite knowledge and skill in recounting the story. “Formal” traditions appeal to a narrower subset of individuals–like professors or heads of a clan. The informal way allows for a wider constituency to fulfill that role because the community is its own built-in authenticator of any storyteller’s proficiency–thus also the “controlled” aspect of this tradition. Both the broader segment of reciters and the embedded presence of quality control provide “continuity and flexibility” in the transmission of important content worth remembering.
Bailey tells numerous stories of first-hand experiences with cultures which exhibited this informal controlled tradition, and how the practice promoted both enhanced memory and consistency in communication of events in the wider culture. The phenomenon of historical and cultural preservation through oral transmission commands its own respect. But Bailey relates the practice primarily to counter the longstanding charge that what we have in the Scriptures is hopelessly detached from the original content to which they allegedly refer. He addresses particularly the nature of the Gospels since they are the culmination of a process that began with oral transmission of Jesus’ life and words. If it can be shown that oral cultures reflect a remarkably high degree of content-preservation, the argument that the Gospels reflect untraceable distortions of the original material betrays a significant flaw in its logic.
I share this bit of research–both anthropological and biblical–to renew your respect for the Words we hold dear. But in reflecting on Bailey’s work, I find a metaphor for an idea I shared too late in last Sunday’s sermon and which I didn’t leave myself time to develop.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied,” was our beatitude for the day. Near the end I argued that it’s fitting to pray for that hunger and thirst for righteousness we may have seen dissipate in us; and that it’s necessary to practice the way of righteousness when our desire for such is weak, if only to see that interest renewed.
But as a third and final implication of how we might respond to this beatitude I suggested the importance of processing in community what it means to be righteous. That is, while prayer and practice play pivotal roles in the outworking of righteousness in us, unless we are confessing our sins and weaknesses, and offering one another encouragement and insights, we deny ourselves a potent means by which the Lord has sought to fashion us into the image of His Son.
Bailey’s research offers us insight into how the Scriptures had an informal controlled tradition to preserve for us these words of Life. Do we have something similar in our lives to help preserve the story of redemption in us? That is, are there trusted friends in whose company you linger who can help you both know and “recite” through your own life what is that Old, Old Story? The kind who serve to lovingly correct you when the story of Jesus’ life begins to become distorted in the story your life tells? And it’s not only about whether you belong to that kind of community; it’s also about whether you are willing to receive their commentary.
If it takes a community to preserve a story critical to its very identity, why wouldn’t it take the same to preserve a story–a way and a hope–critical to ours?