The Power of Proverbs

Before we moved overseas we lived in an apartment complex full of refugees, immigrants, and low-income Americans. By that point I had become aware of the power of proverbs among those from the Middle East and Central Asia. What surprised us was finding that proverbs and truisms also functioned centrally in the speech and relationships of the low-income Americans around us.

While proverbs didn’t really feature much in the speech of my middle class, highly-literate peers, or only functioned in an ironic way, I found that my black or white Kentuckian neighbors from difficult backgrounds dropped them on the regular. They were not always helpful proverbs. I can’t tell you how many times we tried to engage someone with the gospel and were met with opaque responses such as someone’s commitment to “let go and let God” or insistence that “God helps those who help themselves.” But other times they contained biblical wisdom, such as “Y’all reap what y’all sow.”

What we were experiencing was a curious similarity between the cultures of our Arab and Sudanese neighbors fleeing war and our American neighbors trying not to get arrested for dealing drugs. It seemed that every culture in our apartment complex – other than ours – was considerably more oral in its ways of thinking and speaking. Being primarily oral might mean that someone is illiterate, but it often means that someone knows how to read and write, but only does so when necessary, and not for pleasure or for organizing their life. It means that someone’s use of language is largely independent of the written word, and the corresponding ways that the written word shapes how we think and speak. Instead, it is the memorized and spoken word that come to dominate an oral person’s use of language. This has nothing to do with degrees of intelligence, though it can often reflect a person’s level of education.

There is a significant communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are from an oral culture, even if they are from the same country and speak the same language. This is because the ways we use language and the ways our brains have been shaped by that usage are so very different from one another – and this is a reality that is often invisible. An oral communicator relies heavily on stories and proverbs. They end up with a kind of language that is less direct and more full of symbolism and concrete metaphor. A highly-literate communicator relies more on argument and logic and ends up with speech that is more direct and abstract.

Often this communication barrier can result in a situation such as highly-literate communicator asking an oral communicator about a concept such as sin. The oral communicator responds to the question by telling a winding story, one which might be interspersed with several proverbs or truisms. When the story is finally over, the highly-literate communicator is left unable to discern what kind of point or answer has just been made. So he tries to get back to the abstract concept he was asking about, only to be met by another confusing story. Both leave the interaction not confident that they have been heard or understood.

For about ten years I have been chewing on this communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are oral communicators. This is one reason I have been on my long-term experiment to learn and employ Central Asian proverbs as we’ve ministered overseas. The challenge of orality is a serious one, since it limits our effectiveness in communicating the gospel cross-culturally or to huge portions of our own societies that are poor or working-class. This is likely one reason why reformed evangelicalism is so homogeneous when it comes to our socioeconomic status and educational backgrounds. We are, if anything, an extremely literate tribe of Christianity. There are amazing strengths that come along with this, but one weakness is that we are no longer naturals in communicating with those who are oral thinkers and speakers. It’s as if we speak a different dialect than huge chunks of our own fellow countrymen, especially those who are working class or coming out of backgrounds of poverty.

If this is true, then what can we do to become better oral communicators of the gospel? First, we need to recognize that this communication barrier exists. It does us no good to continue thinking that the rest of society is just as literate as we are. If you are reading this post, that likely means you are in the top literacy bracket of your nation (for the US, this is only 12 percent of the population). This means that the vast majority of our neighbors are less literate than we are. And literacy profoundly impacts how we think, speak, and comprehend others. Have we been assuming that our communication with others is being truly understood? Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that assumption. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “the problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

Second, let’s learn how to employ proverbs and truisms. We might feel like those that are still in circulation in English are cliche or unhelpful. But let’s redeem what we can and set about crafting some new ones if we have to. The key to a good proverb is its ability to condense complex truth into a short, catchy statement that can easily be memorized. For oral communicators, these memorized moral statements provide a ready framework for navigating the complexities of life. What would it look like to build a discipleship curriculum around key biblical proverbs? Or an evangelism strategy? Just as you would give a literate friend a good book, consider how to give away a good proverb to a friend who is an oral communicator.

Third, let’s not be afraid to tell stories. Sometimes those of us in the reformed camp can complain about illustrations, as if this part of the sermon is really only fluff. But a good illustration or story may be one of the most important components of a sermon for oral communicators. Even for those who are highly-literate, the illustration often remains in our brains long after the outline has faded. In a sermon that is largely abstract language, a good illustration provides some helpful concrete imagery. Stories also engage our affections in important ways. And after all, our Bible is three-fourths narrative, so we should think seriously about how story functions in our own efforts to communicate God’s truth.

Music also has a huge part to play in engaging and discipling oral learners. Again, the idea is to have truth that can be memorized and carried around, ready to be engaged without the help of a written resource. To serve oral communicators, some of our songs need to be of the sort that can be memorized and sung without any instrumentation, much as was the case with the great hymns of the past. Good songs can be an incredible tool for oral cultures.

Finally, let’s stay curious about the communication breakdowns that are happening around us. I am not saying that we abandon our highly-literate forms of communication, as if we should replace all outline-based preaching and bible studies with stories, proverbs, and songs. But rather, what can we do to meet oral communicators half-way? Can we learn to become bilingual as it were, able to communicate the same truth orally to those with only an 8th grade education as well as in highly-literate fashion to someone with a PhD? These are complex, invisible dynamics. It will take some chewing and curiosity to make any changes here and to not just revert to our defaults.

Proverbs still matter. In fact, most of the world’s population still employ them as a key part of their primarily oral engagement with reality. Actually using them may seem strange, or cliche, to us. And yet learning how to use these and other oral tools may allow our churches to break out of our highly-educated, middle-class strata, and finally communicate well with the poor, the immigrant, and the hard-working laborer. And that seems a goal worth striving toward.

Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The Power of Proverbs

  1. So very helpful – thanks for your writing and insights into cross-culture ministry. I’m finding that many of your insights are serving me well in my context in sleepy midwest Cincinnati as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great thoughts! I am reminded of Lewis’ suggestion: “Every examination for ordinands ought to include a passage from some standard theological work for translation into the vernacular. The work is laborious but it is immediately rewarded. By trying to translate our doctrines into vulgar speech we discover how much we understand them ourselves. Our failure to translate may sometimes be due to our ignorance of the vernacular; much more often it exposes the fact that we do not exactly know what we mean.”

    Liked by 1 person

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