Reflection Paper on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy

Posted: June 13, 2016 in Book and Article Reviews
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What is a “second orality” and what good things are recovered in the shift back to a culture of orality? What do you think Ong’s word of advice would be for the contemporary church culture?

Primary orality is a culture prior to adapting the language to the medium of literacy (i.e. writing, print, etc.).  The wisdom of the ages is passed down through oral communication rather than written communication.  As such, mnemonic devices are utilized in order for the content to be properly passed on to the next generation.  Narratives have this quality about them because they allow for wisdom to be passed on in easily memorized ways.  As such, primary oral cultures tend to be very conservative.  Otherwise, creativity with traditions threatens the loss of wisdom and cultural narrative.

Primary orality also creates unity and community.  As Ong explains, listening to a speaker an audience becomes unified with each other and the speaker.  However, if the audience moves to reading a handout, each person retreats within themselves and becomes isolated from others.  As such, spoken words bring about connection and relationship.  Written words create individuals that have retreated to their interiors.

There is also a significant distinction between language that is written and spoken.  Written words are more analytical, especially because they have the power to recall prior knowledge via texts.  Oral cultures did not have that luxury and are more conservative because of that fact.  They continue to aggregate knowledge rather than dissect it.

Ong makes a distinction between purely oral culture and secondary orality: “… I style the orality of a culture totally untouched by knowledge of writing or print, ‘primary orality’. It is ‘primary’ by contrast with the ‘secondary orality’ of present-day high-technology culture, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television, and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print” (11).  Secondary orality is a culture that is recovering or maintains some of the vestiges of primary orality post-literacy.  Post-modernism, in many respects, has helped our culture make this shift, especially with the current dominance of images through media like television.

It seems to me that one of the natural places where a secondary orality has recovered or maintained vestiges of primary oral cultures is through the utilization of narratives.  Granted, the narratives employed today are different, especially in looking at the characters of the story.  Characters today are not flat stereotypes, but contain much complexity.  However, narratives are again taking a place of prominence in discussions about culture.  For instance, narrative preaching has strongly developed within the last thirty years.  Language as a deconstructing tool has also shifted (in some ways) toward using it to construct meaning through narratives.

Also, audio-visual technologies have created a shift that resembles more an oral culture.  Although we often see words through these technologies, there is also a great deal of emphasis on sound for the determination of meaning.  For instance, television creates dialogue between characters that is overheard rather than read.  The sounds create meaning for the audience, which goes beyond the visualization of the term that typifies literature.

It seems to me that Ong might suggest several things in light of a secondary orality.  Ong would likely suggest that we read more Scripture in worship without the aid of written words on a screen or individual Bibles opened up.  Not that this is entirely inappropriate.  But, if writing is geared toward allowing one to forget, then perhaps listening intently and seeking to remember would help us as a community.  Plus, we would not be separated into our individualized worlds through reading.

Preaching would be geared toward the oral/aural event rather than a written manuscript.  Or, at the very least, what is written would be written with speaking in mind.  This would actually create a different style of writing than prose.  One aspect of this would be the use of narrative structures for shaping our conversations, teaching, and preaching.  The congregation would have no need for “fill-the-blanks” sheets for notes because they could more easily recall the stories.

Implementing the creeds and other liturgies through regular practice would create mnemonic devices for the community to recall their faith without the aid of literature.  Perhaps this would mean that we say something together in unison, much as we do the Lord’s Prayer, so that we might commit to heart and memory those words that we deem most important about Christian catholic community and this local congregation.  The liturgy, though it is typically written, could be utilized in such a way that it becomes part of the collective wisdom and memory, rather than words on a page.  The same could be said for songs that the congregation uses.  Rather than changing songs every week, it might be helpful to sing a collection of songs for several weeks so that they become familiar and part of the cultural liturgy.

The way we use language would also change.  Rather than using language merely as a way to analogical dissection of life and the world and all its mystery, we would not violate the boundaries and limits of language by saying more than we ought to say.  We would embrace mystery, which includes silence – for words cannot be heard unless there is space.  Language, dialogue, conversations would remain open for discovery.  For this reason, perhaps Ong would agree with Fred Craddock move in preaching from deductive to inductive methods.

Literature has convinced us that language is meant to be closed (as a book ends, thus the discussion ends).  However, language, like any conversation, does not solve every problem.  Nor does it bring to end language.  Rather, the flexible nature of language always requires that more be said.  As such, the Church would do well to stay open to dialogue so that we might continue learning, growing, and being stretched beyond our comfort zones.

Maybe the greatest things Ong would hope for would involve discipleship.  Unfortunately, our discipleship has been quick, sometimes giving a book for the person to read, with little personal engagement after they have “been saved.”  In looking at Jesus, he spent three years with his disciples teaching them.  Discipleship is more than a transaction of information.  It is a gift of relationship.  This requires the interiority of the spoken word, which only happens in relational dialogue.  As such, discipleship would begin to look more like Jesus’ methods of discipleship, which required time, teaching, and sharing life (community).  Giving a disciple a book to read (with nothing else) essentially says that Christianity is a solitary religion.  That has never been the Christian faith.  Instead, we are created for community, which only comes through the proper use of language shared together.


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