Power in Your Mouth (Part 1)
By Del Tarr
God’s Word shows a priority toward oral speech, but not to an exclusion of what is written in both Testaments.
(I have drawn much of this essay from my book: The Foolishness of God: A Linguist Looks at the Mystery of Tongues, Access Publishers, 2010, chapter 4.)
SPEECH RATHER THAN WRITING
When the Bible speaks about the mouth and tongue, it almost always refers to oral speech (language), not written words. Speech in the Bible often meant something much more powerful than it means in our “literate” world.
A man’s words used to be his bond, often sealed with a handshake. Because Gutenberg’s printing marvel changed the world as significantly as any invention until the computer, some have downgraded oral speech to mean “hearsay.” Today, we do not just want someone’s word, we want it in print, and hopefully signed and witnessed by a notary public. But when Jesus said: “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37),He was referring to oral speech.
The thesis of this article is that we should see God’s Word (oral and sometimes later written) from the context of the world in which God’s leaders spoke it, and later compiled it. People first heard God’s Word as oral speech (inspiration). Seldom, if ever, did they read it from a manuscript or book. There is a strong predisposition to what is oral/aural in the Bible relating to a prophet’s inspiration in God’s dealings with humanity.
Hyperliterate, textual societies and cultures have lost, by default, the very idea of oralness, since the predominance of what people have written has displaced God’s use of both oral and written means of communication. This is not because God discredits things in print. No, God even commanded that people write down certain things (Exodus 17:14; Deuteronomy 17:18; Jeremiah 30:2, etc.). Rather, it is because the majority of people living in the culture of biblical inspiration were basically illiterate (our definition). Even more important, God has always wanted His people to have fresh, extemporaneous, nontextbook, and contemporary inspiration, even when they have written texts available.
Ancient Significance to Spoken Speech
The significance of spoken speech is related to the Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain,” (Exodus 20:7, KJV) or, more specifically: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” Today we know little of what this meant. It relates little to cursing (profanity) like our culture commonly believes. It was/is related to the sacredness of God’s name which people were not to use as a power source for personal gain or advantage.
People believed that making a vow with God’s name was a power move and highly significant. God was saying: “Don’t allow the potentially powerful use of My name with your mouth to desecrate the holiness of your Creator.” Because people in the Old Testament held words to be so much more powerful and even more dangerous than they do now, the ability to speak and hurt (as well as bless) with words held an importance of which moderns are vastly ignorant. Even in the New Testament, think of how James, the half brother of Jesus, described the power of the tongue (James 3:3–12).
As to God’s Word, for over 1,000 years in the Catholic Church, the church only permitted clergy to read the Bible. Until the 1960s, a layperson had to confess if he read the Bible. The early Roman Catholic Church killed some of the first people who dared to translate the Bible into something other than the “holy” language of Latin used in the liturgy. Before that, even the Latin Vulgate meant a “vulgar” (of the common people) language. Words used to be serious things. Is it possible God still lays more importance on speech than we do today?
Modern communication theory — as well as the prophetic gifts of the Spirit declared by the prophet Isaiah — give us insight and biblical precision to our thesis. “ ‘As for me, this is my covenant [promise] with them,’ says the Lord. ‘My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 59:21, NIV, 1984).
For the ancient preliterate world, people understood the mouth to be the source of social power. In every culture from time immemorial people recognized a clan’s spokesperson or “wordsmith” — whose speech people could not ignore — as one of the most powerful individuals, and often to be feared.
Every African chief or Indian Mogul had his “interlocuteur” who demanded the attention of the masses. This “mouth person” spoke for the titular head of the clan or city or state. Even if the political leader was a good speaker, he deferred to the expert who — because of his command of the language — exploited every idiom and nuance of the words he chose.
This article is not primarily an issue of written human communication.(Communication may become written.) Isaiah’s prophecy above is about a covenant from God to oralness and speech. It is something superior in its extemporaneous directness: “Into the mouth and mouths” of those who obey the Lord God and maintain contact with His Spirit.
Not Just Old Testament Prophecy
One must not relegate God’s covenant as just an Old Testament dispensation and therefore disregard it in today’s world and theological era of New Testament “grace.” Why is that? Because this is the indisputable scriptural essence the apostle Peter quoted on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17,18). Peter was standing in the temple witnessing God’s miracle, exactly as Jesus had predicted, but he also noticed that people’s mouths were busy. Peter told the crowd, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call” (verse 39). This promise relates to the “ ‘in your mouth and mouths and from this time on and forever,’ says the Lord” of the Isaiah passage (emphasis mine).
Jon Ruthven’sbook, What’s Wrong With Protestant Theology, (Word and Spirit Press, Tulsa, Oklahoma), poignantly makes the point that theologians in the early Middle Ages — and later reformed theologians — rejected an important prophecy by refusing to embrace the second half of John the Baptist’s duel prophetic pronouncement:
First: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
Second: “[He] is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33; “and fire,” Luke 3:16).
I’m indebted to Ruthven for helping me move the thesis of this article forward from my previous work.
Ask yourself: Why has the Christian world largely embraced the first prophetic words and neglected the second? (He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.)
This Is Our Quest. It’s Related to Oral Communication
The Bible was given and written inside a society that Westerners in today’s “first world” would class as illiterate. The Two-Thirds world covers vast areas, yet, in the 21st century, illiteracy outnumbers those who can read and write. Our “first world” culture has five centuries of print literacy (since Gutenberg) in the West that blinds us to a cultural orientation of the Bible. (It’s amazing how many valuable texts on hermeneutics ignore this fact.)
The ancient Hebrew world, during the time of the Old Testament writings, was not literate like today. Literacy was only slightly better during New Testament times.
A scribe had rare and unusual skills and made his living by writing for those who could not read or write. People who were not literate employed scribes to write out the literary requirements of certain legal or social functions for them in cultures where writing was on the increase and of greater importance. People even dictated love letters to the scribe. To understand the social climate of a preliterate culture, one really needs to live in its environment to sense the shocking horizons of the watershed of perception (the disadvantage, in our opinion) between these two entities.
Oral communication and written communication are quite dissimilar, even when they originate from the same person. I am not talking about grammar or punctuation, but something much more significant and powerfully important. Monocultural people — who know no preliterate people or their languages — may perceive this contrasting dimension of reality with difficulty. Today we are an expanding textual, literate, people with books, newspapers, street signs, magazines, Kindles, smart phones. In spite of the recent electronic media of all descriptions, however, we still depend on reading. Our 500 years of print literacy is a very different world from the culture of the Bible.
From Oralness to Literacy
Some readers of Genesis 1:1, repeated in John 1:1, know from past studies or experience that the words, “In the beginning was the Word,” (emphasis mine) refer to the spoken word and not the written word — as well, of course, Jesus, the living Word. (Much of the spoken word, over time, became written.)
We have no record that Jesus ever wrote anything except when He stooped to write in the sand when the Pharisees brought the adulterous woman to His “classroom” for their own brand of “show and tell.”
Before the marvels of communicating by electronics, the available channels of communication beside oral speech were drums, smoke signals, reflecting mirrors, cannon shots, lantern signals, etc. These were subject to severe limitations. In The Responsive Chord, Tony Schwartz speaks of the problem of communications in a pretechnological society. Napoleon established a network of 224 line-of-sight semaphore stations spanning over 1,000 miles. People, using flags at each station, had to accurately repeat the coded message for the correct message to get through. The chance of an error was quite high.1 In pre-Napoleon times, writing was in manuscript form that required thousands of hours to produce one book. Then came printing, then the telegraph, the telephone, and now the electronic communication revolution.
It is hard for us to imagine a time when oral communication was the mode of exchange for over 90 percent of a given population. It was like this in Bible times and even much later, when writing had progressed from manuscripts to books, and where society did not allow girls and women to have books — especially theological books that were the domain of men.
The West Ignores Oral Literacy (What Difference Does It Make?)
Today we assume literacy (by that we only mean print literacy because some do not believe that oral literacy exists) is the highest form of communication. We invest heavily in schools, books, and written records. We marginalize the nonliterate. We focus effort in missionary activity on literacy. Some confuse it with the gospel, even though no one would minimize the value of literacy for its propagation.
Some missionaries and pastors in any culture are guilty of bibliolatry — they know the Word better than they know its Author. Those who insist on “literacy” over everything, find it difficult to accept that people do not need to be literate before they can become Christian.2 Because knowledge is power, we place great emphasis on getting knowledge. We prize the accumulation of knowledge, and the computer age often rewards sheer recall.
In a chapter on “Cultural Assumptions of Western Missionaries,” anthropologist Paul Heibert3 describes how hundreds of years of print literacy makes us unconscious of how the other half of the world communicates. We assume they are like us. This belief affects the way we study the Word of God: “We think that our studies of the Bible are unbiased, that our own interpretations of the Scriptures are the only true ones. It disturbs us, therefore, when we begin to discover that theologies are also influenced by culture. … All human theologies are only partial understandings of Theology as God sees it. We see through a glass darkly.”4
While Heibert emphasizes that the West preferred “sight” over sound, Schwartz describes our fixation on print literacy in terms of a focus onlines. For hundreds of years up until now, anyone who was not “literate” according to this definition was the object of discrimination. This increased the way our society valued the linear process. Our language, Schwartz says, shows a marked dependence on linearity in word choice that signifies clear thinking and even proper behavior. We teach our children to “toe the line … keep in line … walk the straight and narrow.” We also say someone who “follows a clear line of thought” is a good thinker. And if someone really understands another person, we say she can “read him like a book.”
Our logic has been the logic of print where one idea follows another. “Circular reasoning” is synonymous with unacceptable logic, and everyone knows the futility of “running around in circles.”5 Our linear bias makes it difficult to understand people from preliterate auditory cultures where the spoken word is still the only word. Few Bible scholars address this issue. Naturally, unless these scholars have had the capacity for communicative dialogue with preliterate peoples or learn a preliterate language, they are limited to comprehend its essence. (Are we getting closer to cognition?)
Print Fosters Systems
Print literacy encourages an emphasis on systems. To organize (systematize, create retrieval engines and databases) requires systems. This in turn fosters rational thought by divorcing ideas from feelings. Oral societies live with a constant direct tie to information and the emotional content of those they interact with. No printed page carries the emotional impact of an oral presentation because of the lack of the nonverbal elements of communication, which accompanies the oral medium:vocalics — the impact of the voice on meaning; kinesics — the part that gestures and facial expression play on the total package; occulesics — the vivid effect of the use of the eyes in face-to-face dialogue; haptics— the communication of touch; proxemics — the communication of the use and abuse of personal space, etc.6 Almost none of these elements are available in written communication. In fact, the experts in human communication tell us that 65 percent of what we communicate in a dialogue is not related to words.7
Del Tarr, Ph.D., former missionary and president, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Part 2 of this article appears in Winter 2014 EJ Online.
1. Tony Schwartz, The Responsive Chord (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 3.
2. Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1986),135.
3. Ibid., 134,5.
4. Hiebert, 198. See also Del Tarr, Double Image: Biblical Insights From African Parables, (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1994).
5. Schwartz, 10.
6. For an interesting and informative expose of this theory, see: F.S.C. Northrup, The Meeting of East and West (Woodbridge, Connecticut: Ox Bow Press, 1953), and F.H. Smith in Edmund Perry, The Gospel in Dispute (New York: Doubleday, 1958), 99–106. Oralness leads to concrete relational thinking as a first order. Plato and Aristotle set the West on a course of conceptual thinking as a priority. Oral thinkers organize their world of communication on proverbs, aphorisms, allegory, and folk tales. See Del Tarr, Double Image: Biblical Insights From African Parables, 11–15.
7. See Del Tarr, The Foolishness of God, A Linguist Looks at the Mystery of Tongues, (Springfield, Missouri: Access Publishers, 2010), Appendix 1, 397,8 for a list of some experts in nonverbal communications.