In Africa, many village women sing to stay motivated as they work. Patients waiting to see doctors at community clinics harmonize indigenous songs. Children are taught cultural values through songs and stories recounted during initiation rites. The Toposa people of South Sudan are no different. They sing about harvest time or a favorite bull. If they are believers, they also sing stories from God’s Word.
Songs and stories can impact hearts in any culture, but they are crucial conveyors of truth and meaning among people like the Toposa, whose worldview is shaped by spoken rather than written words.
Oral learners, such as the Toposa, have no written records or directives. They can’t rely on books, study guides, or sermon notes to navigate life and faith. Instead, they teach and learn verbally through proverbs, poems, songs, and stories passed from person to person, generation to generation. These art forms pass on history, celebrate life and culture, and teach appropriate behavior.
The marriage of story and song in the Bible
Narrative songs are a powerful way for Scripture to permeate an oral culture. The stories demonstrate who God is, how he relates to us, and how we should relate to him and others. Stories in song format are easy to remember, fun to sing, and simple to teach others. They transmit easily from household to household.
Like the Toposa, the ancient Israelites were oral learners. It’s no wonder, then, that we find the marriage of stories and songs in the Bible. In Exodus, after the Lord parted the Red Sea and then let it come crashing down on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, Miriam led the Israelite women in song and dance, proclaiming, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Ex. 15:21 ESV).
Narrative songs are a powerful way for Scripture to permeate an oral culture.
Doesn’t this sound a little odd? Shouldn’t the women be proclaiming the goodness of God instead of the details of the soldiers’ deaths? To an oral learner, the women are proclaiming the goodness of God by demonstrating exactly how he is good. They proclaim his power, his protection, and his warrior nature, through a story-song that demonstrates those traits. This is the oral mind at work.
Oral or literate: What’s the difference?
Literate learners think conceptually. They deduce through reason how an abstract principle applies to them. Oral learners are more concrete. When taught a fact or principle, the oral learner won’t necessarily accept it until he or she has experienced it or heard a story about it.
For example, a timid, African grandmother was told that as a new follower of Christ, she has a story to tell and a responsibility to share the story with others. But it wasn’t until she heard the story of Moses—a stutterer commissioned by God with an important message—that she truly believed she also could tell her story.
Because of these differences in processing information and gaining understanding, oral and literate learners approach Scripture differently.
Songs and stories can impact hearts in any culture, but they are crucial conveyors of truth and meaning among people like the Toposa.
A literate learner who needs to be reminded that God will provide in times of hardship might turn to a verse like Philippians 4:19 (ESV): “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
In a similar situation, an oral learner wouldn’t reference a single verse. He or she would remember a story. A narrative that evokes the meaning of God’s provision, like the Old Testament story of a widow’s endless supply of oil and flour (1 Kings 17:7–16), would speak to oral learners more powerfully. They are situational and experiential. They observe action and imitate it.
In South Sudan, Toposa believers are putting into practice what the apostle Paul urged in his letter to the Colossians almost two thousand years ago: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16 ESV).
Paul understood how people in oral cultures learn and remember. He knew songs are a powerful way for God’s words to burrow deep into hearts.
Melanie Clinton is an IMB writer who lives in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rose Shepherd served as an IMB videographer in Sub-Saharan Africa.