How Would You Study the Bible With People Who Can't Read?

How would you begin to study the Bible with people who can't read very well or are illiterate?

I asked Ajith Fernando that one time, because somebody was criticizing something that I had said about the importance of expository preaching. They had said, "You're so Western, Piper. You don't have a clue that millions and millions of people can't read their Bible or don't have any access to the Bible, so what good is expository preaching?"

So I asked Ajith. He serves in Sri Lanka and goes into villages of every level of literacy and preaches—or he used to, anyway. I said, "Do you think I need to back off on the importance of expository preaching?"

He said, "No, I don't."

And he described how they did it: "We go in, and I have a book—the Bible. And another person, my translator, has the book. And I read from the book, and he translates. And they all know there is a book here. There's a book. They see that this man is submitting to a book—God's book."

So he reads out loud, it gets translated; and he explains, and it gets translated.

Now bring that back to the situation in this question. You want to study the Bible with simpler folks, maybe, young children or those who are older and haven't had the chance to do any extensive education. Or maybe they're seriously dyslexic and just don't read.

In that case, I would say that you lean far more heavily on oral material. You speak more. You help them to memorize things and to study, through the conversation that you're having.

But I wouldn't ever want to imply that you put the Bible aside. "Because this is a book and they don't read, therefore we don't use this." No way! You open this and you become the mediator. You can read, they can't read. And you read to them and provide whatever translation and help you can between the book and their hearts and their minds.

All over the world today there's a lot of study, talk, and action about orality. The question has been raised: "Must the evangelization of tribes, cultures, and peoples that are pre-literate wait on the translation of the Bible and on the people becoming literate?" And the answer of many is, "No, it shouldn't wait! We should find ways to evangelize, build the church, and grow a people through oral means."

One of the groups that I know of has about 150-160 Bible stories that they memorize. They go into a village, and over time they teach them to memorize these 160 stories. And those people become the pastors and evangelists. And after memorizing 160 Bible stories, they go out and repeat these stories verbatim. Oral cultures are better at that than we are.

I've heard that there are even little schools that have grown up where nobody can read yet! But they have schools. People come to the school. The whole thing is oral and memorized. They learn the content, talk about it, interpret it. Then they go out and say it. So everything is spreading through orality.

Now, when I was sitting with these guys a few years ago, talking about this, I asked, "You're not saying we can just dispense with Bible translation then, right?" Because it seemed like some of them were leaning that way, and I was on the side of the Wycliffe folks who were saying, "They really do need the Bible!"

And the reason they need the Bible, of course—and why we shouldn't praise orality excessively, as a substitute for literacy—is that, to the degree that they don't become literate, they're going to always be secondhanders.

And I think it's paternalistic to make a person a permanent secondhander. Because if the stories are all in this book, and we're teaching them that they can learn it from us orally, then they're going to be constantly dependent upon us and not just the book.

It may take a generation or two to get the book translated and to produce literacy, but what an arrogant thing it would be—wouldn't it?—to say that orality is just as good as literacy. We'll give them the stories they need, and now they can, for the next 100 or 300 years, or until Jesus comes, do everything in their way, not your Western literacy way. I think that is incredibly paternalistic.