Thursday 27 February 2020

Christianity in an illiterate/ oral culture

Could there be real Christianity in an illiterate small tribal society, for example hunter-gatherers; in which all knowledge is orally transmitted?

This is something of a litmus test for me, because I feel that the answer must be yes - assuming that God is creator and our Father who wants all his children to have the chance of salvation.

But if the answer is yes; then much of what traditional Christianity assumes to be essential is revealed as inessential - for example The Bible, Priests and Sacraments. Also Orthodoxy - in the sense that precise transmission and testing of belief is not really possible; 'heresies' of many types would presumably be endemic.

Furthermore, it seems to me that in practice Christianity, under such conditions, needs to be a matter of direct personal revelation, on something approaching (not reaching) a universal basis - that almost-everybody would need to be able to know Jesus Christ and his work and gifts - personally, directly, frequently, and with sufficient validity and precision to choose salvation.

Anyway - this is a 'thought experiment' that often comes to mind; perhaps because the corruption of the church, the Bible, and everything else begins to converge modern society onto something like this situation.


Adil said...

Tbh I've never liked universal literacy. I find it problematic that moderns look down upon illiteracy. The illiterate ancients could carry the entire Iliad in their minds. So I mostly find the Bible compulsion of mainstream Christianity irritating, because it reminds me of streamlined factory style religion too much. It also makes the Bible boring. It's not exactly exciting to hear a modern priest read the Bible. For me the Bible mostly stays on the top shelf and I don't touch it too often, since I don't really like to 'read' it conventionally and be part of that 9 to 5 Christianity.

The Bible already carries the mind of our civilisation more than people like to think. That being said, of course times were better when people read the Bible instead of the news.. So perhaps 9 to 5 Christianity would be better after all, since we can't go back to illiteracy. For now!

dearieme said...

As far as anyone knows, much of Christianity was oral until - what? Paul's letters? Mark's gospel? Or do you suspect that there must have been bits and bobs in writing for Mark to synthesise? Do you think "Q" existed?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - You might as well read my minibook Lazarus Writes, (accessed free from the sidebar) because I cover much of this stuff you keep asking me about!

I think the Fourth Gospel was written, by Lazarus, shortly after Jesus died - that has Jesus bringing Men resurrected life eternal (sin = death) by following Jesus like a sheep follow the shepherd. He accomplished this work by becoming divine, before he died - indeed he resurrected Lazarus before he died.

The Synoptics (Mark seems first) and Paul's understanding seem to have been compiled from indirect (second hand or further removed) sources and some time later at least a decade. I think they had no knowledge of the Fourth Gospel.

I presume they were gathered from memories, interviews, legends, intuitions, revelations.

I perceive a different agenda evident in Matthew (who fits the story of Jesus into Jewish expectations/ prophecies of the Messiah) compared with Luke/ Paul who have a greater focus on Jesus as saviour from sin-as-immorality/ Jewish-law-breaking - and see this as being accomplished at the time of Jesus's death, which had-to-be by crucifixion.

Mark strikes me as more of an unsynthesised collection of the above kinds of sources, not arguing any particular point.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Eric - I have a hunch, not certain, that the wheel will come full circle; that in Heaven we will become 'illiterate' again.

...That there will be no books or other recorded materials; and all knowledge and arts will be 'kept in our heads' and performed as required; and knowledge will be shared direct - mind-to-mind (with no intermediate 'communication').

Adil said...


Sounds promising!

edwin faust said...

Literacy has never been a prerequisite for holiness. Rudolph Steiner asserted that were no gospels written, Christ would still have been knowable by intuition. It's arguable. In any event, most people who call themselves Christians are not very familiar with the Bible or any spiritual literature. Whatever power of literacy they have acquired is used mostly to read newspapers or magazines or spy or sex novels. Their knowledge of Christianity was acquired orally, by listening to sermons or Sunday school teachers or nuns and priests. As a traditional, pre-Vatican II-raised Catholic, I never read the Bible growing up. There was none in my home. Few people in pre-Gutenberg times had books of any sort. There was a lament about the failure of public education in America published some years ago titled "Why Johnny Can't Read." A few acute observers noted that, historically, Johnny never could read. And Johnny, left to his own resources, would likely have remained illiterate.

I think Christianity is, has always been, primarily an oral tradition. On a side note, I read "Lazarus Writes." Thanks for that. It confirmed my long-held belief that John's Gospel is the primary document of Christianity. Scholars dislike it, as do most theologians, and relegate it to being a late addendum to the synoptics, for it steals their thunder, so to speak. They cannot get above it, as they can with the other gospels, which are amenable to the sort of source analysis that academia thrives on. John's Gospel brings you face to face with Christ. Not an entirely comfortable position for many of us who don't want our lives altered in any major way. Bart Ehrman, an American biblical scholar, uses the synoptics to discount John's gospel as having anything to do with the historical, meaning actual, Jesus. His argument is that if Christ had said all of the startling things that appear in John's Gospel, in which He clearly claims that He is Divine, come down from Heaven, "Before Abraham was, I am", etc., such statements would have surely appeared in the synoptic gospels. Their absence, he insists, prove that John's Gospel is a much later product and the result of an evolution of thought that imposes itself on the historical Christ, re-inventing Him in a radical way. The main refutation of his arguments is in reading the gospels themselves. Nothing brings us into intimate relation to Christ more than John's Gospel. Its authenticity is experienced.

Bruce Charlton said...

@edwin - "Its authenticity is experienced" That's just how I see it too. But I found that once I had taken on board the primacy of the Fourth Gospel, it leads to a very radical rearrangement and selection of the truth of Christianity. So I think I can see exactly why IV it has been consistently misinterpreted and understood in such a distorted and selective fashion. It really is a threat!