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Stories from the Field – Oral Bible in Borneo

For our second session in the Work@Wycliffe series, we invited Mr and Mrs Teoh, Bible storying specialists and consultants, to share about oral storying projects they have been involved in.

First, they distinguished between an ‘audio Bible’, which is essentially a recording of a print Bible being read aloud, and an ‘oral Bible’ which is in a natural, colloquial style. An oral Bible could be a selection of stories targeted for a specific audience, or entire books of the Bible, or the whole Bible. The oral style is particularly suitable for listeners who are pre-literate, or prefer to learn through oral means, or are unfamiliar with the language of available Bibles.

Oral storying projects are usually of shorter duration and therefore less intimidating to begin with than full Bible translation projects. They also bear ‘fruit’ earlier! Typically, a storying project will aim to craft a set of about 20 stories over a period of two to three years. The goal of such projects is to produce stories that are easily understood and remembered, and also easily retold to others. After gaining confidence and skills through oral crafting of stories, teams often go on to translate entire books of the Bible or even the whole Bible.

One of the projects that the speakers have been involved in is the Hakka Oral Bible project in Borneo using the OneStory[1] approach. The Hakka-speaking Chinese population there is large, but most of them do not read Chinese and do not speak Mandarin. They may speak and read the national language, but not very well. As a result, there is no Bible they can read or understand well.

The Hakka Oral Bible project began in 2014, and for three years, four storying workshops were held each year, each lasting three weeks. During each workshop, the facilitators (the Teohs) worked with the native Hakka speakers to craft and check a few stories. By the end of the project, they had crafted 27 stories.

Working in the national language (because the facilitators did not speak Hakka), the native speakers would listen several times to a recording of the Bible passage that was to be crafted. They would then reflect on the passage, and retell the story in the national language until they captured all the details accurately. After discussing the meaning and deciding how to render key terms in Hakka, they would practise retelling the story in Hakka until they felt they had a clear, accurate and natural draft. To help them remember the details, the crafters often used storyboards – rough sketches like a comic strip. Once they were satisfied with the story, it would be recorded.

The recording would then be played to groups of testers from the community to check for clarity and naturalness. The listeners were asked questions to test how well they understood the story. They were also asked to retell the story – if it had been well crafted, the listeners should be able to recall and retell it quite easily! If the listeners had difficulties retelling the story, it would indicate that revision was needed. Every story was worked and reworked in this way.

Once a story was revised and retested, it was then shared with the community. Some groups might use them for discussion in story fellowship groups, just like any Bible study. For the Hakka team, producing oral stories was just the beginning. They went on to translate (orally) the book of Luke, the script for the Jesus film as well as worship songs, and are now working on Acts. Some people liked the recordings so much that they played them until their players broke down! Others played the recordings in their shops for their customers to hear.

Listen to some oral materials in Chinese dialects: Voice of Hakka – stories, Luke, Jesus film, songs, etc. in Pontianak Hakka. Gospel of Mark (on YouTube) – in Penang Hokkien. Bible stories – in KL Cantonese.

Wycliffe Singapore plans to start a project to tell Bible stories in colloquial Chinese dialects. [1] The OneStory method is just one of many storying approaches. Read more about orality on the International Orality Network website.


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