“Rightly ‘sounding” God’s Word: Amos Yong on Pentecostal orality”

I am presently reading Amos Yong’s 2017 essay volume, The Hermeneutical Spirit: Theological Interpretation and Scriptural Imagination for the 21st Century (Wipf & Stock Publishers; Cascade Books).

All the chapters evidence new trajectories in Yong’s ongoing theological projects. Yet I am mostly drawn to Yong’s chapter on Pentecostal orality, titled, “Understanding and Living the Apostolic Way: Orality and Scriptural Faithfulness in Conversation with African Pentecostalism” (originally drafted for an international conference presentation in Nigeria, November 2016). For this reason, I will begin by critically reviewing this chapter, and then provide a brief survey the book.

Orality as a hermeneutical criterion

While the notion of orality has long been recognized as a major descriptive of Pentecostal spirituality, a question is: how does orality relate, or should relate, to Pentecostal hermeneutics? Yong thus begins this chapter by asking, “How do Pentecostals read and interpret the Bible? How should Pentecostals do so?” (p. 43). Then “in conversation with African pentecostal perspectives” (p. 44), he argues that we recognise the role of orality not just within the interpretive process but even more boldly, its role towards rightly reading and interpreting Scripture (pp. 57-62).’

Yong’s analysis on how orality plays within African Pentecostalism and African culture is especially commendable given that African Pentecostalism is within our present era not only a major shaper of world Pentecostalism but world Christianity as well (pp. 44-45, 48). Yet too often, “prior generations of scholarship” have associated “African orality . . . with cultural inferiority.” Yong’s discussion thus illustrates a corrective, by engaging “African perspectives for the purposes of both comprehending the oral dimensions of human experience and exploring the formulation of a global biblical hermeneutic from such vantage points” (p. 44).

To build his case, Yong retrieves help from orality scholar, anthropologist, and Jesuit priest, Walter Ong, whose 1960’s/1970’s-era work remains a staple resource within orality studies.[1] Ong observed how in traditional cultures and throughout human history prior to the emergence of mechanized printing technology, spoken words, especially when spoken by recognized spiritual leaders, are presumed to be loaded with effectual and spiritual potency. Moreover, this potency requires aesthetically attending to how the words sound. As Yong notes, Ong also demonstrated how the rise of mechanized printing technology de-sacralised this earlier enchanted view of spoken words, while privileging written literacy over the more ancient arts or oral literacy. He thus argued that “orality” comprises a relational dynamic that always subsides once it gets printed. The essence of “orality” comprises sound, hearing, and dialogue; not reading from a printing page. Hence, printed media never conveys the same relational power as “oral media.” The oral Word always comprises greater transforming/relational power than the printed Word.

Drawing both Ong’s work and African cultural perspectives together, Yong therefore challenges us to consider the possibility that: “how something is uttered and heard is not to be subordinated to what is said” (p. 49). Western biblical interpretation has often focused on issues of reading texts in their original contexts. Yet orality dynamics suggest moreover, that meaning emerges from “how the sacred text is sounded.” Including, how it is chanted, sung, prayed, claimed, pronounced, and declared (p. 49). Attending to orality as a hermeneutic criterion, thus also challenges us to posit biblical hermeneutics as a exercise aimed not just towards orthodoxy, but towards the facets of orthopathy (right feeing) and orthopraxy (right actions) as well (pp. 57f).

Therefore, as Yong appropriately notes, attending to how orality dynamics factor within the hermeneutical aims of Scripture reading, thus presents fresh clarity to the ancient dictum: “the rule of prayer shapes the rule of belief (lex orandi, lex credenda) (p. 60). entecostal orality thus suggests: how we pray, shapes what we believe. Perhaps more pointedly: how we speak the Word, shapes what is believed.

To conclude, I will list several practical implications that Yong’s proposal raises. First and foremost, I would say that recognising orality as a hermeneutical criterion, enjoins greater attention towards fostering some measure of aesthetic quality within the ministry of preaching. This means, attending to the sound of preaching, as a criterion towards assessing the integrity of the preached Word.[2]

Second, this also suggests fostering a tighter relation between homiletics and biblical exegesis, specifically by constantly attending to whatever oral patterns might be intrinsically structuring a biblical text, thus also stressing the orality of the ancient cultures from which the Scriptures emerged as written documents. A good example is in fact the first verses of the Bible. Here, a literal translation of Genesis 1.1-3 proves illustrative: “A wind from God hovered . . . and God spoke.“ Might it be that in the ancient mind, the very sound of the stormy wind with all its force, signified something powerful about God speaking?

Third, attending to orality as a hermeneutical criterion, also enjoins us towards attending to the aesthetical sound of all Scripture reading and prayer as well, within the liturgical settings of communities gathered in worship. Hence, this means retrieving a very ancient assumption about sounds and words spoken for sacred purposes: there are sounds and words that when rightly spoken, are loaded with efficacious power.

The Bible was first read within orality rich cultures. In those cultures, truths were often communicated, learned, and retained in memory through memory aiding techniques like verse, rhythm, and melody; hence, through aesthetical sound rhythms and patterns. So rightly sounding the Word is therefore, an aesthetical task. This means we are actually reflecting on the three Transcendentals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and how each proceeds from the other. Yet what this finally suggest is that: how we say the Word, is really just as important is part of the very Word we say. So to reiterate, how we speak the Word, shapes what listeners believe.

Book survey

This new edition is a following volume of a series that began with the 2014 published two volume set, The Dialogical Spirit: Christian Reason and Theological Method for the Third Millennium and The Missiological Spirit: Christian Mission Theology for the Third Millennium Global Context (Wipf & Stock Publishers; Cascade Books). While the essays in the first two volumes were written from 2000-2014, most of this book’s 12 pieces were written after 2011; five between 2016 and 2017. Note also that this volume reflects Yong’s sustained themes on the dialogical and missiological aims the Spirit through the ongoing event(s) of Pentecost. Yet here Yong breaks new important ground by bringing these themes into critically reflective engagement with the “contemporary theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) conversation” which today reaches across all major Christian traditions. For those who may not know, TIS essentially stresses that Scripture should be consciously read within the context of early Christian creedal tradition (e.g., Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, together articulating the triune God as Father (creator), Son (redeemer), and Spirit (sanctifier).

Hence, through these essays, Yong provides examples on how his ongoing work exemplifies a uniquely Pentecostal contribution to the TIS conversation; how we might read Scripture and theologize “in light of the Pentecost event” (p. 13). There are of course other contemporary efforts towards articulating Pentecostal theological hermeneutics, usually in some way engaging the Pentecostal four/five-fold Gospel as heuristic framework for the global Pentecostal theological tradition. So as perhaps a point of departure, what makes Yong’s approach distinctive is his continued elaboration from his “many tongues” metaphor.

Yong thus argues that, recognizing we today read Scripture “after Pentecost,” we therefore, “read “with and through the many tongues of Pentecost” (p. 258). By the “many tongues of Pentecost” Yong means the many “ecclesial traditions” that comprise the whole Christian Church across its theological traditions, along with the “many cultural-linguistic contexts” that comprise the global Christian Church (pp. 258-259). Yong’s dialogical and missiologically nuanced presentation of Pentecostal hermeneutics thus appropriately concludes this volume on the theme of eschatology. Christian hermeneutics “‘in the last days’ (Acts 2:17)” is thus understood as a stretching towards the coming horizon: “It is in this liminal space longing and yearning for the Parousia and return of the Messiah that scriptural interpretation arises” (p. 265). He thus enjoins our “expectation that the depths and riches of God’s work in Christ will continue to be unveiled through the Spirit, in expectation of the final revelation that transcends creaturely space and time” (pp. 265-266).

Another quality of this volume lies in its diversely offered topics, though each takes off from Yong’s engagement with concerns characteristic of theological hermeneutics. So while the first three chapters specifically focus on a Pentecostal perspective towards this theme, Yong presents the next three chapters as discussions on “theological anthropology” (chs 4-6), and the next three on a “pneumatological soteriology” (chs 7-9). The final three chapters (chs 10-12) provides examples on how Yong’s pentecostally take on theological hermeneutics, provide unique readings on selected Bible texts.

I will conclude by mentioning another chapter I found especially captivating: “Running the (Special) Race: New (Pauline) Perspectives on Disability and Theology of Sport” (ch 11). As its title suggest, this chapter retrieve Yong’s earlier efforts towards bringing in conversation together, Pentecostal and Disability studies (similar to ch 4: “Many Tongues, Many Senses: Pentecost, The Body Politic, and the Redemption of Dis/Ability”). Yong’s long sustained explorations at the junction of Pentecostal and disability studies are much rooted in his own life experience, having a brother with Down syndrome. While his prime aim for this essay is teasing out a “Pauline theology of sport” (p. 222), I am sure readers will find his discussion highly relevant for Christian life altogether. For Paul indeed likens the life in Christ as a race, and exhorts us, “Run in such a way that you may win . . . “ (1 Cor. 9.24). Yong however reminds us about the “weakness” motif that permeates the Corinthian letters, and challenges us how we might read Paul’s athletic imagery through the lens of that motif (p. 230). Doing so grants us new perspectives “on what it means to compete, win, or be disqualified” (p. 232). Using the modern “Special Olympics” rather than the normal Olympic Games as a a norm for thinking through our approach to athletics, Yong raises a number of provocative questions for our reflection. I will thus end by listing several on this topic of “running the race”:

  • “ . . . what if, as we have already seen in 1 Corinthians, the horizon is not the advancement of the self but the formation of a new people of God constituted at its center by those who are weak and otherwise socially ignored or marginalized?” (pp. 233-234)
  • “Can we imagine sporting events without winners and losers? The theological counter to this question has to do precisely with what kinds of winners and losers result. Is it not possible for us to acknowledge winners without perpetuating the ancient Greek ideal that second place (or worse) is unacceptable? Is it possible to nurture a spirit of sportsmanship that seeks the common good of all, including those who have been otherwise excluded and marginalized?” (p. 236)
  • “The preceding ruminations suggest that Paul would intone some cautionary admonitions about the various manifestations of sport. In particular, he might suggest that in this domain, we might still be able to learn a thing or two if we adopted the perspectives of those with disabilities. After all, if foolishness and weakness are at the heart of what means to be the people of God, might we not also take these as ordering principles that structure how we compete alongside one another for the ultimate prizes that truly matter?” (p. 236)

[1] See Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Culture and Religious History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970); idem, idem, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 3rd ed. (Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1982; New York, NY: Routledge, 1982, 2002, 2012).

[2] Yong also explores how implications orality raises towards preaching in his essay, “The Spirit and Proclamation: A Pneumatological Theology of Preaching Part II: Orality and the Sound of the Spirit: Intoning an Acoustemological Pneumatology” The Living Pulpit (Summer 2015): 28-32.