The place for diversity in the church – African oral tradition and the gospel

As the dust settles on the calling of new apostles that fit the traditional mold, issues around diversity in the church continue to fill not a few LDS forums. I’ve taken the position that diversity in the calling of apostles is a secular doctrine, however I recognize that as a worldwide church, there is a real need to respond to the growing diversity. This response to diversity need not be in the form of leadership representation, rather it needs to be in the manner and form gospel knowledge is delivered.

Like the Nephites of old, most African cultures possess a largely oral tradition [1]. We are powerful in speaking, not so much in words. We are great orators and story tellers, not so much writers [2]. This power in the spoken word has passed on rich knowledge and customs from generation to generation. They’ve spawned cultures and traditions that have survived the test of time and kept traditional African societies orderly and in check. This deeply ingrained oral tradition makes the traditional/ average African more disposed to consuming information in the oral rather than written form.

Now consider the experience of an average African in the church. More often than not, s/he is made to conform to a largely alien manner of receiving instruction and knowledge. The instruction is given to read and consume information from books written in English, western ways of consuming information. It seems unfortunately that not much effort is put into promoting other ways of gospel instruction that speak to the African oral tradition. Granted the book of Mormon and some church material is available in several African languages. It however doesn’t solve the problem as it bears the same burden of being in the written form. Looking at lds.org, audio-books exist only in English and a select few European languages.

In D&C 1:24, the Lord speaks of giving the book of commandments ‘after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding’ [3].  I’m afraid that this same courtesy is yet to be fully extended to hundreds and thousands of African saints. You may wonder well why don’t these Africans just convert to a written tradition. It doesn’t seem to quite work that way. The Lord intimated as much in Ether 12, where he reassures Moroni that their oral traditions were acceptable unto him and should not be mocked by the ‘Gentiles’. He promises that a perceived weakness can be turned to strength.

The diversity conversation needs to be around how the church can help non-western people better access the gospel, how the process of every man hearing the gospel according to their language, unto their understanding be accelerated [4], how all saints can be spoken to and naturally understand [5].  To this end, I would like to see an Elder Sitati give a conference talk in Swahili, or an Elder Choi give a talk in Korean. A far fetched dream most likely. How about a talk delivered in of these ways (video at end of post), unlikely too I know. More likely perhaps is the church putting more effort into widely disseminating and encouraging the use of the translated conference talks. More effort can also be put into making more church material available in audio form in local languages.

With leadership in particular, audio versions of the handbook, or selections of it, may go far in exposing new African leadership to appropriate church administration. The proliferation of technology allows this to happen rather easily than at any other time in the history of man. This may not be the definitive way to go but i hope more thought is put into accounting for this alternate tradition.

The day surely approaches when every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language [6], not just through missionaries but also through other means that are familiar to and comfortable for them.

Notes – My thoughts here stem from my experience interacting with Africans who don’t seem to quite fully understand not just the language, but also the nuances and context of some church material. These don’t always translate so well to a non native speaker or one who isn’t well versed with the American roots of the church. I also see a perennial problem that exists in many African wards with getting saints to consume and understand written church material, thus stunting the spiritual growth of members and limiting the selection pool for priesthood leaders. A step wise introduction of audio/oral versions then graduating on to more written material may aid African saints to gain greater gospel knowledge and grow spiritually.

References

1. African Oral Tradition Then and Now: A Culture in Transition Akintunde Akinyemi. http://www.unilorin.edu.ng/ejournals/index.php/cp/article/view/190

2. 2 Ne 33:1

3. D&C 1:24

4. 2 Ne 31:3

5. D&C 29:33

6. D&C 90:11

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