Book Review: Worldview-based Storying

Tom Steffen’s book, Worldview-based Storying: The Integration of Symbol, Story, and Ritual in the Orality Movement, is the first book in the Series “There’s More to the Story” written by the consultants of Worldview Resource Group. I reviewed book two (July 2018) and book three (December 2017) – the books were not published sequentially. Each book stands on its own yet reading them in the order intended would be beneficial to the reader.

In the Preface, Steffen describes the concerns addressed by the series:

Cross-cultural communicators of the gospel all too often neither provide adequate backstory nor sufficiently know whom they address, much less how they story. In fact, some even consider such awareness totally unnecessary! This all too often leads to an ineffective, truncated biblical story. This series “attempts to preempt the rapidly-prepared, quick-fix approaches that tell only small portions of the biblical story, and in their place, present a comprehensive, big-picture, local-culture sensitive, viable, reproducible, and thoroughly biblical alternative.” -Kindle loc. 259

Steffen’s book is divided into two parts. Part One traces the development of the Orality Movement from the 1980s to the present. This historical overview gives the reader an understanding of the development and significance of the Orality Movement in missions.

The second part is the heart of the book, Steffen writes:

Part Two: Making the Case for Worldview-based Storying seeks to address a major deficiency I observed as the Orality Movement developed – inadequate attention given to understanding and utilizing the host culture’s worldview in the communication process. This undersight has often resulted in communication noise, jeopardizing a clear understanding of God’s message. -Kindle loc. 545

Steffen encourages us to learn worldview by studying a culture’s symbols, stories, and rituals. Indeed this is a form of ethnography focused on this triad. In his introduction he provides us with the basic assumptions on which the book is based:

  1. Symbols and stories can be reviewed and reinforced through ritual. 2. The gospel contains rival symbols and stories that 3. are reinforced through rituals. 4. Every communication encounter includes noise. 5. The deconstruction of worldview enhances the possibility of true transformation. 6. The greater the cultural distance between cultures, the louder the noise. 7. Communication noise cannot be eliminated, only minimized. 8. Reduced communication noise brings increased clarity to one’s message. 9. Understanding and utilizing worldview-based storying can reduce communication noise and thereby enhance message clarity. – Kindle loc. 557

These are commonly agreed upon assumptions in cross-cultural communications. Steffen assumes that the reader is familiar with cross-cultural communication theory. [I would recommend reading one of the following books if one is not familiar with terms such as “communication noise” – David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally; Donald K. Smith, Creating Understanding; Moreau, Campbell, and Greener, Effective Intercultural Communication.] After identifying these assumptions, Steffen does not leave the reader guessing what he is trying to communicate, he writes:

As the big idea of this book I submit that deep-level worldview research through discovery of the interaction and integration of symbol, story, and ritual will help minimize communication noise in order to enhance clarity of God’s message communicated to both primary-secondary oral audiences at home and abroad. -Kindle loc. 594

Steffen advocates learning a culture’s worldview through analyzing the triad of symbols, stories, and ritual. While pointing out that these never stand on their own, he describes them in three separate chapters. He describes their integration in chapter 7:

Ritual rehearses privately and publicly a system of symbols and stories that influence one’s beliefs and behaviors. Ritual serves as a mirror of the community’s reality that constructs worldview through anchor symbols and stories. Ritual not only mirrors reality, it creates reality. – Kindle loc. 4421.

The author illustrates his nine step approach to analyzing symbol, story, and ritual by exploring the Ifugao marriage process he observed as a missionary in the Philippines. At times the reader may desire more explanation of the process yet the process is illustrated sufficiently. By slowing down a careful reader will understand enough of the process in order to follow the plan in other settings.

One place where more detail would be helpful is in the ninth step when Steffen deconstructs and reconstructs the worldview of the Ifugao (Kindle loc. 5150-5169).There are checklists and possible Scripture-informed substitutes given. But more explicit explanation of how the understanding of the worldview gained by analysis of symbol, story, and ritual affects the communication of the gospel to the Ifugao would strengthen the book.

In the final chapter, “Envisioning the Future,” Steffen identifies 14 “Points to Ponder.” Each of these “Points to Ponder” include lists of “Questions Requiring Follow-up.” these lists of questions are at times stimulating and at other times frustrating. They are stimulating in inviting creative thinking. They may frustrate the reader by not providing or pointing to possible answers.

Overall the book addresses a major weakness of the Orality Movement and provides a remedy through worldview analysis of symbol, story, and ritual. The book is a good introductory volume to the series, “There’s More to the Story.” The reader will also find the appendices helpful though appendix D is confusing due to a formatting problem in the Kindle edition.

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