The work reviewed here; ‘Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West’ is authored by highly respected scholar and African theologian Lamin Sanneh, born in Gambia 1942, now a nationalised U.S citizen is also known by his alias name ‘D. Willis James, a Professor of Missions & World Christianity, Professor of History, Professor of International and Area Studies at Yale Divinity School’. Sanneh, has a Roman Catholic faith, after converting from Islam; and is also an author of over ten scholarly books and numerous academic journal articles.
There can be no doubt to the genre of Sanneh’s work, it would happily have a place in any library’s Religion, Spirituality & New Age sections. Sanneh, has written this book to alert a readership with interests in Christian mission, the impact that biblical content has had upon the relationship between religious and political contexts. Sanneh does this by drawing attention to current important areas of a global context while making several controversial assumptions. Sanneh, writes that he is alerting the ‘Post-Christian West’ to the authenticity of a ‘Post-Western Christianity’, (pg. 83) to “close the gap between a robust secularization and a quiescent private piety in order to tell the story of Christianity as a world religion” (pg. 4) … In essence, Sanneh is highlighting to the reader to a ‘resurgence’ or revival of Christianity that has rapidly taken place in two of the third worlds, the African and Asian continents. Sanneh’s focus is particularly from the 1980’s, with reference dating back to the colonial imperialism period too. Sanneh’s, argument pliable to a Latin American context, in direct relation to the effects from both the Spanish and French conquests.
Sanneh’s book is written in a highly energetically charged series of interactive Q & A arguably based upon an Elenchus method. Sanneh, lays claim that this method is used for ‘tackling difference in a charitable spirit and for discussing concrete issues with mutual openness and respect’ (p. 5) … The text used here, is taken from an invitation made by Sanneh to students from both religious and secular disciplines. They were invited into discussions around the subject of ‘Christianity as a world religion’ (pg. ix) … thus, the discussion brings about a personal and divergent views. Sanneh claims that by using this method he can ‘develop and present the subject of Christianity as a world religion.’ (pg. 7).
Sanneh applies both a practical and contextual theological approach to determine whether in-fact Christianity is a world religion! By applying such methods, this allows for a reflective approach upon the formation of Christianity outside of the Westernised world. This also allows for the examination of growth and decline of Christianity on a global scale; allowing Sannah and the reader to understand and engage deeply into the communities where God is at work. Sanneh’s book allows the reader the opportunity of discernment thus allowing for a respond to God’s presence and action, and so to engage in faithful and effective witness within their own contexts.
The body of the work is presented in two chapters, then further divided into three and two sub-sections. Sanneh, starts off by drawing attention to some interesting facts and statistics; what Sanneh refers to as ‘facts on the ground’ (pg14), thereby demonstrating the historical foundation to his work. He states that the new churches were brought into life ‘predominantly by the poor and marginalised’ (pg. 15). He derives this growth not directly to the good intentioned missionary, but to the increasingly exclusivity of missionary missions. He goes on the explain that this exclusivity saw a growing indigenous culture forming their own churches. He suggests that it was predominantly the poor and marginalised; provoked by Christianity that gave birth to this revival and in turn they saw a renewing of their languages, customs and traditions by adoption of the Gospel message (pg. 16,18,22, 25). Sanneh, offer the reader several definitions to terminologies. He first begins by drawing lines between what is described as ‘World Christianity and global Christianity’, even drawing upon an imperialistic term, ‘Christendom.’ The language now becomes somewhat clearer thanks to Sanneh’s explanations and the new term ‘World Christianity’ a modern replacement for the archaic Christendom term, which describes how Christianity as a church traverses and embeds into cultures and societies that were yet to receive the proclaimed gospel of the Christian Church. Whereas global Christianity refers more to the formations and patterns of practice developed within the European context (pg. 22-23). Sanneh, continues by drawing a very decisive line between was is conversion and synchronism. The definition that Sanneh gives for conversion is around the refocusing of the mind within its cultural and social contexts. That is to refocus our being in its entirety, our thoughts, emotions, likes & dislikes and our perceptions in-light of the Gospel message. Whereas synchronism simply means that Christianity has been incorporated into the existing frameworks of a culture but is still recognisable; as it was with the Greek cultures. Sanneh, writes it ‘the unresolved, unassimilated and tension-filled mixing of Christian ideas with local custom and rituals’ (pg. 44). Synchronism has little to no connection with personal life and community. It does however come into existence through conversion, such as ‘the norms of faith and forgiveness, undergirded by the practices and arts of charitable action, community, solidarity, trust and faithfulness, as a way forward for all of society’ (pg.33).
Sanneh, draws attention to the African revival partially the period of the 1980’s; he describes the revival by drawing attention to Christian growth from the ending of colonial imperialism (pg.97) when ‘indigenous religions were strongest’ (pg.18). To help the reader in understanding the revival of the 1980’s Sanneh, illuminates the reader to that particular model of Mission use by the Nigerian Bishop Ajayi Crowther (1807-1891). Bishop Crowther, paved the way for the indigenous populations of Africa in the discovery Christianity. Sanneh the example of Bishop Crowther to support his claim as Bishop Crowther was a with visionary pioneer in the translation of the Bible into a native African language (Yoruba). Not only is Bishop Crowther credited to biblical translation he also demonstrated great sensitivity to the study of African cultures, also establishing dialogue with the Islamic demographic, he also aided the abolishing of slavery (pg. 89-90). Sanneh, does suggests that the West was not receptive to the good news coming from Africa (pg. 20).
Sanneh, response to a posed question, that the West takes intellectual advantage over Christian Africa, due to the vast amounts of Christian literature produced within the West. Is of no great surprise! When Sanneh, suggests that the West could learn a great deal from the African Christian framework; of which is separated from the Westernised theological framework and the indigenous leaders. Sanneh, mentions the ‘Creed of Maasai’ (African Creed, pg.59-60) Sanneh, also mentions the ‘Yoruba Nigerian converts to Christianity,’ these converts keep the older theological beliefs (pg. 59). Sanneh, opinion of how the indigenous populace engaged, responded to Gospel and theology is on par with ‘Hellenistic theology of the early church’ (pg. 11).
Earlier on in Sanneh, work he offers helpful explanations of terminologies used, which aids the reader in understanding Sanneh’s opposition to criticism that Christianity lacks tolerance towards pluralism and multiculturalism! Sanneh, then gives factual evidence to bolster his apologetically defence. He declares, that Christianity has ‘over two thousand language groups in the world’. There are more people than in any other religion praying and worshiping in various languages. Sanneh, goes further in suggesting that Christianity is the religion behind the birth of language literature ‘more than any other force in history’ (pg. 69). He states the World Christianity foundationally multicultural ‘is a fresh impression that reveals a facet of the unfolding design of the Gospel in its apostolic conception” (pg. 85). To substantiate Sanneh’s claim, the reader need only to turn the pages of Acts in the Holy Bible to observe that it is a message for all peoples of all nations, or the Gospel according to Mark ‘…My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations… (Acts, 11:17). For more modern evidence one only needs to observe the growing diversity in the global Christian church congregations not to mention the growing number of Christian agencies both domestic and foreign, whether it be answering a need of demographic or in biblical translation and Distribution.
This leads us answer the final section of Sanneh’s work, that focuses great need of Biblical translation in the current Christian revival. Sanneh, writes that the initial Christian and missionary movement ‘made translation and interpretation and necessary…’ (pg. 97). Sanneh argues here that Christian missionaries became Global pioneers of language development. It was these pioneers that developed new alphabets and languages, and by the creation of these new languages this in turn brought about social and cultural transformations. By translating the Scriptures into national and regional languages this has given birth to the Christian revival in an African in context (pg. 90). The benefits for the African people in this case have be enormous, they are able to relate the scriptures to their own context., placing God at the absolute centre of the African culture and quintessentially creating everybody equal (pg. 105-106).
Sanneh ends his work by eluding the reader to the challenge that Christianity once had to face with regards to bible translation, the fact that Christians viewed anyone outside of the Westernised world as somewhat remote, alien even (pg. 123). These Christian pioneers first had to understand the cultural rituals and practices and even the heritage of the communities in which they were to work, to enable them to accroctly translate Scriptures in a norm westernise way. By doing so this has created a revival into a religion that is now a world faith (pg.130).
Western Christians and secularists, caught in the dominant ethos of inclusivism and critique of all things religious, would do well to pay careful heed to the realities of history and the Christian resurgence in the two-thirds world. Those Christian brothers and sisters bring the possibilities of renewal to western Christian faith and practice. Sanneh’s book provides hope and credibility on that journey.
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