Book Reviews

Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West

Lamin Sanneh Grand Rapids 2003-10-09

The respected Lamin Sanneh, a national of Gambia, is D. Willis James professor of missions and world Christianity at Yale Divinity School. Author of several books, Sanneh structures this work as a kind of Anselmic dialogue between the “post-Christian West” and the “post-Western Christianity” emerging in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. He argues that Christianity’s surprising global revival has been far more a product of the indigenous discovery of true Christianity than of Western Christendom’s discovery of indigenous societies (p. 10). Sanneh hopes that the dialogical style of this easy-to-read book will facilitate discussion and debate. Together with a brief index, the book’s question-and-answer format is numbered and grouped according to the appropriate subject for easy reference.

A convert from Islam, Sanneh asserts that Christianity is not the private enterprise of a political institution or ecclesiastical system, but a religion that transcends ethnic, national, and cultural barriers. The author attributes Christianity’s worldwide resurgence to at least two major factors: the effects of colonialism’s cessation and especially Bible translation, which brings the gospel into the cultural milieu of a people. Regarding the end of colonialism in Africa, the author discusses various factors that gave birth to indigenous Christian movements. Yet because of tendencies toward pietism and individualism, these growing movements remain generally unprepared to help govern in public affairs, whether in the face of an aggressive Islam (with its sharia law) or the AIDS pandemic. The author nevertheless affirms that it is precisely Christian faith that provides a structure for effective democracy.

In popularizing some of the themes from his Translating the Message (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), Sanneh observes that the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages is a central tenet of both the church’s origin and missionary endeavor. In contrast to other world religions that guard the language of their Scriptures and resist translation, Bible translation encourages “internal appropriation” rather than mere “external transmission” of Christian truth (p. 55). Sanneh further argues that translations that adopt indigenous terms for God and seek to contextualize doctrinal concepts have generated impressive expansion and fresh theological thought. Bible translation has stimulated the oral traditions of many indigenous peoples by reinforcing their art of narrative storytelling (p. 109). Indeed it has enhanced a culture’s ability to connect within itself and to mature by familiarizing its people with their own vernacular (p. 111).  The translation of the Bible has been the impetus behind “the creation of more dictionaries and grammars of the world’s languages than any other force in history” (p. 69).

The strength of the book as a sociological discussion of worldwide Christianity might be perceived as its weakness. Little is affirmed regarding classical Christian doctrines, although Sanneh’s approach is engaging. As an example reflective of much in the work, his questioner raises the objection to “Bible translation as being too simplistic. It perpetuates an anachronistic, prescientific worldview about creation, the virgin birth, miracles . . . the second coming of Christ, and judgment day as literal truths. Doesn’t such a superstitious, crude picture of the universe perturb you?” Answer: “No frankly, it doesn’t, I’m afraid to say. You won’t mind if I’m up front on this will you? . . . Bible translation is faithfulness to the word of God, not loyalty to one or another worldview, and certainly not to an elitist account of the matter” (p. 115). He turns the argument to his questioner: If one complains about missionaries using the Bible for their own agenda, then he should be very careful about not doing the same with his Enlightenment agenda. Elsewhere Sanneh chastises Westerners (Christians included) for confidently assuming that norms in Western culture define “generally accepted objective criteria,” by which critical assertions are made about other cultures (pp. 51–53).

In sparing with his largely secular questioner the author avoids direct theological affirmations and so his openness may leave some readers uneasy. He seems unconcerned that translating the biblical God into indigenous religious names may encourage as much syncretism as contextualization. Sanneh’s “Christian pluralism” appears abundantly generous. Individual judgments as to “who is and who is not a believer reduces religion to personal preference” (p. 45). A few might wonder why this book, with the subtitle The Gospel beyond the West, only occasionally actually gets beyond African-North Atlantic dialogue.

Yet Sanneh’s work has a simple eloquence as it alerts its readers to the Christian awakening occurring in much of the world. Designed to inform and to foster discussion, this work reminds Westerners that they have a lot to learn from Christians elsewhere.

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J. Scott Horrell
The author of From the Ground Up: New Testament Foundations for the 21st-Century Church, Dr. J. Scott Horrell is professor of Theological Studies at DTS. He has been a theologian in various world cultures including years spent as a missionary in Brazil. Along with cofounding and editing a leading Latin American theological journal, he has written several books in Portuguese and English. He especially loves to introduce students to a global understanding of Christian faith, often taking teams of them with him as he travels.
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