Lamin O. Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity.
Lamin Sanneh, one of the leading scholars in World Christianity, has written a follow-up to his 2003 book Whose Religion Is Christiania? in which he helped lay the foundation for the burgeoning field of world Christianity. He defines world Christianity as the way Christianity is received and expressed in new cultures, differentiating it from global Christianity, which he defines as the export of European cultural Christianity (Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christiania? p.22). In his current book, Sanneh greatly expands upon the research in the second chapter of Philip Jenkins's The Next Christiania, also entitled "Disciples of All Nations", which questions the link between colonial expansion and traditional missions' methodologies. Instead of working in tandem with Western imperialism, Sanneh calls for a return to the New Testament model of indigenization--allowing those being evangelized to embrace Christianity according to their own culture. He is eminently qualified to discuss this issue. Born in Gambia and educated around the world, Sanneh is currently a US citizen, and Professor of History and World Christianity and Chair of the Council on African Studies at Yale University.
With the realization that Christianity is withering in the West but blooming in the East, Sanneh returns to the roots of the faith in order to discover the origins of this trend. He carefully walks us through the history of the Christian faith, directing our attention to the impact Christianity had on the development of the Western world.
Sanneh examines the roots of Christianity in the Roman Empire, explores its en counters with Islam, and presents the way it changed in the expansion west and south. Included are discussions about how Christianity instilled in the Roman Empire the idea of philanthropy (p.21) and how Christianity, unlike Islam, is not identified with any one language (p.25). The majority of the book consists of Sanneh's rebuke of European and American colonial efforts in South America, Africa, and Asia. Upon this extended history lesson, Sanneh builds his case for the indigenization of Christianity.
Sanneh has a simple point to make, and he makes it over and over again. What he is trying to say is simple, but it bears repeating because it flies in the face of traditional and lauded mission praxis. He reminds his readers that Christianity is not a culture unto itself, but, rather, is transcultural. When Christianity enters a new culture, it does not replace it, but transforms it from within. Thus, Sanneh calls for the indigenization of Christianity instead of the transplanting of European or North American forms of the faith (p.269).
Sanneh explains that vernacular language and idioms are a fundamental part of each culture. To threaten them is to threaten the society. He advocates the adoption of the names of God, analogies of salvation, temples, and holy days from the resident religion(s) to the Christian faith (p.45). When these things are challenged head-on, Christianity appears as a threat to the society rather than as a way to salvation. Through the use of vernacular language, the indigenous population can better understand the gospel message (p.179). Recognizing God as the most-high God, they will come to recognize the falseness of their old deities. Salvation means different things in different settings. The idea of Christian salvation intrinsically is a difficult concept to grasp, so we depend on analogies to help us understand. Through the use of their own concepts of salvation, we can convey the meaning in a form they can comprehend. By consecrating their temples and holy days to Christ, we are not destroying their old way of life but changing what was already there. Christians have done this from the outset. December twenty-fifth was a pagan feast day. The Christmas tree was a pagan symbol of fertility. Many of the old Roman basilicas were taken over by Christian congregations. Through the co-opting of the vernacular language and the outward symbols of other religions, Christianity does not threaten or destroy but improves and saves.
Realizing that he is challenging entrenched methodologies, Sanneh provides countless examples of how, over the past millennia, missionary efforts have foundered and failed--or, at best, have met with limited, short-term success--when the missionaries imposed their own cultural norms on the native populations. Wisely, he juxtaposes these failures with accounts of missionaries who have reaped great harvests by infusing the tenets of Christianity into the new culture (pp.140-45, 180-85).
From this work, Sanneh's readers will soon realize that, because the origin of the Western world is built on the scaffolding of Christianity, we erroneously equate Christianity with European and/or North American culture. Christianity is so foundational to Western culture that we find it impossible to differentiate our culture from our faith. This has led us to impose our culture on others while believing that we merely are preaching the unadulterated gospel message. Sanneh has correctly concluded that when we allow others to receive and reflect Christianity according to their own culture, mission's works and the gospel are spread throughout the world.
Sanneh is careful to distinguish between indigenization and syncretism--endorsing the former and rejecting the latter (p.35). While syncretism remains a danger for those who take up the mantle of indigenization, with careful guidance and strict adherence to the basic tenets of Christianity, the truth of the gospel will not get watered down. Unfortunately, Sanneh is not so careful with his choice to use the term "pluralism", which can lead some readers to the false conclusion that he advocates a pluralistic view of salvation. This is not the case. He is not suggesting that the local religions should be absorbed into the local expression of Christianity but that each local expression of Christianity is a legitimate expression. The external manifestation of Christianity may vary from culture to culture, but the internal, basic tenets of the faith remain the same for all Christians. For Sanneh, pluralism refers to the multitude of different cultures living out their Christian faith as their own unique expression (p.283).
For anyone interested in missions, Disciples for All Nations is a clarion call for the reevaluation of hegemonic missions' methodologies. Sanneh's point is a convincing plea for a return to a form of servanthood that promotes the acceptance of a Christian faith in keeping with that culture. The proof of his claims can be seen in the explosion of Christianity throughout Africa and Asia. Outstripping the Islamic wave of conversion, Christianity is becoming the first legitimate world religion.
Christopher J. Black is an adjunct professor and PhD candidate reading theology at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.
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|Author:||Black, Christopher J.|
|Publication:||International Review of Mission|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2010|
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