Sunday, May 25, 2008

Lamin Sanneh: Whose Religion Is Christianity?: The Gospel beyond the West

One of the areas of ongoing reflection for me is bringing my Western cultural and theological assumptions into dialogue with that of world Christianity. As many people are aware, Christianity is growing and vibrant in the Southern Hemisphere in contrast to the North, and this "new complexion" for Christianity means that Christians in the Global North, particularly the West in nations such as the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and even the good old United States of America, might have a lot to learn about our faith in dialogue with expressions of Christian community in other parts of the world.

One of the books I recently finished is Whose Religion Is Christianity?: The Gospel beyond the West (William B. Eerdmans Publishingn Company, 2003) by Lamin Sanneh. As the back of the book describes, Sanneh is "a native of Gambia, and is D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and professor of history at Yale Divinity School." He is the author of a number of interesting books including Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Encountering the West: Christianity and the Global Cultural Process - The African Dimension, and Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa.

In this helpful short volume Sanneh defines "world Christianity" differently than "global Christianity" where the former "is the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that previously were not Christian," whereas the latter is "the faithful replication of Christian forms and patterns developed in Europe." As Sanneh develops his answer to the book's title by way of reflection on world Christianity, particularly in its African expression, he does so by way of "indigenous discovery of Christianity rather than the Christian discovery of indigenous societies." By framing his discussion in this way and reversing standard missions approaches to the topic, Sanneh not only addresses how Christianity has been communicated across cultures beyond the West, but emphasizes discovery of Christianity by diverse cultures in ways that resonate with their cultural concerns.

I found several statements in the book worthy of continued reflection and I'll post them here for others who are encouraged to pick up a copy of the book to read the comments in context before dismissing Sanneh's thinking as out of bounds:

"People want to interpret Christianity by standards of exegesis and doctrine familiar to them, something that the Christendom model of the church warranted. World Christianity, by contrast, must be interpreted by a plurality of models of inculturation in line with the variety of local idioms and practices. The mental habits of Christendom predispose us to look for one essence of the faith, with a corresponding global political structure as safeguard, whereas world Christianity challenges us to pay attention to the dynamic power of the gospel and to the open-ended character of communities of faith. Doctrine and exegesis are important, it should be stressed, but not without the dimension of personal experience and the network of human interactions." (p. 35)

"Syncretism represents the unresolved, unassimilated, and tension-filled mixing of Christian ideas with local customs and ritual, and that scarcely results in the kind of fulfilling change signaled by conversion and church membership. Besides, syncretism is the term we use for the religion of those we don't like. No one calls himself or herself a syncretist! It's a name we use for others, and not in a complimentary way. Unless we use the term as a judgment against our own forms of religious practice, I suggest we drop it altogether." (p. 44)

"..the West can learn from the fact that the gospel entered a particularly promising historical phase of cultural transformation when in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it encountered the religions and societies of Africa....I just don't see how Europeans can continue - and I devoutly hope they do continue - to study and teach Christianity without paying heed to examples of Christianity's successful cross-border expansion in postolonial societies." (p. 58)

"The tradition of exegesis that has been practiced in the West seems to have run its course." (p. 58)

These and other comments within the overall context and arguments of the book provide the content for missional and ecclesiological reflection by evangelicals and other Christians. In the past I've benefited from reflection on world Christianity in terms of the growth of the church and new forms of theologizing in China, and through Sanneh's encouragement I need to reflect on what can be learned from the situation in Africa as well. Such reflecitons will faciliate a balance resulting in what my friend Matt Stone refers to as “'globally informed, locally embedded Christianity' or 'glocal Christianity' for short."

1 comment:

Shawna Renee said...

This looks like a great book. I will be getting it. Thanks for the review.