Lamin Sanneh. Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

Christianity is not identical to western imperialism.

So says Lamin Sanneh, in Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Christianity is not even necessarily the ideological tool of 19th century colonialism. It is not automatically the vehicle of white western culture. In fact, Christianity is not identical to any particular human culture. So, Christianity is not “the religion of the west.” According to Sanneh, appreciating the significance of the rapid expansion of Christianity in Africa since the 1960s requires challenging all these common presuppositions about the relationship of Christianity and culture, Christianity and politics.

Sanneh knows that most of his educated western readers will struggle with this. Religion, Christianity in particular, is supposed to be dying off. In the modern and increasingly post-modern secular west a “rule for measuring tolerance became the degree to which one was opposed to Christian exclusivism and to mission …” and “[t]he new world order, secular or pluralist, was constructed on an inclusivism uncompromised by Christianity” (16). So even getting to the point of being able to notice that Christianity has been growing in Africa, let alone grapple with what that growth means, is a challenge.

Sanneh would like to see Christians in the west learn something about their own religion from the growth of world Christianity. Expanding African Christianity is a vital communal affair, for instance, not the private piety to which Christianity in the west has retreated.[1] The theology it generates is a world away from abstract notions of the God of the philosophers. It appreciates the miraculous interaction of the Word of God Jesus with human beings in human life and history that may be closer to the experience of the early church. Western Christendom is not the end of the Christian story; from Sanneh’s point of view, it may only have been the beginning.

Sharing Sanneh’s vision here requires tearing some holes in a dense web of belief woven from truths learned in Western Civ and Soc 101, and substituting some more porous alternative findings: that something called “Christianity” can be culturally flexible, instead of being a bearer of culture; that “Christianity” doesn’t automatically annihilate every indigenous religious form and practice it runs into, that it might actually benefit from and energize indigenous religion; that access to the Christian Bible in translation might enliven and empower indigenous culture, instead of acting as a literary spore of an alien mind.

The extent to which understanding Sanneh’s points requires this deconstruction probably goes some way towards explaining why his short and succinct text, which is organized as a series of questions and answers, seems nevertheless so difficult to read.[2] Rethinking takes work.

That work is worth it.

Sanneh argues that the ferment and resurgence of “world Christianity” now observable in Africa (and elsewhere in the global South) could, and ought to, lead us to revise our understanding of the arc of Christian tradition in the context of world history, of the “history of religions” more generally, of the preconditions for Christian acceptance, and whether Christianity benefits or suffers from state sponsorship:

One major factor is how this expansion has taken place after colonialism and during the period of national awakening. Perhaps colonialism was an obstacle to the growth of Christianity, so that when colonialism ended it removed a stumbling block. A second factor was the delayed effect of Bible translation into African languages. With vernacular translation went cultural renewal, and that encouraged Africans to view Christianity in a favorable light. A third factor was African agency. Africans stepped forward to lead the expansion without the disadvantage of foreign compromise. Young people, especially women, were given a role in the church (18).

On the theological side, Sanneh stresses the importance of the indigenous name of God. Where that name was retained in the translation of Scripture and in the development of religious forms and practices, the church is expanding. Where that didn’t happen, the church is having a harder time.

Possibly the most eye-opening claim Sanneh makes, however, is the one about translation. He points out that Christianity has always been a religion in translation. Unlike most religions we can think of (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and maybe even Buddhism), Christianity has no sacred language – in the sense of having a privileged language of texts and liturgy that is also the language of the founder of the community. Jesus didn’t give the Sermon on the Mount in Greek. Latin was just one more remove, initially a vernacular language, only later the language of The Church, and never the language of the whole Church. (The only way we get to think of Latin as “the language of The Church” is if we forget all about the Byzantines, the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Armenians, and the Ethiopians, and while it may have been easy for teachers in Europe and the US to do that, that doesn’t make it any less a mistake.) In short, Christianity has since its earliest days taken the position that whatever God has to say can be said in any language, the language of everyday life. Sanneh relies on his readers to recall that the foundational story of the church, the Pentecost story, is precisely a story about the intrinsically multi-lingual character of the gospel.

The lines of questioning Sanneh pursues will raise others. For instance, Sanneh seems to claim on one hand that Christianity empowers individual critique and conscience, vs. the surrounding cultural “many.” From that perspective, growing Christian influences may strengthen democratic underpinnings, and assuming democracy is a salutary thing, then, yay for Christianity. On the other hand, Sanneh also seems to say that Christianity is appropriated as communal by people who are culturally accustomed to experiencing themselves in community, and is congenial to that appropriation. Can Christianity support individualism and communalism simultaneously? Or is it a case of recognizing that there is, within Christianity, a polarity of individual and community, and that the working out of the specific balance and expression of that polarity is a perpetual demand placed on Christians, no less in the African context than any other?

But he makes his paradigm-shifting point clearly and convincingly: Christianity is remarkably culturally adaptable. It is not Western culture by another name, despite the role Christianity played in the history of western civilization. The forms of Christianity familiar to the west are not the only forms Christianity can take, or is taking today. The gospel is not in chains, not even cultural or linguistic ones. And it is still turning the world upside down.

[1] It might not be as easy to agree with this characterization of Christianity in 2018 as it was in 2003 – if it was easy to agree with it then. One of the recurrent criticisms of Christianity in the United States is that it’s “too political,” which seems to argue against the thesis that it has been relegated to the realm of “private piety.” Unless the “too political” charge springs from the conviction that religion ought to be strictly private piety, “seen and not heard,” which might support that thesis. See David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).

[2] The rest of the way probably comes from recognizing that Sanneh’s ideal reader would have a working background in current African events and in contemporary Christian mission discourse. That reader would know at once what specific matters or discussions some of Sanneh’s more general statements refer to. Lacking that, less well-versed actual readers will wonder (as I did) what precisely he’s talking about in places.

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