Whose Religion Is Christianity?: The Gospel beyond the West

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Many historians of religion now recognize that Christianity is a global faith whose most vibrant expression and growth are found today in the non-Western world. But no one explores this reality and its implications for modern life with the depth of learning and personal insight of Lamin Sanneh.This book is unique in the literature of world Christianity, not least for its novel structure. Sanneh's engaging narrative takes the form of a self-interview in which he asks questions about the cross-cultural expansion of Christianity and provides insightful answers and meaningful predictions about the future. This technique also allows Sanneh to track developments in world Christianity even while giving attention to the responses and involvement of indigenous peoples around the world.Sanneh's own background and lifelong involvement with non-Western cultures bring a richness of perspective not found in any other book on world Christianity. For example, Sanneh highlights what is distinctive about Christianity as a world religion, and he offers a timely comparison of Christianity with Islam's own missionary tradition. The book also gives pride of place to the recipients of the Christian message rather than to the missionaries themselves. Indeed, Sanneh argues here that the gospel is not owned by the West and that the future of the tradition lies in its "world" character.Literate, relevant, and highly original, Whose Religion Is Christianity? presents a stimulating new outlook on faith and culture that will interest a wide range of readers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802821645
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 10/9/2003
  • Pages: 150
  • Sales rank: 705,082
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Whose Religion Is Christianity?

By Lamin Sanneh

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2164-2

Chapter One

The Wind Blows Where It Wills: Christianity as a World Religion


The old spells of benign quality lent themselves very easily as a bridge between paganism and Christianity in the days of groping from belief to belief. The old pagans of my time had seen the emissaries of the new faith working ruthlessly against their loved ancestors in the earlier days of missionary work, and for that reason most of them resisted to the very end every effort to christianize them. But they distinguished with extraordinary sensitiveness between the new God and His human prophets. Their stubborn resistance was not directed against the notion of a foreign deity but against the church organization as such. The Christian God seemed very powerful to them. Had He not saved from the anger of their own spirits the desecrators of their village shrines? They had need of the protection of such a Power, not His enmity, in their bitter loss. ARTHUR GRIMBLE

Part I: The Facts on the Ground

By 2002 Christian expansion continued to gather momentum, and the churches in Africa and Asia, for example, were bursting at the seams with an uninterrupted influx of new members. Yet we were told as late as the 1970s to expect a steady decline in Christian numbers by 2000, with the resurgence of Islam sealing the fate of the church. For example, at Edinburgh 1910 the ecumenical conference was told by J. R. Mott to expect Africa to be taken over by Islam. So the expansion of Christianity at the end of the twentieth century has come as something of a surprise, and we need to examine the reasons for this expansion and what indications there are of a transition to a new era of the history of Christianity. New communities have embraced Christianity, with implications for a fresh understanding of the gospel in world history.

The facts of the expansion are little in dispute: Africa, for example, in 1900, by which time the continent had come firmly under colonial rule, had 8.7 million Christians, about 9 percent of the total population of 107.86 million. The majority of the Christians were Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox. Muslims in 1900 outnumbered Christians by a ratio of nearly 4:1, with some 34.5 million, or 32 percent of the population. In 1962 when Africa had largely slipped out of colonial control, there were about 60 million Christians, with Muslims at about 145 million. Of the Christians, 23 million were Protestants and 27 million were Catholics. The remaining 10 million were Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox.

by 1985 it had become clear that a major expansion of Christianity had been under way in Africa in spite of prevailing pessimism about the imminent collapse of postindependent states, and of waning confidence in the church in Europe. Although they were little prepared for it, the churches found themselves as the only viable structures remaining after the breakdown of state institutions, and as such had to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the problems of their societies. Ironically, Christian Africans came predominantly from the poor and marginalized. By 1985 there were over 16,500 conversions a day, yielding an annual rate of over 6 million. In the same period (i.e., between 1970 and 1985), some 4,300 people were leaving the church on a daily basis in Europe and North America. A good deal of the evidence for Christian growth in Africa was available in sources from the U.N. and elsewhere, such as Europa Sourcebook, but the significance of the data was lost on much of the world.

The world, however, was in no mood to receive good news about Christianity, not least because it was coming from Africa. A public consensus, shared by many Christians, had emerged that a tolerant and inclusive secular world required the abandonment of Christian exclusivism. The chief offenders here were missions, but in the logic of historical irony, through the self-righteous zeal of missionaries to win converts, Christianity exhausted itself and so could be sidelined in the march toward a more open and tolerant world. Public objection to mission was reinforced by a corresponding prickliness at the slightest suggestion of cultural insensitivity to non-Western cultures. A rule for measuring tolerance became the degree to which one was opposed to Christian exclusivism and to mission, or, the other side of the coin, the degree to which one was least likely to be accused of cultural insensitivity, a fate to be avoided at all costs. All that was needed for the inclusive brigade to storm the walls of a residual Christianity was for members of other religions and cultures to cry insensitivity to the indigenous culture. The new world order, secular or pluralist, was constructed on an inclusivism uncompromised by Christianity. If the religion survived, it should be as a facet of the triumph of secular faith, or not all. A blanket secular inclusivism turned out to have exclusivist religious holes - yet another irony.

With their reputation and high visibility in the field, mainline missions were left with little choice but to beat a retreat in the face of this public mistrust. But the corollary of the comprehensive decline of Christianity failed to follow from the end of colonialism and of mainline missions. Instead, Christian numbers grew at a much faster rate than ever before, confounding critic and supporter alike. Still, having taken the position that Christianity constituted the sole barrier to tolerance, critics played the ostrich when faced with contrary evidence, insisting that the conversions were other than what they were, and that in any case a terrifying descent into intolerance was threatened with the new "global" Christianity.

Accordingly, stories about a resurgent Christianity in Africa and elsewhere fell on deaf ears. If people needed an excuse, they could point to the call for a moratorium on missions that went out in the 1970s from the All Africa Council of Churches, putting churches in Europe and North America on the defensive. Noninterference was the official policy, and with it a scrupulous distancing from events in the field. It is also a fact that there was a considerable gap between the African Christian leaders calling for a moratorium on missions and the mass of new Christians converting in droves, with the effect that local Christian groundswells lacked an outlet for publicity and recognition. Political correctness created a PR vacuum.

Yet, as I said, the facts of the expansion of Christianity are little in dispute. It is their significance that requires explanation. 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.

Another factor little noticed in the statistics is a theological one: Christian expansion was virtually limited to those societies whose people had preserved the indigenous name for God. That was a surprising discovery, because of the general feeling that Christianity was incompatible with indigenous ideas of religion. Yet the apparent congruity between Christianity and the indigenous name for God finds a parallel in the fact of Christian expansion occurring after rather than during colonialism. In any case, Africans best responded to Christianity where the indigenous religions were strongest, not weakest, suggesting a degree of indigenous compatibility with the gospel, and an implicit conflict with colonial priorities.

The Islamic comparison, however brief, may be helpful here, and for reasons not just of cultural sensitivity. Muslim expansion and growth, which occurred, were most impressive in areas where the indigenous religions, particularly as organized cults, had been vanquished or else subjugated, and where local populations had either lost or only vaguely remembered their name for God. For this reason colonialism as a secularizing force helped to advance Muslim gains in Africa. Colonial administrators shared a low regard for African religions with Muslim scholars, which helped suppress local cults and advance Islam's public standing.

The end of colonial rule inhibited the expansion of Islam in Africa, whereas the opposite seems to have happened with Christianity. The colonial system was schizoid about Christianity. The religion represented the West's moral superiority over tribal superstition, but missions and their vernacular emphasis confused the issue by allowing a naturalized Christianity to take root and to foment local subversion. Fearing Israelite sentiments of liberation, administrators accordingly clamped down on the new Christian movements, threatening their followers and sympathizers with reprisals and rounding up and incarcerating their leaders. Muslim leaders, for their part, opposed Christianity for their own reasons, not least because they considered it no less idolatrous than African religions. The three gods they ascribed to Christian teaching were no less scandalous than the many gods of pagan worship. In the postcolonial era, Muslim leaders turned to political agitation to push Islam's public agenda. Hence the turmoil in Muslim ranks about pressing the case for shari'ah law as penal law, and for filling the vacuum of public morality from which Christianity has been driven.

A word may be in order here about the Christian response to the Muslim political turmoil. Christian Africans, like their counterparts in the West, were little prepared for Islamic radicalism, and saw it as an Eintagesfliege, what the Germans call a bothersome fly that dies after a brief day of glory. But the persistent Muslim turmoil revealed the strategic weakness of a privatized Christianity unschooled in the science of government and unprotected against the negative fallout of consensual politics. A privatized Christianity seemed in fact to have emboldened religious radicalism. Radicals blame it for its tolerance of moral compromises that have weakened society just as Europeans attack it for liberal setbacks. It is little surprise that the new churches have been left scrambling for a way out of this maze: impossible at the same time to answer radical calls for collective discipline and liberal demands for individual freedom. All this has been fortuitously compounded by the sudden and mass influx of converts into Christianity, leaving the churches reeling under the weight, if we may return to the subject. Motives more powerful than self-preservation must lie at the basis of becoming a Christian in these conditions of acute challenge and ironic misunderstanding.

* * *

A skeptical Western audience, fortified with anthropological theory and with a postcolonial sensitivity, will scarcely budge from its view of Christian mission as cultural imperialism and religious bigotry. Besides, developing societies as the new frontier of world Christianity strikes many as far-fetched. If, in the language of nineteenth-century science, the natives consumed themselves in ancestral rites without any measurable effect on their character but instead remained stranded in enchanted jungle haunts, why in heaven's name should the world trust them when they step forward under a Christian banner (see sec. VII below)? In a roundtable discussion those attitudes could be explored and perhaps satisfactorily resolved. It is hard to do that in an essay format, shackled as it is by constraints of demonstrative argument and accompanying annotated referencing. Yet because one is dealing with attitudes rather than with matters of information and sources, it is necessary to depart from the essay style for another that calls for an interactive engagement characteristic of the question-and-answer style. The evidence I wish to marshal must now be deployed in response to a range of concerns and demands. Let us now shift to that interview format to deal with Christianity as a world religion in its own right.

Part II: World Christianity and Christendom: Parallels and Divergences


QUESTION 1: Would you explain the words in the title of the chapter, "Ferment, Renewal, and Pluralism in World Christianity"? What do you mean by Christian ferment and renewal? Is that a euphemism for Christian triumphalism?

ANSWER: The ferment of Christianity is the spontaneous coming into being of Christian communities among populations that had not been Christian. It is not a euphemism for Christian triumphalism but a cause for action and a challenge to complacency.

QUESTION 2: What do you mean by renewal?

ANSWER: Christianity has caused a renewal of local languages, and the old customs and traditions in response to its ethics of love, reconciliation, justice, and responsibility. That renewal has also meant new structures and institutions guiding the expansion.

QUESTION 3: What do you mean by "world Christianity"? Is that the same as "global Christianity"?

ANSWER: "World Christianity" is the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that previously were not Christian, societies that had no bureaucratic tradition with which to domesticate the gospel. In these societies Christianity was received and expressed through the cultures, customs, and traditions of the people affected. World Christianity is not one thing, but a variety of indigenous responses through more or less effective local idioms, but in any case without necessarily the European Enlightenment frame. "Global Christianity," on the other hand, is the faithful replication of Christian forms and patterns developed in Europe. It echoes Hilaire Belloc's famous statement, "Europe is the faith." It is, in fact, religious establishment and the cultural captivity of faith.

QUESTION 4: Does "global Christianity," then, compare with "Christendom"? What exactly is "Christendom"?

ANSWER: "Christendom" refers to the medieval imperial phase of Christianity when the church became a domain of the state, and Christian profession a matter of political enforcement. Religious strife and conflict created shock waves of territorial upheaval, because wars of religion were wars of nations.


Excerpted from Whose Religion Is Christianity? by Lamin Sanneh Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Christianity Uncovered: The Discovery of the Gospel beyond the West 1
The Wind Blows Where It Wills: Christianity as a World Religion 13
Pt. I The Facts on the Ground 14
Pt. II World Christianity and Christendom: Parallels and Divergences 21
Pt. III Assessment and Feedback: Prelude to the Future 77
Christianity Reappropriated: The Bible and Its Mother Tongue Variations 95
Pt. I Translation and Renewal: The Holy and the Commonplace 95
Pt. II The River and Its Tributaries: Theme and Continuities 108
Select Bibliography 131
Index 137
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