In this interesting book, Lamin Sanneh explores the nature of expanding world Christianity. Sanneh explains how missionaries, who first took the gospel to non-western contexts in places like Africa, brought more than just Christianity. Their efforts to educate peoples in the ways of Christianity’s God were done in conjunction with attempts to educate them in the ways of western economics and politics. This is nothing new. There has been much written against the colonialism of missionaries, but Sanneh ultimately is less critical. He points to the positive work of missionaries best exemplified in Bible translation, which he argues validates the language, and therefore culture, of the native populations.
the West should get over its Christendom guilt complex about Christianity as colonialism by accepting that Christianity has survived its European political habits and is thriving today in its post-Western phase among non-Western populations, sometimes because of, and often in spite of, Western missionaries. (pg. 74-75)
Sanneh argues that the majority of Christianity’s growth came in areas where the receiving culture was most honored by missionaries. In places where native names for God were retained in translation and oral traditions incorporated into Christian religious practices, Christianity flourished. It seems that the more contextualized Christianity became, the more real God was. Sanneh contrasts this to Islam, which pushes its converts to learn Arabic for worship services and Scripture readings. Christianity is diverse, and at its best it embraces and validates the plurality and diversity of cultures around the world.
For some this might sound like syncretism, a mixing of Christianity with pagan religious practices, but Sanneh challenges us not to think too simplistically. Christianity is an enculturated religion, which means there is no such things as an a-cultural Christianity. Furthermore, mission work isn’t taking God to peoples and places where he is absent, it is joining God in places and cultures where he is already at work. Sanneh points out that it is typical for peoples to already have ideas about God before missionaries start teaching about him. One powerful example of this is included to make his point. A poem/song from an African people group is shared by Sanneh to provide an example of the sophisticated theological thinking that was taking place in non-western contexts before western missionaries arrived to “educate” people about God. Here it is from the Herero of Namibia:
In the beginning was God,
Today is God,
Tomorrow will be God.
Who can make an image of God?
He has no body.
He is a word that comes out of your mouth.
That word! It is no more,
It is past, and still it lives!
So is God.
Answering the question the title poses, Sanneh says no one owns Christianity. Becoming Christian isn’t about becoming a westerner. The rapid expansion of world Christianity is bringing a rich plurality of perspectives to our Christian conception of God. For this, we can be very grateful.