Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003
ISBN 0-8028-2164-2 paperback, xii+138 pages
In his latest book, which is slim but not slight, Lamin Sanneh exploits the genre of a modern Socratic dialogue to publicise and discuss the phenomenon of Christianity as a world religion. He has summarized - rephrased? - and answered questions from his students and colleagues over the years. The style is intriguing and draws the reader into the conversation between the lecturer and questioner.
In this new key, the Professor of missions and world Christianity and Professor of history at Yale Divinity School, writes with lucid elegance. His use of shrewd, pithy sayings and occasional flights of rhetoric enable readers, who have not read his earlier books, to pick up the thread of his thinking. He recapitulates the arguments of some of his earlier works - particularly Translating the Message - and this is certainly worth doing. The 'post 9/11 generation' of students need to hear afresh the importance of the release of the power of the vernacular when people hear God 'speaking their language' in the scriptures. Reinterated here are his thoughts on the untranslatability of the Qur'an, the concept of jihad and the significance of the 'western guilt complex' of colonialism and the importance of recovering from it, the latter first published in the pages of IBMR.
Sanneh tries to make the distinction between 'world' and 'global' Christianity. The former is approved by him and has appeared, almost spontaneously, in societies with weak states and impoverished populations: the latter has been 'orchestrated' by the west and is enmeshed in global structures of power and economics. The point may be well made, but these designations may not be followed by others. Ironically, Philip Jenkins's commendatory note on the back of the book, continues to use 'global' Christianity for 'world' Christianity.
In his engagement with sceptic westerners, who would prefer the 'Enlightenment agenda' to spread throughout the word, rather than the Christian message, he stresses the indigenous discovery of Christianity, rather than the Christian discovery of indigenous societies. He argues against their caricatured worry that '…because of the alleged conservative religious outlook of world Christianity, the reevangelization of the West would mean the wholesale overthrow of the liberal achievements of the modern West that would cause a relapse into intolerance.' p. 27
Sometimes Sanneh assumes too much background knowledge in making references and allusions. His brief case study on Samuel Ajayi Crowther, about whom he wrote in greater detail in his chapter in the CMS bicentenary volume, does not mention his further education, ordination and consecration in Britain.
A gem of a book, in an imaginative style: evangelistic, recapitulative, apologetic. Worth buying - even an extra copy to give away.
The Rt Revd Dr Graham Kings is Hon Assistant Bishop and World Mission Adviser, Diocese of Southwark, and SCR Member, St Chad’s College, Durham. He has been theological secretary of Fulcrum since its founding.