Not Your Grandma's Christianity

I finally had an opportunity to read Lamin Sanneh's wonderful little book, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West. Sanneh, of Yale, is one of the leading voices reminding Western & European Christianity that it doesn't "own" the Church. And the book is written in the very engaging format of a dialogue, which makes it almost breezy (why don't more of us adopt this strategy?).

The book is a very helpful corrective and antidote to those (like myself!) inclined to a dreamy notion of Catholic liturgy and orthodoxy as the panacea for all global ills. While Sanneh is very interested in considering how world Christianity contests the secularism of the West, the shape of this "counter"-narration is very different from Western and European Christian critiques of secularism (as in Radical Orthodoxy--though I also think there are some important resonances).

According to Sanneh, the most interesting explosion of world Christianity bears little genealogical relationship to colonial missionary endeavors (which gave us "global Christianity", the globalization of European Christianity, not "world" Christianity, which springs from the bottom up). Rather, the most interesting movements of Christianity in the global South are indigenous. However, the current explosion owes one important factor to western missionary endeavors: the translation of Scripture into the mother tongue for different global contexts. The result, according to Sanneh, was that once colonial presence withdrew from these regions, Africans (for instance) were free to encounter the Gospel as Africans because they had the Bible in their mother tongue. And according to Sanneh, these contexts were especially primed for the Gospel precisely because their indigenous and primal religious sensibilities made them open to the dynamics and enchantment of a creator God who would come to inhabit history, would suffer, and rise from the dead. In other words, primal religions functioned as an especially fertile and open horizon for the reception of the Gospel--but now "discovered" indigeneously, and thus not freighted with European colonial baggage.

This is a fascinating story, and Sanneh, though emphasizing indigenous Christianity, is not simplistically anti-European precisely because he sees their role in translation. (I think he would also have to concede the formative role of 'Western' Christianity in shaping the very shape of the canon of the Bible that would later be translated into these mother tongues--but perhaps, in fact, the formation of the canon already included African and Asian voices.)

I do worry that there remains a hint of a new Christendom project latent in this story, but nonetheless, it is a story that needs to be heard far and wide in the West.