Saturday, June 03, 2006

Lamin Sanneh and World Christianity

Amy has a detailed and positive review of Philip Jenkins' new book, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. It certainly makes me want to add this to the reading list. (Which means it'll have to wait till I am back Stateside. I doubt that it'll be easily available in India.)
The question we're asked to consider is, "Why do Christians of the Global South tend to read the Bible differently?" The answer some might give is that they're not advanced enough, they don't have the same kind of theological education that the North has. The scholarship hasn't reached them yet.

Jenkins' answer is essentially this: They read the Bible differently because they live it. Ordinary Christians of the Global South are not at a distance from the Scriptures - the world in which they live is echoed in the Scriptures in vivid, direct ways and in turn, the themes from the Scriptures they tend to emphasize deepen those connections. Jenkins looks at social structures, sensibilities about evil, about spirits, healing, miracles, wisdom (Proverbs is a very popular book in these areas), the challenges of starting new church communities (James figures in here, in a big way), not to mention images of agriculture, nomadic life, poverty, dependence and so on.
When it comes to "global Christianity," the other name I think of is Lamin Sanneh, the Gambian born naturalized American scholar (and a convert to Catholicism from Islam), currently at Yale. I read his "Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West" a while back, and it was definitely thought provoking and challenging. Here's a brief summary
"World" Christianity, as he understands it, must be distinguished from "Global Christianity." The latter is really just a version of European Christendom, the sad "cultural captivity of faith" no matter how exotic its location. World Christianity, on the other hand, as it has emerged with explosive force in the last several decades, is made up of previously non-Christian societies and cultures who have accepted and adopted the Gospel in and through their own unique idioms. Thus, Sanneh prefers to speak of indigenous cultures discovering Christianity rather than of Christianity (read: the post-Christian West) discovering indigenous societies. For the most part, this resurgence of World Christianity has proceeded since the post-colonial period began, and "without Western organizational structures, including academic recognition, and ...amidst widespread political instability and the collapse of public institutions" (p. 3). In the last third of the book he examines the revolutionary impact of Bible translations in these indigenous movements. Christianity, in fact, "seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder" (p. 98). Along the way, he explores ways in which the post-Christian West, so long accustomed to understanding itself as the spiritual creditor to the entire world, might now benefit and learn from World Christianity as its debtor (pp. 57, 74). Except for a few brief remarks about China, Sanneh focuses on his native Africa.
Some more interesting links. Here Sanneh appears with New School University sociologist Jose Casanova on the Macneil-Lehrer newshour shortly after the election of Benedict XVI, to discuss the challenges facing Catholicism in the global South.
LAMIN SANNEH: Well, in Africa, you could say that Catholicism is something that is happening from the ground up in contrast to Europe where Catholicism has happened from the top down. So in Europe, the emphasis is very much on doctrinal issues, on the teachings of the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger is known as the enforcer.

Without image of the church doesn't work very well in Africa because of the spontaneous eruption of Catholicism from the ground up in areas of primary evangelism, and so Catholicism I think has a very dynamic and productive frontier with traditional religions, traditional world views, although it has a very difficult relationship with militant Islam, with radical Islam.

Interview in the Pulse, Chattanooga's alternative weekly.

Summary of article "Prospect for Post-Western Christianity in Asia and elsewhere" in the latest Brown Journal of World Affairs.
And I was first introduced to Sanneh by this 2003 Christianity Today interview, The Defender of the Good News: Questioning Lamin Sanneh. Here are some salient points:
Among his many books, the one that has perhaps made the deepest impact is Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis 1989), in which he argues that—contrary to the folklore that passes for social science, and in sharp contrast to Islam—Christianity preserves indigenous life and culture, thanks to its emphasis on mother-tongue translation. Where indigenous culture has been strong, it has absorbed Christian life and worship, thereby sustaining and even increasing its vitality. Where conversion has been to Islam, on the other hand, indigenous cultures have tended to be weak, and soon lose entirely the capacity to think religiously in their mother tongue. The difference lies in the Christian missionary insistence upon translation, on the one hand, and diffusion as the Muslim missionary modus operandi. The converse, he argues, is also true.
[snip] On his own conversion:
The Catholics also appeared reluctant, and suspicious, too, it seemed. I had hit an ecumenical obstacle. In mitigation, the Methodist church assured me that their baptism, when they did it, would be recognized by the Catholic Church. I expressed relief at what seemed like hedging your bets and doubling the favorable odds at the same time. It still took two years to accomplish the object in view, and only because I gave an ultimatum, though the Methodist church added the precaution of readings on New Testament form criticism for my catechism. Away with any risk of the Bible being taken, like the Qur'an, as the impeccable word of God!

That precaution of a rational, progressive understanding of Christianity appeared to have failed when, with my interest still obviously undiminished, I requested to be allowed to study theology. I received a swift negative response, with the indication that their decision was backed by the mission headquarters in London (in case I harbored a stubborn thought I had any remaining support there).

Those were the ungarnished facts that I as a very young convert had to deal with (or not deal with, if I chose). It happened that I was so profoundly affected by the message of Jesus, so inexplicably transformed at the roots of faith and trust, that I felt myself in the grips of an undeniable impetus to give myself to God, whatever my ultimate career path. I never had cause to fret about the work to which God might call me; so steadfast are God's promises.
[I must say, though I have a rather different background from Dr. Sanneh, when I first approached a Catholic priest in Bombay (the rector of the Catehdral) about converting, the reaction wasn't dissimilar. Not opposition, but bewilderment. "What?" "Why?" The Jesuits at St. Xavier's were equally befuddled. I persisted, and pretty much created my own "RCIA year" (there was no RCIA in place) with a fantastic Dutch priest of the Mill Hill congregation.] On missionary efforts to evangelize Muslims:
I am sure evangelizing Muslims will make more of an impression on the Christian evangelizers themselves than on the Muslim world. Given the extent of indifference and complacency about the religious life among Christians, it is perhaps a good thing if they are shaken out of that torpor, however circuitous the path by which they arrive at that awakening. Muslims will continue to pay them scant attention.
On the challenge facing the West:
The cultural captivity of Christianity in the West is nearly complete, and, with the religion tamed, it is open season on the West's Christian heritage. But I don't believe that dismantling the West's Christian heritage will protect the West from ideological intolerance of the most damaging kind. I worry about a West without a moral center facing a politically resurgent Islam.
The differences between American and African Christianity:
The main difference I see is the difference between a post-Christian American society and a post-Western Christianity rising in Africa and elsewhere. The one is in decline, at least intellectually, and the other is in spate. The taming of Christianity in North America requires very different tools from those required by the conditions favoring expansion in Africa. Christians are not afraid to go to church for prayer and healing when they are ill, for instance, whereas in North America prayers may be said for people who are ill but only in absentia.

Africans trust God for their spiritual, physical, social, and medical needs; Americans don't.
On the "new" Christianity that is emerging:
An extraordinary new world of Christianity is now unfolding before our eyes. It is an unprecedented world, something that will change the face of Christianity. In other words, Christianity today has never been more vibrant, more varied, more pro-active, and more widespread. The text for it might be, "Behold, I make all things new." The readers of CT should see that the religion is not about the refusal to accept the old, but about the willingness to embrace the new. That has been one of the most detrimental things to afflict people today.
Much, much food for thought. He deserves lots of attention.


Dick Rood said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gashwin said...

Dear Dick --- thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I deleted your original comment (there's no way to edit them selectively), so as to remove the personal information of your friend. No point in having that lying around a public website.

Thanks so much for the referral. I am actually in Baroda -- but will be in Bombay for a bit at some point over the summer, and will drop your friend a line.

Pax et bonum, G
Gashwin, I have read much that you have written and have been very impressed with your "sanctity."

Now I note that you are in Mumbai where I have a lovely friend:
[contact information removed]

If you are at loose ends, give him a call. He too is Catholic and you may have something in common.

I hope I am not overstepping myself. If so, of course ignore everything and thanks for reading my impetuous message with no connection to what you are expecting.
best wishes

Anonymous said...

Having met Dr. Sanneh, all I can say is: he is the real deal. He is definitely the person to whom to look for insight into the growth of Catholicism in the Global South and how it may impact that of the North.

And as a cradle Catholic, I love the vitality of faith of those who had to jump in and swim the Tiber to reach Catholicism: Western Europe needs you.

Jane R said...

Thanks for this. Lamin Sanneh actually converted to Christianity not as a Catholic, but as a member of another communion (I forget which -- Anglican or Methodist or Presbyterian). He has become a Catholic in recent years, within the last half-decade or decade. A fascinating journey.