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Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford Studies in World Christianity) Paperback – Illustrated, November 30, 2007
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"Disciples of All Nations offers extraordinary insights into world Christianity today."--Journal of the American Academy of Religion
"I am lost in admiration for Lamin Sanneh's magnificent study of world Christianity, for the work's geographical scope and historical sweep, and for the breadth of the author's learning. Throughout, Sanneh asks the critical question: how can we reconceive Christianity in a way that frees it from its European and imperial contexts, permitting the faith to adapt to the kaleidoscopic realities of different societies around the globe. This is a splendid achievement." --Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity
"Been looking for a solid read on the historical advancement of Christianity through the work of missions? Then look no further." --Evangelical Missions Quarterly
"...this work is an historical tour de force, throughout which Sanneh's pastoral voice inspires readers to embrace Christianity's 'peculiar temper' and resulting indigenous articulations. It thus merits warm recommendations, even if not as splendid as anticipated due to its uneven coverage."-- Jayson George, Brethren International
"Disciples of all Nations...is written with exquisite elegance and uncommon grace..."--Peter C. Phan
About the Author
Lamin Sanneh, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Gambia and the scion of an ancient African royal house, was educated on four continents. He is Professor of History and World Christianity at Yale University, and chair of its Council on African Studies. His books include Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West and The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World (coedited with Joel A. Carpenter).
- Item Weight : 1.19 pounds
- ISBN-10 : 0195189612
- ISBN-13 : 978-0195189612
- Paperback : 384 pages
- Dimensions : 9.1 x 0.8 x 6 inches
- Publisher : Oxford University Press; 1st edition (November 30, 2007)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #236,322 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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"the growing numbers and the geographical scope of that growth, the cross-cultural patterns of encounter, the variety and diversity of cultures affected, the structural and antistructural nature of the changes involved, the kaleidoscope of cultures often manifested in familiar and unfamiliar variations on the canon, the wide spectrum of theological views and ecclesiastical traditions represented, the ideas of authority and styles of leadership that have been developed, the process of acute indigenization that fosters liturgical renewal, the production of new religious art, music, hymns, songs an prayers--all these are part of Christianity's stunningly diverse profile."
In this vein the ensuing books in this new Oxford series will "be devoted to specific themes and regions within the general subject of Christianity's development as a world religion." Taken together, this series will collectively examine "post-Western developments in Christianity and in the elaborations, variations, continuities, and divergences with the originating Western forms of religion," Sanneh envisages. Nevertheless, the vision of the series is such that each book will be "conceived and written individually."
In Disciples of All Nations Sanneh seeks to provide a "panoramic survey of the field, exploring the sources to uncover the nature and scope of Christianity's worldwide multicultural impact." As such, Sanneh's book, does not offer a clear and concise thesis. Yet, that is not to say that Disciples of All Nations does not put forth an argument or a particular way of reading the unfolding of Christianity as a world religion.
At the heart of Sanneh's contention is that Christianity is a mission-oriented and translating religion made up diverse cultures and languages united by Jewish monotheist ideas and ethics, which emphasizes personal conversion to and fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. Supporting his view is the a theological assertion that God is "at the center of the universe of cultures, implying equality among cultures and the necessarily relative status vis-à-vis the truth of God." Thus, for Sanneh no culture or language has exclusive claim to God, that is, Christianity as an adaptable religion transcends culture. In Sanneh's words, "Being a translated religion, Christian teaching was received and framed in the terms of its host culture; by feeding off the diverse cultural streams it encountered, the religion became multicultural. The local idiom became a chosen vessel."
In view of these assertions, Sanneh's book is organized thematically under several "pillars," by which he means motifs or sections of the book - not necessarily columns holding up the foundation of World Christianity. Throughout his discussion of these pillars, Sanneh considers the serial quality of Christianity (i.e. the "cycles of retreat and advance, of contraction and expansion, and of waning and awakening" indicative of Christianity since its inception), while thematically exploring Christianity's transmission, reception, including the various actors involved, and the disparate historical and political environments in which Christianity developed and is embodied.
Disciples of All Nations puts the Christian faith in perspective, both historically and geographically. It explores the interaction between Christians long steeped in the faith, those new to the faith and those yet completely unfamiliar with Jesus. It reminds us and informs us regarding Christianity's multicultural origins and points us to its multicultural future.
In his recent book, "Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity," Lamin Sanneh sets out to describe some of the "pillars" or roots of this worldwide Christian awakening, which he calls the "Third Awakening" (p. 274). It is a wide-ranging study that chronicles the fascinating, if somewhat messy, story of Christianity's naturalization (or "inculturation") among various peoples throughout its history. It is the story of Christianity becoming "the most diverse and pluralist religion in the world." To tell the story, Sanneh focuses on certain themes ("pillars") that define "world Christianity," and then illustrates them in multiple ways, drawing out interesting implications along the way.
It is an eye-opening study that contains fascinating, and sometimes myth-busting insights about our understanding of the nature of the Christian religion, our understanding of Western missions, and the role of local agency and native resources in the spread of Christianity. Anyone interested in the worldwide Christian movement or current events would benefit from Professor Sanneh's thorough study.
Before moving into a more detailed review of the book, let me offer a small warning. "Disciples of All Nations" may be somewhat overwhelming for someone without a good background in the history of Christianity, particularly Christian missions. Sanneh has such a remarkable breadth of knowledge that keeping up can be difficult. For a scholarly, yet brief, survey of the subject, I would recommend the late Stephen Neill's "A History of Christian Missions" A History of Christian Missions: Second Edition (Hist of the Church) .
With that warning in place, however, I reemphasize my warm recommendation of the book. In the remainder this review, rather than recapitulate each chapter, I will highlight and discuss some of Sanneh's main themes.
One of Sanneh's dominant themes that emerges again and again is that Christianity has a "peculiar temper"(p. 12) acquired through its long encounter with a dizzying diversity of cultural, political and social contexts. "The characteristic pattern of Christianity's engagement with the languages and cultures of the world has God at the center of the universe of cultures, implying equality among cultures and the...relative status of cultures vis a vis the truth of God. No culture is so advanced or so superior that it can claim exclusive access or advantage to the truth of God, and none so marginal...that it can be excluded. All have merit, none is indispensable" (p. 25).
As such, Christianity both absorbs and transforms the cultures it encounters. It spreads by making local appropriations and adaptations with local cultural resources, while investing those preexisting materials with new meaning and purpose. All that is to say, one reason for Christianity's appeal as a world religion is that it is a "translated and translating" religion, a religion with an "amazing power of adaptation" which enables it to speak to the heart of human beings in exceedingly diverse historical and cultural situations.
If this "peculiar temper" of Christianity is one of the faith's greatest strengths, it has too often been hindered by notions of cultural superiority, and connections to political power. Sanneh shows, again through a multitude of examples, the "heavy price" that has often been paid when Christianity's "intrinsic character as a worldwide religion... was framed in the uniform tenets of Christendom," and thus used to justify exploitation and domination (p. 54).
In the West, this is an often-told story: the story of missionary complicity in colonial imperialism. Sanneh is not shy to point out many examples of this. But, he is quick to add, though western scholarship and popular opinion would have us believe otherwise, that is not the whole story.
Sanneh writes, "I am urging a revisionist history without claiming that missions and colonialism were not in cahoots." So while acknowledging the colonial mindset of many missions, Sanneh contends that "the frontier experience... ultimately transformed missions' agenda and modus operandi," so that many missionaries reconsidered their ties to the colonial powers and worked for local empowerment in the cause of Christ. There were many shining examples of this throughout missions history. Missions saw increasingly that though the Gospel was a universal message meant to flourish in any and every cultural milieu, the "crushing burden" of "Europeandom" had muted the Gospel and robbed it of its power.
Moreover, wether consciously or unconsciously, missionaries who translated the Bible into local vernacular languages, and who preached the essentials of Christianity, often sowed the seeds of local empowerment that contributed to the undermining of colonial domination.
Bible translation, it turned out, was a great act of cultural affirmation and empowerment. Bible translation work also produced grammars and lexicons for languages that otherwise might have disappeared.
Though Sanneh devotes a great deal of attention to foreign missions, that is not his ultimate focus; to focus on Western missions would be to misread Sanneh. Throughout "Disciples of All Nations," he explicitly shifts the focus from expatriate initiative to local reception, from foreign control to native direction. This is another crucial and convincing aspect of Sanneh's argument.
Sanneh claims that scholarship related to the growth of Christianity in Africa and the colonial era often makes the same mistake the colonial powers made: they ignore the vital, creative, energetic response and involvement of local people themselves.
However, Sanneh contends that this one-sided picture of native passivity in the face of missionary hegemony is far wide of the mark. It soon became clear that while foreigners may have been the initial bearers of Christian teaching to parts of Africa, Africans had taken the ball for themselves and run with it.
In the last chapter of the book, Sanneh points out a similar Chinese appropriation of Christianity which took place in very different circumstances. In its paranoid repression of Christianity as a "foreign religion," the communist revolution in China (itself the bearer of a foreign ideology - Marxism) ironically cleared the decks for the thoroughly Chinese Christian awakening that is currently underway in China (ch. 8).
Returning to Africa, it became clear that Africans wanted Jesus, they wanted the Bible, they wanted healing and miracles and power over evil in the spirit realm (things they found ample evidence for in the Bible), but not the European civilization that was supposed to accompany Christianity (something the Bible seemed to oppose at many points). Sanneh provides a cogent summary: "It is remarkable the extent to which colonial co-option weakened Christianity by presenting it as a freshly minted European creed. Africans rejected that view by circulating the religion as local currency" (p. 161).
On the one hand, then, African Christians brilliantly separated the Christian kernel from the colonial husk, and made Christianity their own. In so doing, they often recaptured the spirit of primal apostolic Christianity against its secularized European counterpart. On the other hand, this story illustrates that Christianity itself, with its "peculiar temper" refused to be domesticated. It is almost as if Christianity itself was just waiting to shake off its colonial baggage and break out in fresh ways in these new contexts.
In the end, by putting the Christian movement into the broader context which I have attempted to summarize above, Lamin Sanneh has convincingly shown that the present growth of world Christianity, while unprecedented in its scale, is not at all out of character. By carefully demonstrating the "peculiar temper" of Christianity, the two-sided process of Christian expansion (missionary outreach and local appropriation), and the "serial nature" of Christian history, Sanneh has helped us to see again that Christianity is a dynamic world religion, a religion able to flourish and be "at home" in a wide variety of cultural, linguistic, social and political contexts.
This may be surprising in certain quarters, for example, where the Western pedigree of Christianity has been long assumed, or where the supernaturalism of Christianity has been long assumed discredited. But this surprise may well say more about the cultural or ideological captivity of these quarters than it does about the true nature of the faith.