by Lamin Sanneh. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. Pp. xii, 138. ISBN 0- 8028-2164-2. $12.
In the course of the 20th century, Christianity finally outgrew its long Western phase of development, underway since the time of Constantine. A world religion had emerged by the end of the modern era, an “ambi-cultural” network of Christian faith communities that will not be bound by past patterns of social, aesthetic, or even theological conformity. Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, is not concerned to establish these facts here. Instead, his burden is to explore the implications of Christianity’s unfolding polycentric future, where the edges of greatest growth are to be found in places like China and sub-Saharan Africa, rather than in the old North Atlantic heartlands of 19th century Christendom.
Sanneh writes primarily for a Western audience. In particular, he has in mind those post-Christian skeptics in the West who interpret the history of Christian mission as a barely-disguised tale of colonial exploitation and cultural imperialism. In rebuttal, Sanneh seeks to demonstrate that Christian mission and the possibility of conversion to indigenous forms of the faith have actually stimulated cultural renewal in countless societies around the world. The willingness of Christians to render their Scriptures into the world’s vernaculars, Sanneh has insisted for many years now, decisively undermined the long-term future of Western colonialism by promoting literacy and other forms of cultural self-empowerment, all of which served to fuel increasingly effective local expressions of political and social preference. That missionary Christianity was by nature intolerant of non- Western cultures is a myth, according to Sanneh, a persistent bit of secular fundamentalism that refuses to come to terms with Christianity as an increasingly non-Western world religion.
Sanneh’s latest offering is a deceptively slim volume. The essential character of 21st century Christianity as a truly world religion is at stake in the trends highlighted in this book.
Readers already familiar with Sanneh’s substantial and still expanding corpus of missiological writings will not find much that is new in this book, apart from his discussion of the difference between world Christianity (Sanneh’s preferred term) and global Christianity (interpreted here as a new form of Christendom thinking). Newcomers, on the other hand, could not ask for a more accessible or engaging introduction to the dynamic arena of world Christianity. The conversational question and answer format used for much of the book is likely to enhance its appeal for this audience.
In this regard, Sanneh’s rhetorical strategy is particularly apt. The (perhaps unintended) irony is that a similar dialogical style was employed in Matthew Tindal’s famous 18th century defense of rational Christianity that came to be known as the “Deist’s Bible” (Christianity as Old as Creation). If widely read, Sanneh’s challenge may at last bring the post-Christian West so carefully constructed over the past several centuries by Tindal and other secularist thinkers into a long overdue encounter with the reality and vitality of post- Western Christianity.
STANLEY H. SKRESLET is Professor of Christian Mission, Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmond, Va.