WRITE A BOOK REVIEW OF LAMIN SANNEH’S WHOSE RELIGION IS CHRISTIANITY?
THE GOSPEL BEYOND THE WEST
EVALUATE ITS THEOLOGICAL METHOD AND ITS ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT MISSION
In this book review, I aim to evaluate Lamin Sanneh’s assumptions about mission and the theological method used by Sanneh to support his beliefs. I will also comment on the author’s question and answer style employed throughout the book and why I found this helpful in understanding Sanneh’s views and the counter-arguments offered.
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Sanneh presents a case I relate to; that African communities connect with the God of Christianity as humans sense awareness of a creator and a desire to belong. God designed us to be in relationship with Him and, before we find Him, we seek connections in the world around us and in the stories of others. In The Practice of Theology, Gunton, Holmes and Rae quote St Augustine (354 to 430AD) who was Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. “Out of concern to praise God aright, however, Augustine then questions his own experience. ‘Shall I call on God so as to know him?’, Augustine asks, ‘or do I call on him because I know him?’”
Sanneh’s book opens with words from Acts 2:5ff, describing the “amazed and perplexed” response of the Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem from different regions. This provoked in me an assumption that Sanneh would explore how and why the mission of the early Christians reached many nations and what this looks like today.
Some of my assumptions were realised as Sanneh describes the current decline of Christianity in the West and its considerable rise in Africa. He references world secularisation and the view held by many that the church is irrelevant. It is suggested that Europe and North America are living in a post-Christian West society and that a resurgence of Christianity in some nations can be described as a post-Western Christianity.
Sanneh mainly uses “an interactive question-and-answer style…to avoid the pitfalls of theological contextualisation in which context determines what we value and do not value in religion.” The reader is presented with this interesting paradox, “People often fight because they want the same thing or make peace because they embrace difference.”
The question and answer style helped me to think more clearly about the ways ‘World Christianity’ provides the opportunity to glimpse how the early church formed and developed.
Sanneh was born in The Gambia and has taught at the University of Ghana so, despite the vast expanse of the African continent, there is confidence that Sanneh connects to the contextual method of theology employed in describing what provokes a receptive response to Christianity from African communities. Sanneh’s views are shared, at least in part, by other contemporary writers on theology.
John Parratt states that “It has only been within the last forty years or so that a real move towards rethinking the Christian faith in African terms, and of doing theology in an African context, has got under way.” Parratt states that prior to this, African theology has been based on European models. This perspective supports Sanneh’s comments on the relationship between indigenous beliefs, indigenous languages, and the growth of Christianity in post-colonial Africa.
Bevans offers some background to modern Christianity in Africa. “What African and Asian cultures began to realise was that there are values in their cultures that are just as good as…those of their colonisers…Former colonies and churches in these nations began to have the confidence to work things out for themselves, on their own terms and in their own way.”
Reflecting on Bevans’ six models of contextual theology, I suggest Sanneh is mainly connecting with the Translation Model, Anthropological Model and Synthetic Model in his exploration of African Christianity. Despite the ways in which it opposes the Translation Model, there are key elements of the Anthropological Model in Sanneh’s reflection on African Christianity. Bevans explains “…it is culture that shapes the way Christianity is articulated”.
I accept Sanneh’s ideas around the current growth of African Christianity being linked to communities where indigenous religions were strongest, but I also agree with Muzorewa that we must ensure that there is upmost importance placed on Scripture being the foundation of all expressions of faith.
Assumptions About Mission
Sanneh suggests that as Christianity is no longer perceived as a cultural mandate for the West, it is possible we will soon see Christianity growing in parts of Asia, particularly China, in similar ways to the growth in Africa. As demonstrated in the African church, China could retain its own culture and language in embracing Christianity and this may encourage exploration.
Sanneh states that Christianity has survived in Europe and Christians can find hope for the future of Western Christianity through the peaceful yet dramatic expansion of World Christianity as experienced in Africa.
Questions are raised about the potential for a modern-day crusade with Christianity at war with Islam, or the growth of Christianity outside the West leading to political dominance. Sanneh’s response is that this is unlikely, offering South Africa as an example:
“You’ll find little evidence there of the churches with global pretensions being aligned on a political fault line. The synod of African bishops, as another example, has committed itself to programs of social justice and reconstruction without a political blueprint.”
I agree with Sanneh’s response, with hope that the world will reflect on the periods in history when Christianity was under state control and disseminated in a manner that was dictatorial, leading to a number of protestations including the most well-known and significant Reformation movement in medieval Europe. Sanneh reminds us that Jesus spoke plainly during his time of ministry and was critical of religious leaders who misinterpreted written scriptures or misled those who could not read for themselves.
Sanneh warns about some pitfalls of exponential growth of Christianity including false prophets, abuse of the vulnerable, and divisions within groups. My view is this could lead to the state concluding that Christianity is not good for society and some political leaders may use this to tighten state control. My position is that the church is the best place for working out the problems of society; problems which exist with or without a structure of organised religion. However, this must be underpinned with transparent processes in which to highlight concerns.
In his book A World History of Christianity, Adrian Hastings includes a chapter on Africa written by Kevin Ward exploring the development of Christianity under various missionaries and political allegiances, particularly in the 18th century to early 20th century. The chapter concludes with Ward stating it is Pentecostal denominational churches that are growing rapidly. He suggests that there is an American influence at play indicated by Africans responding to factors they can relate to from some indigenous religions such as “healing, deliverance from demons…material blessings to believers”. It is perhaps the Pentecostal style of worship that will contribute significantly to continuing growth in African Christianity as it has a particular appeal to the youth. While Islam prevails in Africa, Ward states that “it seems likely Christians in Africa will become more numerous than Christians in any other single continent.”
Post-Christian West and Post-Western Christianity
Sanneh references the work of J.R. Mott to illustrate historic expectations that Islam would have grown at such a rate by the beginning of the 21st century that, as a consequence, Christianity in Africa would have significantly declined. However, statistics demonstrate that there were around 6 million annual converts to Christianity by 1985 and from the years 1970 to 2000, the total number of African Christians grew from 120 million to 330 million. In contrast, between 1970 and 1985, over 4,000 people were leaving the European and North American church on a daily basis. The ratio of Muslims to Christians in 1900 was 4:1 and by 1962, it was just under 2.5:1.
The Western world adopted a popular view that cultural sensitivity, inclusiveness and tolerance was the measure by which Christianity itself would be tolerated. However, in post-colonial Africa, Christianity continued to flourish with three associated factors highlighted by Sanneh – national awakening, translations of the Bible into African languages, and Africans leading expansion themselves with young people and women allocated key roles in churches.
Sanneh also offers a fourth factor to be considered; that “Africans best responded to Christianity where the indigenous religions were strongest” and when communities retained their indigenous name or title for God. Sanneh states that Muslim growth in Africa occurred with more prevalence in areas where societies had not remembered their name for God and this offers an explanation for Islamic growth in colonies as those areas would have experienced suppression of their indigenous beliefs.
Christianity and Christendom
Sanneh presents a view that Africa is becoming a Christian continent whereas the West has become a group of secularised nations. A recent example of this being evident is in the Republic of Ireland, a Western nation known for many centuries as predominantly Roman Catholic in terms of a state religion. Ireland has recently legalised same sex marriage (2015) and terminations of pregnancies (2018) which are prohibited in the values and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations.
The question is posed about the impact of Christianity in Africa as it is a continent associated with AIDS (over 4,000 deaths daily), white supremacy and ethnic cleansing. Sanneh responds that it is the Church that has been prominent in bringing healing, support and infrastructure to these situations. “Furthermore, Christianity did not prevent the cold war and the nuclear proliferation that came with it.” So Christianity as a belief system or set of values cannot solely prevent human destructive behaviours. Christian nations have started wars, but following Christ and allowing him to form us does give us the capacity to respond in His love.
African Christianity has many denominations but rather than arguing over divisions as Western Christianity has, Sanneh states they more often have made links with each other in the differences rather than seeing them as obstructions.
Sanneh also suggests that Africans have embraced Christianity because the values resonate with the values of their indigenous beliefs. “Christianity helped Africans to become renewed Africans, not remade Europeans.” Sanneh also states that people turn towards God; they convert to God, not to a denomination such as Catholicism. God belongs to everyone and can be found everywhere. “Conversion is a refocusing of the mental life and it’s cultural/social underpinning and do our feelings, affections, and instincts in the light of what God has done in Jesus.”
In his essay looking at Church and culture in 1 Peter, Theologian Miroslav Volf states that Christians are “insiders who have diverted from their culture by being born again…Christian difference is therefore not an insertion of something new into the old from outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper sphere of the old.”
Sanneh references an African creed that describes a journey of faith in which the people once knew of High God in the darkness but now know Him in the light. Jesus is “a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor…always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God…He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day he rose from the grave.”
The Rt Revd Peter B. Price reviewed Sanneh’s book in a 2004 Church Times article, describing the author as “An optimist about the growth of global Christianity, though a pessimist about Western expressions of it, the author also confronts the challenges that both its growth and decline present. I would disagree with Sanneh being pessimistic as I believe he is approaching the issue with a realistic view informed by experience and knowledge about how different communities connect with Christianity. “Christianity is a world religion of recent vintage with energy to renew the church as its reels exhausted from its pact with secularism.”
I found Sanneh’s style of writing, adopting the question and answer style throughout most of the text, to be really helpful in exploring theology as a mature student. The style lends itself to being self-critical and presenting other views which also makes this a useful way of exploring questions I had not considered myself.
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Sanneh describes a resurgence of Christianity and I believe that there is an element of this occurring in the West. Figures from public life, including pop stars and sportspersons, have been observed displaying their religious beliefs. It is common to see football players walking on to the pitch with hands open in prayer or pointing to the heavens when a goal has been scored. There are also some players that thank God in post-match interviews, expressing a genuine gratitude towards the God of Christianity or god of Islam depending on the individual’s personal faith. Grime music artist Stormzy and pop singer Justin Bieber are just two examples of award-winning acts who have publicly shared aspects of their personal Christian faith journey. I find it interesting that secular sectors that embrace materialism, rebellion, and doing whatever makes you feel good, have major figures openly and unashamedly displaying their dependence on God and their relationship with Him.
I live and work in a diverse community consisting of many faiths (and none), many ethnicities, and varying experiences of political structures. In looking at how Africans have connected to Christ in the current era, I have considered how Western communities may relate to Christ too.
Exploring the expansion of African Christianity, with the explanations and interpretations offered by Sanneh, has been helpful in my Licensed Lay Ministry training and as a witness for Christ. I will remain conscious of Muzorewa’s comments on upmost importance being placed on Scripture being the foundation of all expressions of faith. 
- Bevans, Stephen B. Models of Contextual Theology (Revised edition). Orbis Books, 2002
- Gunton, Colin and Holmes, Stephen R., and Rae, Murray A. The Practice of Theology. London: SCM Press, 2005
- Hastings, Adrian. A World History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. Kindle
- Muzorewa, Gwinyai H. The Origins and Development of African Theology. Orbis 1995
- Parratt, John. A Reader in African Christian Theology. SPCK 1997
- Price, Peter B. Review of Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, by Lamin Sanneh. Church Times, 27 February 2007. Last accessed 13 October 2018. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2004/8-april/books-arts/book-reviews/whose-religion-is-christianity-the-gospel-beyond-the-west
- Sanneh, Lamin. Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond The West. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004
- Volf, Miroslav. Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter. Last accessed 13 October 2018. http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~tim/study/Miroslav%20Volf%201%20Peter.pdf
- English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK) Bible accessed via https://www.biblegateway.com/
 Gunton, Colin and Holmes, Stephen R., and Rae, Murray A. The Practice of Theology. (London: SCM Press, 2005), p186
 Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans 2004), p4
 Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, p6
 John Parratt, A Reader in African Christian Theology (SPCK 1997), p2
 Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology Revised Edition (Orbis 2002), p11
 Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology Revised Edition, p32
 Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology Revised Edition, p57
 Gwinyai H. Muzorewa, The Origins and Development of African Theology (Orbis 1995), p27
 Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, p28
 Adrian Hastings. A World History of Christianity. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011 Kindle Edition), Chapter 6
 Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, p14-15
 Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, p18
 Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, p38-39
 Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, p43
 Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, p43-44
 Miroslav Volf, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter”. Last accessed 13 October 2018. http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~tim/study/Miroslav%20Volf%201%20Peter.pdf, p19
 Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, p59-60
 Peter B. Price, Review of Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, by
Lamin Sanneh. Church Times, 27 February 2007. Last accessed 13 October 2018.
 Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, p58
 Gwinyai H. Muzorewa, The Origins and Development of African Theology (Orbis 1995), p27