Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Off the Shelf: Whose Religion is Christianity?

I love finding hidden treasures at the library. A few weeks back, I was browsing the stacks at the downtown branch when I came across the book Whose Religion is Christianity by Lamin Sanneh.

Don't get the title wrong. Sanneh is a Gambian Christian, and he writes this book to explain African Christianity to Europeans and Americans. Reading his words, I can tell he has a particular audience in mind -- he's a professor at Yale Divinity school, so he's writing primarily to the liberal, skeptical, academic crowd of New England. He keeps defending African Christianity, with its emphasis on the Bible, spiritual experience, actual belief in the resurrection of Christ, and evangelism -- he defends it because he knows that the enlightened secularist thinks these things are very bad. “The sticking point in all this…is the allergy of a secular West to any suggestion of a return to Christianity….The West as a modern progressive society is committed to live as if God does not exist, etsi dues non daretur, or at any rate to live with no sense of the devil.” (83) Basically his audience are the same people who woke up last year and discovered that "Evangelical Christians" are a massive segement of society in America.

While the reviews on Amazon are shallowly critical, I suggest that it is worth a read -- not for keeping in your personal library, but certainly worth a borrow from your public library. Here's why:

Sanneh talks about indigenous African Christianity -- not the neo-European style Christianity that was planted by colonialism, but Christianity that sprang up in the wake of Bible translations being available in native tongues. “…African Christianity is the consequence of haphazard, unorchestrated, popular mobilization, much of it outside, or even against, mainstream bodies. African Christianity, then, is the irony of mass religious enthusiasm pitted against mass disenfranchisement with the political structures.” (28). It is a spontaneous Christianity that seems to be sweeping the continent. Sanneh cites statistics that say that Africa currently has 350 millon Christians, but in 25 years, that is expected to swell to 600 million, making Africa the most Christianized continent on the planet.

A significant part of this model of Christianity is its focus on relationships and story (much like the postmodern movement here in the states -- but the main difference being that the African churches tend to be clear on the truth of the stories). As an example, Sanneh tells the story of how the Maasai Christians responded to 9/11:

The Maasai, who are herders in East Africa, didn’t hear about 9/11 until a Maasai student studying abroad returned home to tell the story. He told it not as a dispassionate news piece, but in their own cultural fashon so that they felt the anguish of the American people. The Maasai were so moved, they held a sacred ceremony and blessed 16 cows in sympathy and solidarity with the US – and the warriors vowed to do their part in hunting down those responsible. A bemused US Embassy official from Nairobi made the trek to receive the cows. Several months later, NPR broadcast a public acknowledgement of the gift and thanksgiving for the thoughtfulness of the Maasai. (64-65) In this story, we see both the power of story and the power of relationship -- their action was based off a single relationship of hospitality that was shown to the student, but the relationship was so important that they had to act.

For further reading on this book, see the review from the Presbyterian Outlook or the Christianity Today review. Or check out this provocative interview with Sanneh from 2003 (he tells the story of his conversion from Islam to Christianity -- and it saddens me the response he received from Christians). Here are some excerpts:

"How would your early childhood and adolescence have differed from that of the "typical" North American?

It's like living on another planet. I was raised in a culture where the stress is not on the individual but on the community, on tradition, on fidelity to past models, on respect for parents and elders, on rote memorization of knowledge, on scarce material resources offset by a wealth of social capital. We had limited access to the modern world, but lavish access to family and clan achievement and honor. We had close proximity to the natural world without the demand to subdue and exploit it. One could go on."

"How would you compare Christianity as it is understood and practiced in Africa and in North America?

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."

That last sentence struck me hard. Tolle Lege and see what the Holy Spirit does in you.

Soli Deo Gloria