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African scholar looks back

30 August 2013

Jesse Zink reflects on the journey of a Yale historian of missions


Convert who found the Anglican bar set too high: Professor Sanneh. From the cover of his book

Convert who found the Anglican bar set too high: Professor Sanneh. From the cover of his book

Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African
Lamin Sanneh
Eerdmans £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT842 )

LAMIN SANNEH's research has long demonstrated that Christianity is not - and never has been - the exclusive preserve of Christians in the north Atlantic world who "bring" it to others. Rather, Christianity has been a world faith from its inception.

But Sanneh's work has always been enriched by the knowledge of his own life. Raised Muslim in British West Africa, he converted to Christianity as a young man. In Summoned from the Margin, he steps away from academia, and tells the story of his journey into and through the Church. It is a compelling tale.

In the first section, he relates his youth in the British colony that became The Gambia. In his Islamic school, he learns the importance that Muslims place on Arabic: "It is not possible to conceive a divine role for the vernacular against the transcendent Arabic." Although Sanneh lets this passage stand on its own, it is hard not to see here the genesis of his argument in Translating the Message, that a key aspect of Christianity is that its scriptures were repeatedly translated in the process of missionary expansion.

Sanneh describes his experience of being "born again" on a beach in West Africa with a beautiful lyricism. As he moves into education in the United States and Europe, he bears Islam no ill will. Rather, he prepares for an academic career studying Christian-Muslim relations. An accident of circumstance leads him to teach a course on world Christianity, and so alters his career, but his reflections on Christian-Muslim dialogue are still thought-provoking.

He notes how many Christians have taught the value of "presence" as a way to offer "silent honour and witness in the Muslim world". But "'presence' offers little defence against resistance, misunderstanding, and suspicion. So there is a lot to be said for being straightforward and plain spoken".

His academic development is paralleled by an ongoing search for a church home. It is not an easy task. In the various Protestant churches he tries, people are unsure what to make of him. After spending time in an Anglican church, he is left feeling as if he "failed to clear the high bar of cultural vetting for the Anglican Church". Sanneh's outsider status and his recognition that all forms of Christianity reflect their culture give him a unique perch from which to form a critique of the Western Church.

The Churches have barely begun to come to grips with what it means to be a truly world faith. Summoned from the Margin, I hope, will contribute to pushing Christians in that direction.

The Revd Jesse Zink is assistant chaplain at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

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