Tom Grosh alerted me to this October, 2003 Christianity Today interview with Yale University professor Lamin Sanneh, Sanneh's observations are especially important in light of the great division in the worldwide Anglican Communion between the Third World countries and the West, particularly the American Episcopal Church.
Sanneh was born in The Gambia of African royal descent, raised an orthodox Muslim in a highly-educated family, and became interested in Christianity through reading about Jesus in the Qur'an. He eventually became a Christian—with more hindrance than help from missionaries and Western-based churches—and contributes all this perspective to his analysis of Western Christianity and the future of Christianity in general.
Some points that particularly interested me:
- [When asked how his early life 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.
- Once the choice was made about the significance of Jesus in God's work of salvation, it was not difficult to make the decision to join the church. Getting accepted in the Protestant church, however, was a different matter altogether, thanks to the church's suspicion and skepticism....I do not know the reason for that. It could be cultural, it could be liberal distrust of religion, it could be residual hostility toward converts as illegitimate fruits of mission, it could be unfamiliarity with non-white people, it could be presumptions about my political motives and leanings, it could be any or all of the above.
- We should remember that while God and Jesus are swear words in the West, that is not so in the Muslim world. People would never take the name of God and God's prophets in vain. We need a dose of Islam's reverence to keep us honest about our own faith.
- The African members of my extended family have little conception of my world, little idea of the milieu of my life and work and the expanding network of friends and colleagues spread across the world. For many of them, the West is the land of riches, and so it appears implausible to them that anyone could be said to be successful who was not successful in the financial sense. I am often tempted to lecture them about mortgages, college tuition, about the insurance Leviathan that engulfs home, car, body, limb and teeth, about fuel and utility bills, or about Uncle Sam's long and heavy hands on our wages and our spending. An occasionally sympathetic listener might say perceptively, 'but you don't own yourself anymore,' but otherwise it is a futile exercise. The love of money is a universal desire, admittedly, but being in America turns it into a prerequisite. It trumps everything else.
- The cultural captivity of Christianity in the West is nearly complete, and, with the religion tamed, it is open season on the West's Christian heritage. But I don't believe that dismantling the West's Christian heritage will protect the West from ideological intolerance of the most damaging kind. I worry about a West without a moral center facing a politically resurgent Islam.
- [Comparing Christianity in Africa and in 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.
- [On the role of Christianity in preserving indigenous life and culture] Christianity is invested in languages and cultures that existed for purposes other than Christianity, including the names by which local people call God. To that extent, Christianity has been anticipated, and to that extent, too, it has fulfilled the potential of cultures. Christianity has not so much been divided by the languages of the world as been enriched by them, and enriching them in turn. The overwhelming majority of the world's languages have a dictionary and a grammar at all because of the modern missionary movement. With such systematic documentation the affected cultures could promote themselves in unprecedented and unsuspecting ways. More people pray and worship in more languages in Christianity than in any other religion.
- At [the Anglican Communion's Lambeth Conference], and subsequently, there was widespread consternation among Western bishops that the Third World bishops seemed misguided enough to think that the Bible could replace enlightened reasonableness as a standard of guidance and Christian teaching. The unprecedented large conversions taking place in Africa and elsewhere were viewed as unwelcome resistance in the path of the West's cultural juggernaut.
- The West limits its role in the new Christianity to taking precautions against too close an encounter with it. According to many church leaders, the Anglican Church is threatened with a major schism in the foreseeable future. The extraordinary irony is that Anglicanism has never been stronger, never more appealing and more global in membership than at present. In the mystery of God, you wonder whether that energy will find other channels rather than dissipate entirely.
It is interesting how some of his comments resonate differently with me after having read Mere Discipleship. The interview closes with these challenging and encouraging words:
An extraordinary new world of Christianity is now unfolding before our eyes. It is an unprecedented world, something that will change the face of Christianity. In other words, Christianity today has never been more vibrant, more varied, more pro-active, and more widespread. The text for it might be, "Behold, I make all things new."