by Lamin Sanneh
Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, 2008, 347 pages, $19.95.
—Reviewed by Marvin Newell, executive director, CrossGlobal Link.
Been looking for a solid read on the historical advancement of Christianity through the work of missions? Then look no further. Lamin Sanneh provides a scholarly treatment detailing core and extenuating factors which through the centuries have had significant bearing on the expansion of Christianity. Sanneh, a Gambian and currently professor of history and world Christianity at Yale University, does this through noteworthy themes of historical significance that have become the pillars upon which the platform of worldwide Christianity now stands.
Beginning with the pillar of “empire” from Roman times, Sanneh expertly weaves the chronologically-progressive pillars which he calls: the vernacular, gentile dominance, comparative Islam, trans-Atlantic migration (both Catholic and Protestant), the colonial, the primal (especially African), critical evaluation, and the growing significant “bamboo pillar” of China. What cannot be missed is Sanneh’s comprehensive understanding of these pillars, coupled with noted outcomes which have shaped Christianity into what it is today.
As a non-westerner, Sanneh provides a critique of Christian expansion that enlightens the westerner because of a less than usual slant that is typically ours. As he enumerates the forces behind the flow of Christianity, starting in Palestine and then expanding to the ends of the earth, the author is not afraid to mention both the virtues and vices that congruently flowed within the Church itself: both the good and bad examples of Christ’s ambassadors. Indisputably, there have been the good, the bad, and the ugly, and many subjugated peoples have perceived Christian missionaries as little more than doing Western mischief—earnest journeyers of imperialism. The refreshing approach of Sanneh is that he does not dwell on these aberrations, nor approach this discussion with a chip on his shoulder. Rather, he is a mostly even-handed scholarly critic. This makes Disciples of All Nations a helpful historical review that is notably neutral and non-offensive.
If there is any weakness in the book it may be the inordinate amount of space given to Prophet William Wade Harris, a native of the Ivory Coast. However, this is balanced by Sanneh’s insightful inclusion of a full chapter devoted to the forthcoming dominance the Chinese Church will have on world Christianity. This book is not for everyone, but certainly every mission CEO and professor of missions should be familiar with it and its message.
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