Lamin Sanneh: Culture, Translation and the Life of Faith

Summoned from the Margins: Homecoming of an African, Lamin Sanneh  (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2012) $24

Summoned from the MarginsMy claim is that no one language can substitute for the truth of God, that as children of God we learn and speak the language of faith always imperfectly and provisionally, and that the divine perfection is beyond cultural advantage or disadvantage.

This is the heart of the book, Summoned from the Margins, by Lamin Sanneh, Professor of World Christianity at Yale University.

Born in Gambia, trained at Edinburgh and Harvard universities, Dr. Sanneh has made the transition from Islam to Christianity, from Methodist to Catholic, over the space of half a century. His book is the exploration of a conversion from unlikely places to unimagined ones: summoned by a Savior to a religion about which he had little knowledge, and a marginal one in a society where the everyday came into tangible contact with, and was largely dictated by, Islamic thought.  Along the way, Dr. Sanneh explores how Christianity dialogues with Islam, and why the two religions often clash in dialogue, coming as they do from two paradigms that often speak past each other.

Following a post-secondary education in The Gambia, Sanneh decided to apply for the full scholarship offered to students at that time by the United States government for enrollment at an American university. He arrived in Virginia in 1963 into the turmoil and conflict of the civil rights movement. “…Nothing in our background prepared us for America: we had no value system to deal with race, and no fund of personal experience to draw on for understanding or self-preservation.” Nevertheless, he continued on in pursuit of his studies, realizing along the way that his interest in history matched up with his religious interest.

The story of Sanneh’s conversion is curious: both Methodist and Catholic ministers were reluctant to baptize him in his native country when he approached them after his personal conversion. Not until his impending travel to America did they agree. As we come to know, Christian churches were tolerated in Gambia under the condition that they would not try to convert Muslims. By rejoicing in and refusing to validate his conversion, the church there reflected the ambivalence of Muslim-Christian relations. While the Muslims of his acquaintance know little about Christianity per se, Sanneh admits that Christians do not transmit their faith well to onlookers. Recalling the drunken revelry of many churchgoers on Christmas Day, Sanneh writes, “It is worth thinking about the fact that, even without much exposure to Christians or to Christianity, Muslims’ negative impression of the religion should abound. Proximity did not seem to improve the impression, while familiarity only seemed to deepen it.” This problem of translation becomes a key point for Sanneh, especially in regards to interfaith dialogue. It highlights the condescending view that each religion has of the other on their respective home turfs. Having been a member of both traditions, it behooves the reader to pay careful attention to these reflections.

Continuing his work into postgraduate studies of Arabic at the urging of his mentors, Sanneh made a startling realization, that much of the scriptural work he was researching in a western context was filtered through the vernacular idiom. In other words, the Christian scriptures have been translated to fit the context of the place in which they are to be read, something Muslim agents would never dream of doing. Arabic remains the language that Muslims are encouraged to learn to know the words of the prophet Muhammad, even though they may not understand it. “Angels fear to tread on the ground that now seemed absolutely irresistible to the beginner: Christianity is a form of indigenous empowerment by virtue of vernacular translation, it was becoming clear to me.” Such are the vastly different conclusions of the two religions, even though both have experienced religious domestication in Africa, and change the mission of each in regards to scripture. Christianity used translation as an asset to make its message universal, he argues.   This adaptation to local language unlinks the conversion burden from its political moorings, “allowing Christianity’s appeal to arise from its truth claims only… Post-Western Christians have learned well the lesson the West received from the apostles that salvation is God’s unfettered gift, not a token from Caesar’s love.” This vernacular translation is the key, he believes, to cultural confidence in naming God, for example. Islam prohibits the translation of the Arabic Allah, which Sanneh would argue buries the personal “under layers of the Islamization process.”

Certainly personal background affects personal belief of the characteristics of God at work in the world, and the narrative of Lamin Sanneh reflects this. The links are not always or immediately apparent, but it would also be imprudent to say that any biography follows a straight trajectory. The value of his work lies in its recounting of an individual’s life story, of course. Summoned from the Margin combines the nostalgia of memory with the clear awareness of academic logic and weaves them into a strong narrative.

Thus, the added value of the work also lies in the author’s insights for theologians and laypeople alike who seek to bridge the communication gap between Christians and Muslims.  If it is true that both religions have different starting points in their approaches to mission, then Christian assumptions and approaches to interfaith dialogue are being challenged at a basic level. Fortunately, it is a conversation in which neither side has the advantage because a common vocabulary must be built up first between the two faiths. This, of course, is not a new challenge. And yet, if Sanneh is correct, then it is a natural next step for Christianity to once again practice translating its message so that it can be understood universally. We are called to press on in that challenge, as Sanneh would also acknowledge, “only with the sense of our reward lying not in our power, and not being without cost.”

Ingrid Melendez is currently studying Cross-Cultural Studies and Christian Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. When not busy reading or writing for classes about youth culture and gender roles, you can find her biking around town on her blue bike.

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