Philip Jenkins

Institute for Studies of Religion

History Department

Baylor University




As you can see from his long list of books, Lamin Sanneh is one of the world’s most distinguished scholars on the globalization of Christianity. You can find substantial reviews of Disciples Of All Nations from H-NET, IRM, and JAAR (You should have access to all these through the library, but if you run into difficulties, please talk to me).

You can find a good interview with Dr. Sanneh, who has a very interesting life history, and conversion experience. There’s also a more recent video interview with him, which is instructive.

The Book


What does Sanneh mean by “pillars”? What pillars does he identify in his book? How far do they work in providing a structure for telling the story of Christian development and expansion?


Do you agree with his choices? Might another scholar have selected differently?


How does he distinguish between World and Global Christianity? Is this a legitimate distinction?


Sanneh tells his story largely through case-studies of individuals who were prominent or in some way representative - Bartolomé de las Casas, Philip Quaque, David Livingstone. Why? What do we gain or lose by this approach?


How does Sanneh’s account differ from what we might have expected in a history of Christian global expansion written fifty years ago? What themes does he stress differently? What voices does he place in the foreground, which might not have been so prominent in earlier accounts?


Who are some of the memorable people he describes? Who are the heroes and villains of his narrative?


Sanneh does a great job of making brief memorable statements, which almost clamor to be set as essays with “Discuss” after them. Give me some examples that impressed or annoyed you.


From this book, is it possible to deduce his own stances on issues, whether political or religious? Is he conservative or liberal?


How far has his own personal background shaped his attitudes as we see thm in this book?


Throughout the book, who are the scholars or church leaders whom he is debating and criticizing, whether explicitly or implicitly?


Is this a controversial book? Why and how?


A Historical Framework


Sanneh is unusual in tracing the story of translation and intercultural contact to the earliest days of the church, not just to later “eras of mission.” What are some of the continuing debates and themes that he traces through his entire two thousand year history?


Sanneh offers multiple examples of how Christianity becomes indigenous in particular societies in different eras, and some of his examples are very far removed from each other. What are some of the elements that these stories have in common?


Sanneh is very good at selecting critical comments from non-Christians, indicating how others perceived the faith and its believers. What are some of the critiques that stand out?


Sanneh offers amazing stories of Christian success in societies scarcely known in the modern West, as in the Kongo. What are some of the stories he tells?


Based on what we read here, why have churches flourished or failed?


Sanneh often writes about Christian expansion on the frontiers, or at the margin, a concept he uses often. Why does he suggest that margins or boundaries are such central concepts for Christians? Can the margins shape the mainstream?


An Additional Resource


I have done a number of blog postings about related themes, especially in the context of the spread of Christianity in the ancient and medieval world, a long-standing interest of mine. These work well in conjunction with Sanneh’s work, especially the point that “Global Christianity” is anything but new: it has been highly global from the very beginning.


Some relevant readings include the following, which should be read in sequence:


The Dark Ages  

The Ancient Inheritance

The First Global Christianity

Out of Egypt




Sanneh is deeply interested in translation, which he regards as a fundamental principle in Christianity? As he has remarked, “The original language of Christianity is translation.” (See also this useful review about “Missions and the Translatable Gospel”).


Why is translation of such concern to Christian missions? What are the problems involved in translation?


Sanneh also talks about the “vernacular principle.” What does he mean by this? Why is it such a critical dividing point between Islam and Christianity?


As he writes, God exists “at the center of the universe of cultures, implying equality among cultures and the necessarily relative status of cultures vis-ą-vis the truth of God.” Translatability shows why “no culture is so advanced and so superior that it can claim exclusive access or advantage to the truth of God, and none so marginal and remote that it can be excluded.”


Amos Yong summarizes the book’s argument thus:

When put together, Sanneh’s portrait of world Christianity is one that emphasizes indigenous agency, vernacularly formulated and articulated practices, and thoroughly diversifying processes from start to finish (or to the present). … Christian uniqueness, then, is precisely is translatability, mutability, and adaptability: world Christianity is what it is because of its paradoxical capacity to both be transformed by its encounter with “otherness,” on the one hand, while at the same time being able to absorb and even transform “others,” on the other hand.

The Limits of Translation?


Throughout history, Christians have worried about the limits of adapting the faith when encountering other cultures, for fear of compromising the core of Christian belief, or even of wandering into syncretism. How far does Sanneh treat such concerns? Should there be limits to translatability and adaptability?


Dale T. Irvin writes as follows:

In Sanneh’s analysis, much of the embrace of religious tradition is hidden under the banner of cultural appropriation or enculturation. But such an argument requires one to make a clear distinction between culture and religion, allowing for cultural practices or meanings to be appropriated within Christianity without touching on the question of religious appropriations and meanings. Such a distinction is impossible in practice. One can hardly separate the appropriation of Christianity in Asia from the ancient religious meanings that infuse Asian languages, for instance. The numerous African converts who populate Sanneh’s narrative do not speak to us in their indigenous languages in these pages, hiding from the reader a fact that Sanneh has often himself pointed out in other contexts, that these converts continued, with missionary approval, to use their indigenous and traditional name for the high God to speak of the one to whom Jesus prayed.

Understanding Mission


How does he regard the experience of European empire as it affected missions and the church? In what way is his approach here unusual or even counter-intuitive? What are some of the rival views he is arguing against?


What does Sanneh tell us about Western missionaries and missionary schools, and whether or not they were doing a good job? (see also his older article about this theme).


In Sanneh’s view, what have missionaries done that has led to the success or failure of their missions? Based on this experience, what has been the “correct” approach to spreading Christianity? Is he right? Can you think of counter-examples?


What does Sanneh think about the churches’ alliance with secular states through the centuries? Has this been positive or negative? What are the advantages and dangers of such an alliance?


As post-colonialism appears so frequently in books like this, a definition might be useful. Here is one useful description: Postcolonialism deals with cultural identity in colonised societies: the dilemmas of developing a national identity after colonial rule; the ways in which writers articulate and celebrate that identity (often reclaiming it from and maintaining strong connections with the coloniser); the ways in which the knowledge of the colonised (subordinated) people has been generated and used to serve the coloniser's interests; and the ways in which the coloniser's literature has justified colonialism via images of the colonised as a perpetually inferior people, society and culture.

(There is a much fuller account at that site).


What are the religious implications of this approach?




Some reviewers have pointed to areas that Sanneh underplays, especially the role of the Orthodox churches. Is this fair?


Can you see other areas that he might properly have covered more extensively? How does he treat older non-European indigenous churches?


Dale T. Irvin complains thatWorld Christianity is reduced to the history of missions in this work.” Is that a fair comment?



How does he treat Islam? (Bear in mind that he is a convert from that faith). What is surprising about his quite extensive account of Christian-Muslim interactions in earlier centuries?


What are the major points of debate and difference that he notes between the two faiths?


Does he believe the contemporary West is right or wrong in its attitudes towards Islam? On the basis of his comments here, does he believe that dialogue is possible between Christians and Muslims?


How does he compare the Bible and the Qur’an?


The Future


How does he see the global future of Christianity? What are the main trends and problems he sees in Christianity worldwide?


How does he regard globalization, especially in what it portends for the future of Christianity?