Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)
The book essentially explores the way Christianity interacted with the various cultures to which it was introduced by missionaries of the Church. It examines the history of the Church primarily in Africa, India, the Arab world, China, and Latin America.
The book is a convicting reminder that while Christian missionaries have done extraordinary good through the hope their efforts have brought to many, the Church, in its desire to expand itself and share its joy with as many people as possible, has made some choices that, with the distance of history, can be seen as choices that probably should not be made a second time.
It makes me wonder what things are happening today in the Church—practices, stances, whatever—that we’ll look back on in a few decades or centuries and laugh, or maybe cringe.
I don’t believe it’s fair to polarize the Church as all bad or all good. It’s a community with a good guide and goal at its center that has often failed to achieve that goal; yet it has also produced some extraordinary individuals who have shown us what it really means to be human in the best way possible.
One event in the Church’s history often looked backed on as a significant turning point is when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. Others have observed the tension in this event: on one hand, a Church that was once more edgy and radical was inevitably dulled by its alignment with the State. A religion so co-opted can’t quite retain its ability to critique and rebuke the evils of those in power.
Yet on the other hand, it would likely have been hard to pass up an opportunity to become a more visible and tolerated force in the world, and the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire has certainly played a role in the ubiquity of Christianity around the world today, a reality which, despite the harm the Church has done throughout history, can’t be allowed to overshadow the good it’s done.
But another mistake has become increasingly obvious, in light of the postcolonial world that is now our reality, with nations finding their identity separate from the powerful nations of the West. That is the way Western Christian missionaries brought a little too much “Western” with them, failing to see how captive they were to their own culture and failing to recognize the beauty of the values, lifestyles, traditions of those nations to which they brought their gospel.
And that’s what the book addresses—what a "World Christianity" looks like in which Christianity looks increasingly more like the cultures it is present in, without succumbing to the evils of these cultures (like the way American Christianity has been influenced by the consumerism of our own country, for example).
A discussion in class yesterday seems quite relevant to the topic of the book. In one of my “SPIN” classes (essentially electives or “special interest” classes) we frequently discuss culture, specifically American culture and differences between cultures. I gave my students a list of cultural differences between American-born Chinese and Chinese-born Chinese that I found online. But it was obvious to me that the list was relevant to Americans and Chinese in general. (Link: ABC vs OBC List)
It’s basically a list of comparisons between the two cultures of how people generally act and orient themselves. For example, the list suggests Americans are more time-conscious, while Chinese are more conscious about relationships. Americans are suggested to have a greater need to be liked, while Chinese have a greater need to be included.
My class discussed the meanings of each pair of distinctives, while trying to identify where our own respective cultures and then our own lives fit in the spectrum. I thought it was a lively topic (though I’m sure some were bored, but...that’s life).
And a thought occurred to me this morning as I was thinking about the list. And that is: which of the two sides of the spectrum is more in line with the way and values of Jesus?
I’m not sure it’s a great question; it might be a very restricting and unfair one. Like many things in life, it’s usually not necessary or truthful to choose one side.
But it’s a fun thought experiment. At the very least it might challenge that occasional resistance that is felt to what is “other." And it also, like the book in discussion here, encourages us to open our eyes to the rightness and goodness and beauty in the way other cultures think, act, do, and “be.” A global Christianity should look like a collage, a display of God’s love of diversity.
What do you think? Here is a sampling of some of the comparisons; you can check out the full list linked above, if you have the time and interest. Look at each pair and try to answer: which do you think is more "Jesus-y?" Or maybe put less crudely, which seems more in line with God’s best for humankind?
(Disclaimer: you might not agree with these characterizations.)
Try to pick a side…can you?
American: Oriented toward action
Chinese: Oriented toward “harmony keeping”
American: Prefer efficiency and ready for change
Chinese: Prefer stability and structure
American: Emphasis on “doing”
Chinese: Emphasis on “being”
American: Competition seen as healthy
Chinese: Interaction seen as healthy
American: Goal is winning (at all costs)
Chinese: Goal is participation and harmony
American: Relationships of equality
Chinese: Relationships of hierarchy
American: Respect is seeking opinions of all
Chinese: Respect is obedience/submission
American: Love equals quality of time spent together
Chinese: Love equals provision of necessities
American: Direct and confrontational
Chinese: Indirect middle person communication
American: Concern for right vs. wrong
Chinese: Concern for “saving face”
American: “Me-ism” mentality
Chinese: “We-ism” mentality
American: Good parents develop independence
Chinese: Good parents develop family loyalty
American: Alright to be in debt
Chinese: Terrible and shameful to owe someone
American: Oriented toward action
American food versus Chinese food. (That’s my addition. I’ll say Jesus would have preferred chopsticks).
(Comparisons gathered from http://www.aacconsulting.com/chinamer.htm)