Home Away from Home
At this time in history, the gulf separating the worlds of Islam and the Christian West can sometimes seem unbridgeable, the conflicts between them unsolvable. The time is ripe, then, for Lamin Sanneh, someone intimately familiar with both worlds, to tell his improbable life story.
Sanneh, though of royal lineage, grew up in a poor Muslim family in the colonial Gambian village of Georgetown, on an island in the Gambia River. "There was no church," he writes, "in the town where I was growing up; I had never seen a Bible in my life; I had never heard anyone teach or preach about Christianity; there was no mention of Christianity in the books we read at school."
Today, however, Sanneh is an accomplished Christian scholar whose influence traverses multiple continents. Teaching and researching posts with Yale Divinity School, the University of London, and two Pontifical Commissions are among this distinguished man's many titles and honors.
From Islam to Christianity, from provincial poverty to global intellectual preeminence—Sanneh has indeed been on quite a journey. In Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (Eerdmans), he reflects on the many steps and decisions that shaped this unlikeliest of biographies.
At first, the title is likely to suggest to a Western reader, as it did to me, that the margin from which Sanneh was summoned was his birthplace, and that his homecoming was to the Christian world—ultimately to Catholicism, where he has found his spiritual home. But the image also suggests the opposite: the Christian world as the margin to which he was summoned—a strange, distant world, remote from the world of his childhood. The homecoming, in this vein, is his return to Georgetown with his children, which first fueled his autobiographical reflections.
Three Levels of Reflection
Sanneh, who seldom allows anything of his own or others' lives to pass without careful analysis, reflection, and contemplation, writes on at least three levels.
One is autobiography, the story of a fascinating life—growing up in a traditional African culture being transformed at once by Islam (or the Arab world) and by Christianity (or the Western world). We learn of the dynamics of polygamous families—not in the abstract, but based on direct experience. This family structure drove a wedge between his paternal and maternal siblings, with the former emerging as rivals and the latter as allies. Sanneh's Muslim father, experienced more as a distant patriarch than a loving caretaker, forbade him to attend a "Western," "infidel" school. His equally Muslim mother, in the manner of mothers, evaded that order, though that meant that young Lamin would have no money for school fees, books, supplies, clothes, and sometimes food.