Lamin Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and professor of history at Yale Divinity School. Gambian born, Sanneh is descended from the nyanchos, an ancient African royal line. As such, his earliest education, in the Gambia, was with fellow chiefs' sons. Following graduation from the University of London with a Ph.D. in Islamic History, he taught at the University of Ghana and at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. He served for eight years as Assistant and Associate Professor of the History of Religion at Harvard University, before moving to Yale University in 1989. The author of a dozen books and scores of articles, he is an editor-at-large for The Christian Century and a contributing editor for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research.

Among his many books, the one that has perhaps made the deepest impact is Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis 1989), in which he argues that—contrary to the folklore that passes for social science, and in sharp contrast to Islam—Christianity preserves indigenous life and culture, thanks to its emphasis on mother-tongue translation. Where indigenous culture has been strong, it has absorbed Christian life and worship, thereby sustaining and even increasing its vitality. Where conversion has been to Islam, on the other hand, indigenous cultures have tended to be weak, and soon lose entirely the capacity to think religiously in their mother tongue. The difference lies in the Christian missionary insistence upon translation, on the one hand, and diffusion as the Muslim missionary modus operandi. The converse, he argues, is also true.

His latest book, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, will be released by Eerdmans later this month. Sanneh and his wife, Sandra, have on son, Kelefa, and a daughter, Sia.

Jonathan Bonk is the executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, editor of the International Bulletin of Mission Research, and project director for the Dictionary of African Christian Biography.

* * *

What were the circumstances of your early childhood?

I was raised in an orthodox Muslim family and, with the sons of chiefs, went to school in West Africa.

How would your early childhood and adolescence have differed from that of the "typical" North American?

It's like living on another planet. I was raised in a culture where the stress is not on the individual but on the community, on tradition, on fidelity to past models, on respect for parents and elders, on rote memorization of knowledge, on scarce material resources offset by a wealth of social capital. We had limited access to the modern world, but lavish access to family and clan achievement and honor. We had close proximity to the natural world without the demand to subdue and exploit it. One could go on.

Article continues below

What made you interested in Christianity?

Reading about Jesus in the Qur'an piqued my curiosity. I had no access to the Bible or to a church at the time, and so the Qur'an remained the authoritative and only source of Jesus, son of Mary (the respectful form the Qur'an uses).

Did you express this curiosity openly?

By force of circumstance, I kept counsel with myself. My teachers would react unpredictably, and my Muslim friends would be scandalized.

Were any of your teachers or fellow classmates similarly curious?

Yes, but they lacked my effrontery, perhaps.

How difficult was it to convert from Islam to Christianity?

Once the choice was made about the significance of Jesus in God's work of salvation, it was not difficult to make the decision to join the church. Getting accepted in the Protestant church, however, was a different matter altogether, thanks to the church's suspicion and skepticism. It is only now, at long last, in the Catholic Church that I feel accepted unconditionally and unreservedly. It vindicates my view that faith counts for something, though it was a long time coming.

Did you find that Christians welcomed you with open arms once you had declared your desire to convert?

On the contrary. The church was suspicious and distrustful.

Could you elaborate just a little more on that point?

Unofficially, the Methodist church in question welcomed my decision to seek baptism, but officially they put off the decision to baptize me.

They asked instead that I to go to the Catholic Church, which I did for a year, but with the same result, I found.

The Catholics also appeared reluctant, and suspicious, too, it seemed. I had hit an ecumenical obstacle. In mitigation, the Methodist church assured me that their baptism, when they did it, would be recognized by the Catholic Church. I expressed relief at what seemed like hedging your bets and doubling the favorable odds at the same time. It still took two years to accomplish the object in view, and only because I gave an ultimatum, though the Methodist church added the precaution of readings on New Testament form criticism for my catechism. Away with any risk of the Bible being taken, like the Qur'an, as the impeccable word of God!

Article continues below

That precaution of a rational, progressive understanding of Christianity appeared to have failed when, with my interest still obviously undiminished, I requested to be allowed to study theology. I received a swift negative response, with the indication that their decision was backed by the mission headquarters in London (in case I harbored a stubborn thought I had any remaining support there).

Those were the ungarnished facts that I as a very young convert had to deal with (or not deal with, if I chose). It happened that I was so profoundly affected by the message of Jesus, so inexplicably transformed at the roots of faith and trust, that I felt myself in the grips of an undeniable impetus to give myself to God, whatever my ultimate career path. I never had cause to fret about the work to which God might call me; so steadfast are God's promises.

Following your conversion, what did you most miss about Islam?

I am not sure "miss" is the right word, but I acquired a deep appreciation for Islam, for its sense of divine transcendence, for my own formation in its moral milieu, for the habits of obedience and faithfulness it transcribed in me, and for the idea it inculcated of the truth and reality God in human affairs. We should remember that while God and Jesus are swear words in the West, that is not so in the Muslim world. People would never take the name of God and God's prophets in vain. We need a dose of Islam's reverence to keep us honest about our own faith. We need each other if for no other reason.

What role, if any, did Western missionaries play in your conversion, either directly or indirectly?

I never went to a mission school and knew no missionaries at all when I embarked on my inquiry. It was only later, after I moved to the capital city, that I met English teachers at a government school. So missionaries played little role in my conversion experience.

Why did you finally move into communion with the Roman Catholic Church, after your long sojourn as a Protestant?

The Catholic Church eventually relented after years of ignoring and wishing me away! In that time the Protestant church had remained for the most part incredulous of me.

I do not know the reason for that. It could be cultural, it could be liberal distrust of religion, it could be residual hostility toward converts as illegitimate fruits of mission, it could be unfamiliarity with non-white people, it could be presumptions about my political motives and leanings, it could be any or all of the above, how do I know. But, whatever it was, it wore me down eventually.

Article continues below

I felt my reasons for being a Christian had little resonance with the reasons a liberal West gives for the Christian name. I remember on a visit to Germany from Africa when I was on school vacation seeing the sign, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You," and duly betaking myself there one Sunday only to discover I was unwelcome! My secular white American friend felt vindicated about why he ceased to be a practicing Christian. It was all one big cultural pretense, he said. Don't get literal with Christian slogans. There would be no questions asked if I was white, he observed caustically.

I realized that a cultural paradigm had usurped the place of God in our enlightened scheme of things, and that was one reason why for so long the church tried to make me feel guilty and untrustworthy for claiming the Christian name. With my religious orientation, however, I was unable to reconcile myself to that fundamental compromise with the world. I thought Jesus was for real in spite of the prevarications of the church.

How did you end up choosing an academic career in which you have spent most of your time on the faculty of several of the most prestigious universities in the world?

I come from a Muslim scholarly family. My paternal grandfather and my father's brother were both professional religious scholars, and so it felt natural from childhood for me to aspire to be a scholar. My heart was set on it, even though I tried many other occupations in between. I have never doubted that the life of the mind and life in the service of God and neighbor belonged together. But nobody can determine where and how he or she will end up—nor did I.

How would you describe the present state of your relationships with your immediate and extended Muslim families?

It is a complicated one. The African members of my extended family have little conception of my world, little idea of the milieu of my life and work and the expanding network of friends and colleagues spread across the world. For many of them, the West is the land of riches, and so it appears implausible to them that anyone could be said to be successful who was not successful in the financial sense. I am often tempted to lecture them about mortgages, college tuition, about the insurance Leviathan that engulfs home, car, body, limb and teeth, about fuel and utility bills, or about Uncle Sam's long and heavy hands on our wages and our spending. An occasionally sympathetic listener might say perceptively, 'but you don't own yourself anymore,' but otherwise it is a futile exercise. The love of money is a universal desire, admittedly, but being in America turns it into a prerequisite. It trumps everything else.

Article continues below

It is impossible to overcome such expectations about being successful in America, but continuing family demands require an ongoing relationship unconstrained by that. So I have maintained contact, with the occasional visit and exchange of news.

How does your experience play into your understanding of Muslim-Christian dialogue?

The responsibility of the church to respond positively to the Muslim challenge I see as constitutive of the Christian response to God. I remain convinced that the church will emerge renewed and revitalized from that challenge.

What do you think about current missionary efforts to evangelize Muslims?

I am sure evangelizing Muslims will make more of an impression on the Christian evangelizers themselves than on the Muslim world. Given the extent of indifference and complacency about the religious life among Christians, it is perhaps a good thing if they are shaken out of that torpor, however circuitous the path by which they arrive at that awakening. Muslims will continue to pay them scant attention.

What are among the most serious misunderstandings that Muslims typically hold regarding Christians?

Several misunderstandings leap to mind at random. Muslims believe that Christians:

  • have no revealed language for revelation and so are divided by the languages of the world;

  • deny the oneness of God by their trinity;

  • labor under the misapprehension that Jesus was crucified when, according to the Qur'an, he was not;

  • without a mandate like the salát of Islam, follow their own whim in the worship of God;

  • have no revealed law and so cannot know or follow the truth;

  • blaspheme when they call Jesus the Son of God instead of the son of Mary, as Muslims say;

  • have abandoned the Mosaic code on dietary practice and the Sabbath;

  • are unfaithful to the teachings of God's prophets, including those of Jesus, concerning obedience and unity of faith and practice;

  • are in error when they separate church and state with the goal of reducing religion to the private and subjective level;

  • have turned to the nation state as an object of worship and for which they give their lives;

  • give citizenship and patriotism primacy over allegiance to God;

  • promote religion as personal, emotional assurance without reference to society and the world, as if it is enough to say religion is grace, which is nothing other than religion as a vague, general aspiration without the means or method to implement it, or the space to practice it;

Article continues below
  • practice a religion that is without a home or a promise land, and so have little respect for Islam as a religion at home still in its birthplace while prevailing in many other places besides.

How is the Muslim faith most frequently misunderstood in the West?

Comparable misunderstandings of Islam in the West include the beliefs that Islam:

  • is a violent religion that breeds terror;

  • is intolerant of other religions;

  • oppresses women;

  • is a religion of laws and rules rather than of grace;

  • uses jihad to spread itself;

  • unites church and state to breed intolerance, fanaticism, and conflict;

  • restricts revelation to a book instead of to a person;

  • was founded by a man who used violence as a weapon;

  • encourages polygamy.

Samuel Huntington speaks in terms of a "clash of civilizations," and says that one of the fault lines is between Christendom and the world of Islam. How do you respond?

As a statement of fact the point is incontestable. You could extend it to other fault lines, such as those between Islam and Hinduism, between Islam and the non-Muslim populations of south Sudan, Islam and the fault line in Mindanao and in Ache, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, and so on. Bernard Lewis (who first put the idea forward in an Atlantic Monthly article) had in mind the cleavage between Islam and the modern West, saying that is the fault line we need to watch as the place of some of the fiercest conflicts in coming years.

After 9/11 it is hard to argue with that forecast. The challenge now is what to do about it. Continuing conflict is unsustainable and unacceptable, so we have to promote a dialogue of civilizations as the alternative. I am uncertain as to whether the West is prepared to do that if it requires acceptance and commitment to the West's own core values as the basis of encounter. There is too strong a secular antipathy to Christianity for the West to mobilize as a coherent society. Notice the strength of the culture wars in the churches themselves.

What is the future of Christianity on this continent? What are the greatest internal/external threats it faces?

The cultural captivity of Christianity in the West is nearly complete, and, with the religion tamed, it is open season on the West's Christian heritage. But I don't believe that dismantling the West's Christian heritage will protect the West from ideological intolerance of the most damaging kind. I worry about a West without a moral center facing a politically resurgent Islam.

Article continues below

In the wake of 9/11 its aftermath, including this country's ongoing response, do you have any advice for American evangelicals generally, and for evangelical missionaries particularly?

The cultural captivity of Christianity has not spared evangelicals in America. Witness the bellicose tone of many evangelical leaders applauding America's military intervention in Iraq, making religious militancy a partner with America's military might in a joint assault in the war on terror and on Islam. The flag has become a more prominent symbol in many evangelical churches than the cross.

As to advice, it is hard to give that without sounding unconvincing or ineffectual. One should never have to apologize for who one is, including for being a Christian that happens to come from America, for that will guarantee being sidetracked from the task at hand. Yet by trading on the American name one makes that all but inevitable.

One should also recall that Christianity originated in the Middle East, and that the language of the Arabs is much closer to that of Jesus than, say, English. We risk a chauvinistic promotion of American culture in the guise of true religion unless we can separate meat and sandwich. With respect to cultural biases, we see the speck in the other person's eye but are blind to the splinter in our own (Matt. 7:3).

How would you compare Christianity as it is understood and practiced in Africa and in North America?

The main difference I see is the difference between a post-Christian American society and a post-Western Christianity rising in Africa and elsewhere. The one is in decline, at least intellectually, and the other is in spate. The taming of Christianity in North America requires very different tools from those required by the conditions favoring expansion in Africa. Christians are not afraid to go to church for prayer and healing when they are ill, for instance, whereas in North America prayers may be said for people who are ill but only in absentia.

Africans trust God for their spiritual, physical, social, and medical needs; Americans don't.

Has your thinking changed since you published Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture 14 years ago?

The central message of that book and of much of the rest of my related work is that as a translated religion, Christianity through history became a force for translation. This had important consequences not just for the church, but for culture generally.

Article continues below

Christianity is invested in languages and cultures that existed for purposes other than Christianity, including the names by which local people call God. To that extent, Christianity has been anticipated, and to that extent, too, it has fulfilled the potential of cultures. Christianity has not so much been divided by the languages of the world as been enriched by them, and enriching them in turn. The overwhelming majority of the world's languages have a dictionary and a grammar at all because of the modern missionary movement. With such systematic documentation the affected cultures could promote themselves in unprecedented and unsuspecting ways. More people pray and worship in more languages in Christianity than in any other religion.

When you come to reflect on it, it is staggering to think how much work remains still to be done in the scholarly study of vernacular Bible translation given the place it has occupied in history.

What is the greatest challenge you face as a professor teaching in a divinity school on a secular university campus?

The challenge for all of us is to bring the fruits of scholarship to bear on issues of faith and service, to make a vital connection between knowledge and life. We should humanize scholarship with the demands of faith, and illuminate vocation with the light of scholarship. The Divinity School at Yale is not just a department for the study of religion, but a center of religious learning disciplined by practice, and of practice informed by learning.

You attended the Anglican Communion's Lambeth Conference in 1998, when there was such a marked difference between the agendas of the African bishops and those of their North American counterparts. What do you think is the future of the Anglican global communion?

Senior churchmen at Lambeth spoke of how Third World Christians, bankrolled by conservative groups in the United States, were set to promote a reactionary cultural agenda. Implicated in the crisis of national political breakdown, the old-line churchmen claimed, the new Christian leaders would foment witch-hunts of enemies and opponents as happened in the pre-Enlightenment West.

Angry at the Third World bishops for their anti-gay stance at Lambeth, Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, for example, declared in a remark that caused outrage and for which he issued a half-hearted apology afterwards that the witch-hunting and superstitious societies from which these bishops came represented a threat to the Anglican church as a force in Western civilization. What he saw and heard at Lambeth, he subsequently reaffirmed, "was the sunset of the Anglican communion."

Article continues below

This was not just an instance of the West defining itself against Christianity, but also, more tellingly, of a post-Christian West, still recovering from seeing religion as contagion, mobilizing behind a domesticated highbrow view of culture for safeguard.

At Lambeth itself, and subsequently, there was widespread consternation among Western bishops that the Third World bishops seemed misguided enough to think that the Bible could replace enlightened reasonableness as a standard of guidance and Christian teaching. The unprecedented large conversions taking place in Africa and elsewhere were viewed as unwelcome resistance in the path of the West's cultural juggernaut.

The West limits its role in the new Christianity to taking precautions against too close an encounter with it. According to many church leaders, the Anglican Church is threatened with a major schism in the foreseeable future. The extraordinary irony is that Anglicanism has never been stronger, never more appealing and more global in membership than at present. In the mystery of God, you wonder whether that energy will find other channels rather than dissipate entirely.

Who have been among the most influential figures in your intellectual and faith pilgrimage?

I grew up reading the classics of Islam, with religious and historical accounts steeped in the vindication of the things of God. As a child I remember stumbling on Helen Keller's The Story of My Life, which had a profound influence on me. It made me resolved to pursue the world of learning and scholarship. I became a voracious reader. Later on at school I read the works of the Western masters, such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Keats, Longfellow, Flaubert, Goethe, and so on. All that unlocked the teeming world of the imagination to me, just as Helen Keller intimated.

If you had only one piece of advice to share with readers of Christianity Today, what would it be?

An extraordinary new world of Christianity is now unfolding before our eyes. It is an unprecedented world, something that will change the face of Christianity. In other words, Christianity today has never been more vibrant, more varied, more pro-active, and more widespread. The text for it might be, "Behold, I make all things new." The readers of CT should see that the religion is not about the refusal to accept the old, but about the willingness to embrace the new. That has been one of the most detrimental things to afflict people today. Lest my advice become an excursus, I should stop.

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere

See also Bonk's review of Sanneh's Whose Religion is Christianity. The book is available from and other retailers.

At the Ethics and Public Policy Center in May, Sanneh addressed journalists, scholars, and church leaders on "Evangelicals, Islam, and Humanitarian Aid."

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.