I am reading Lamin Sanneh‘s book, Disciples of All Nations. Sanneh is currently the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and Professor of History at Yale Divinity School. Sanneh was born in Gambia, and studied at a number of institutions throughout the world, including the University of London, where he received a Ph.D. in Islamic History. He has written a number number of books and articles on the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Sanneh converted to Christianity from Islam.
In a section early in the second chapter, Sanneh notes:
The characteristic pattern of Christianity’s engagement with the languages and cultures of the world has God at the center of the universe of cultures, implying equality among cultures and the necessarily relative status of cultures vis-a-vis the truth of God. 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. All have merit; none is indispensable. The ethical monotheism Christianity inherited from Judaism accords value to culture but rejects cultural idolatry, which makes Bible translation more than a simple exercise in literalism. In any language the Bible is not literal; its message affirms all languages to be worthy, though not exclusive, of divine communication. That implied Biblical view of culture goes beyond culture as a matter of mere mechanical manipulation, including its takeover in religious translation. Accordingly, the vernacular in translation was often invigorated rather than overthrown. The relationship of the Christian movement to culture was shaped by the fact that Christianity is a translated – and a translating – religion, and a translated Christianity is an interpreted Christianity, pure and simple. “Original” Christianity is nothing more than a construction.
Without a revealed language and without even the language of Jesus, Christianity invested in idioms and cultures that existed for purposes other than Christianity. As these idioms and cultures became the carriers of the religion, they anticipated and embodied Christianity. Being a translated religion, Christian teaching was received and framed in the terms of its hosts culture; by feeding off the diverse cultural streams it encountered, the religion became multicultural. The local idiom became a chosen vessel. As Irenaeus pointed out, the gospel did not strip nations of their distinctions; those distinctions were the rich tapestry adorning the communities of faith. It is a striking feather of Christianity’s expansion that it seldom arrived as a surprise. Rather, what people had vaguely divined appeared int he form of Christianity as a confident and reassuring validation.