The idea of what Christianity should look like back when it was conceived and launched from its base in metropolitan centers often bore little relationship to realities on the ground once the religion was adopted. On the contrary, those who adopted the faith often expanded and transformed the assumptions of those who transmitted it. Thus, the history of Christianity has become properly the history of the world’s peoples and cultures, not simply the history of missionaries and their cultures. It goes without saying that the gospel has necessarily been conveyed in the cultural vessels of missionaries, yet only in the crucible of indigenous appropriation did new faith emerge among the recipients.
That quotation is from Sanneh’s book Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity, which I have been revisiting in preparation for my class on the history of Christianity. If that passage’s claim about the transmission and reception of the Christian gospel seems commonplace to scholars today, it is only because Sanneh so thoroughly and convincingly explained that idea in Translating the Message and Whose Religion is Christianity?, as well as his other works. For my own part, I am grateful to have had my assumptions “expanded and transformed” by Sanneh’s writings.
From Sanneh’s autobiography, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African:
That is where the empty tomb juts in to solidify the idea that Jesus’ embodiment of death and resurrection was a necessary and designated landmark of the God of history. The ground is God’s own by design and choice, and it compels engagement and response on our part because the historical events in question are laden with moral import for us here and now: not the import of our natural and commendable desire to rescue Jesus, but the import that his death and resurrection speak solicitously to our estrangement and reconciliation with God—on God’s terms. … It would be better to be a forgiven enemy of Jesus, I reasoned, than to be his unforgiving defender.