20130823-170558.jpgSanneh, Lamin O. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. 2nd ed. American Society of Missiology Series.Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009.

The Author

SannehLamin Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity at Yale University. He, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is descended from the nyanchos, an ancient African royal house, and was educated on four continents. He went to school with chiefs’ sons in the Gambia, West Africa. He subsequently came to the United States on a U.S. government scholarship to read history. After graduating he spent several years studying classical Arabic and Islam, including a stint in the Middle East, and working with the churches in Africa and with international organizations concerned with inter-religious issues. He received his Ph.D. in Islamic history at the University of London.

He was a professor at Harvard University for eight years before moving to Yale University in 1989 as the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity, with a concurrent courtesy appointment as Professor of History at Yale College. He has been actively involved in Yale’s Council on African Studies. He is an editor-at-large of the ecumenical weekly, The Christian Century, and serves on the editorial board of several academic journals. He is an Honorary Research Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies In the University of London, and is a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He serves on the board of Ethics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of over a hundred articles on religious and historical subjects, and of several books. For his academic work he was made Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Lion, Senegal’s highest national honor. (http://divinity.yale.edu/sanneh)


Sanneh’s main thesis is that translation is the process of entering the vernacular and allowing the Gospel to find its own voice within the host culture. It is a helpful revisioning of the standard polemic against the colonization of Christendom to the Global South. See this post for a rebuttal.


“This way of understanding the matter implies a reappraisal of the issue of missionary interference in other cultures, which may partly be resolved by taking into account vernacular primacy in translation. It can be argued that mission is fundamentally consistent with indigenous cultural integrity, especially when we view mission as the missio Dei. There is a radical pluralism implied in vernacular translation wherein all languages and cultures are, in principle, equal in expressing the word of God. In this regard, the biblicism of extreme Protestantism, inherited from the reformers of sola scriptura, relegated Western theological commentaries to a peripheral place in translation, thus suppressing in the mission field an important source of the diffusion of Western cultural and intellectual values. By that procedure, such missionaries acted to shield indigenous cultures from Western religious and intellectual dominance. Equally important, such stress on the Bible as alone sufficient to effect God’s purpose conferred on the vernacular an autonomous, consecrated status as the medium of God’s word, a consecration often more in tune with indigenous attitudes toward language than the attitudes of missionaries toward their own culture.

Two general ideas stem from this analysis. First is the inclusive principle whereby no culture is excluded from the Christian dispensation or even judged solely or ultimately by Western cultural criteria. Second is the ethical principle of change as a check to cultural self-absolutization. Both of these ideas are rooted in what missionaries understood by God’s universal truth as this was revealed in Jesus Christ, with the need and duty to work out this fact in the vernacular medium rather than in the uniform framework of cultural homogeneity. This introduces in mission the logos concept wherein any and all languages may confidently be adopted for God’s word, a step that allows missionaries and local agents to collaborate, if sometimes unevenly, in the missio Dei. Doing the history of mission is enunciating the concrete facts of the inner workings of this theological dynamic. Consequently, translatability, still an insufficiently studied theme, is of immense fruitful potential for the historian of religion.” (208-209)

main thesis

“One major consequence of the thesis of this book is to reopen the whole subject of mission and colonialism, with an indication of the fresh lines of inquiry now open to us. Modern historiography has established a tradition that mission was the surrogate of Western colonialism, and that–more germane to the thesis of this book–together these two movements combined to destroy indigenous cultures…I wish in this book to present another point of view, which, however tentative, should help restore some objectivity to the subject and bring it forward once more as part of the active field of scholarly endeavor.”

“The historian interested in change will find much to confirm that interest, and more besides, for the vernacular paradigm enabled local converts to acquire the new skill of vernacular literacy linked to the assurance of the familiar medium of mother tongues. This produced profound confidence in local converts to whom the Christian initiative passed, much in the way it did from Jerusalem to Antioch and thence to Athens and Rome. The historian is thus confronted with a signal fact about Christianity in the sense that its continuous translatability has left it as the only major world religion that is peripheral in the land of its origin; and yet what it lacks in the predominance of its birthplace it has more than made up for in the late fruits of its expansion.” (4)


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