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Many Strands, Seamless Identity

By March 1, 2014 No Comments

Mwenda Ntarangwi

After returning from a trip to Europe in 1961, a young Lamin Sanneh had a rare moment of clarity regarding his life’s work, deciding that “the study of religion should determine the contribution I might make in life.” Fifty years later, with the publication of Summoned from the Margin, Sanneh has not only lived up to his life’s decision but has established himself internationally as one of the foremost scholars of world Christianity and interfaith understanding. Summoned from the Margin is an autobiography that chronicles his life before and after that decision. It presents three phases of his life, clearly captured in the three parts of the book. Part 1 narrates his childhood in colonial Gambia as a child in a polygamous homestead, struggling socially and fi nancially to attain education until he completes high school. Part 2 narrates his sojourn into undergraduate studies in the United States, postgraduate study in Europe, and research and work in Africa and the Middle East, where he fi nally fi nds his research interests in pacifi st Islam to counter the then-predominant jihadist Islam studies. Part 3 provides a glimpse into his personal life as an adult, including his family and scholarly life, allowing the reader to see his illustrious teaching career at some of the world’s elite institutions as well as his ability to fi nd—fi nally—a Christian community and church to accept him as a convert from Islam.

Despite these three seemingly diff erent stages in his life, Summoned from the Margin presents a seamless intellectual and personal identity woven in two enduring strands of analysis and data: challenging assumptions and bireligious identity. Sanneh’s quest to challenge existing assumptions and the status quo is exemplified in his study of pacifi st Islam instead of jihadist Islam and his insistence on the phrase world Christianity instead of global Christianity. Cover In addition, Sanneh has challenged the assumption that translation of Scripture into the vernacular is a form of domestication of the gospel, and he has highlighted the role blacks played in emancipation and abolition campaigns in contrast to the overemphasis on William Wilberforce, among other key issues. Sanneh’s bireligious identity allowed him to understand Islam and Christianity not only personally but also intellectually, providing profound analyses and insights for scholars and students alike. He also provides some insightful reads on American culture as he first lands in the country to attend college at the height of the 1960s civil rights movement, confronting the ugly side of American-style apartheid not only in the streets but in church. After graduation he fi nds himself back in Africa working at diff erent institutions in diff erent countries, an opportunity that avails him of a deeper understanding of the newly independent countries also struggling with their own identities and forming a working national development strategy. Through various political and labor challenges in Africa and Europe, it is finally in the U.S. where he finds his academic and spiritual home.

Reading this book led me to think that it is Sanneh’s bireligious identity that makes him unique and such a successful scholar, and that makes Summoned from the Margin such a remarkable book. Sanneh is able to draw from his experience of Islam in critiquing Christianity’s continued reliance on etiology as the dominant way of studying and understanding Christianity and other religions, leading to what he calls “the triumph of liberal Christianity in the academy and in the church.” He again shares his comparative analysis, asking, “If Islam’s truth claims have been immune to the acids of Enlightenment skepticism, I wondered what it was about Christianity that allowed it to be penetrated so effectively.” He found an answer to this question in critics of Christianity’s insistence that it existed only “to improve our lives here” on earth and “not to bear witness to the sovereign God as Revealer and Judge.” It is easy to see why this argument is important for Sanneh, given his remarks earlier in the book that “sometimes Muslims distrust Christians not because they think Christians are religious, but because they are afraid that Christians are not religious enough.”

Summoned from the Margin also provides illuminating strands of Sanneh’s childhood experiences and how they shaped his intellectual and scholarly life. He recalls learning while growing up in Gambia that “children make their way in that world by weaving and dodging among complex patterns of maternal assurance; negotiating a system of give-and-take with siblings; deferring to in-laws; and observing the rules of seniority toward elders.” This tapestry of human relations and negotiations proved to be very important in the academy, where he learned quickly that having academic credentials was not enough to gain him cultural legitimacy and that belonging was a continuous tale of cultural negotiations not unlike those he encountered earlier as a child. In the end he sees no difference between the academy and his childhood homestead, noting, “Academic dynamics can be very similar to those of the polygamous household in which I grew up. Departments are like co-wives in the university’s paternal embrace, with members of their faculty their consummated offspring, complete with sibling jealousy.”

These insights and many more are most probably responsible for why I have enjoyed reading this book. I found myself not wanting to put it down and in the process learned a great deal about Sanneh as well as the field of world Christianity. But I also wish Sanneh had fully explained some questions I came out with after reading the book. For instance, as an anthropologist I wonder what mechanism he applied to keep such meticulous memories of his childhood activities, experiences, and even thoughts. How could he remember all those events in such detail? How do I understand his later comments about being immersed in Quran school, where they had no time or energy “to raise questions about the neglected vernaculars, let alone about what should be done to save them”? Was his recollection only blurry when it came to the role of the vernacular in Islam or on other issues? I also wished he had been able to expound on his critique of the missionary tendencies to “download the text of scripture into the vernacular idiom, adopting in the process the local concept of God,” especially since he also shows that “without the indigenous anticipations of the religion, the prospects of Christianity taking root are slim. Unless converts are able to call on the name of God in the vernacular, they remain fundamentally at risk of sliding away from the faith.”

These unanswered questions notwithstanding, I see Summoned from the Margin as a book that anyone interested in Christianity in the contemporary world, as well as in Muslim-Christian relations, cannot ignore. And in the process one might find out if Sanneh is “an African seemingly at ease in a secular university, not homesick for native simplicity yet not giving up on religious obligations.”

Mwenda Ntarangwi is executive director of the International Association for the Promotion of Christian Higher Education and teaches anthropology at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.