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Translating the Message: Missionary Impact on Culture (American Society of Missiology) [Paperback]

Lamin O. Sanneh

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Product details

  • Paperback: 255 pages
  • Publisher: Orbis Books (USA); 1st Edition edition (2 May 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0883443619
  • ISBN-13: 978-0883443613
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 15.1 x 23.2 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 548,230 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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The Gospel because it was the message of God to humanity, could daily reveal itself in the simplest of garments. . . . Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Receiving (the message) is better than giving 24 Jan 1997
By A Customer - Published on
"Translating the Message" may be the best book on missions to be published in years. Many reviewers have focused upon this book as a defense of the Christian mission enterprise. This is, however, an incorrect assessment of a deep investigation into the reception of the gospel message. Sanneh demonstrates that it is not the transmission of the message that is central, but the local acceptance and adaption of the good news in local languages and categories of interpretation.
In the course of his argument he also shows that the gospel cannot be otherwise, for it is the nature of grace to translate the message into local thought forms and thus be transformed by these local categories.
"Translating the Message" is essential reading for all who are interested in the advent of non-Western Christianity.
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mission effects of translating the Bible into the vernacular 15 April 2008
By Matthew Gunia - Published on
Translating the message is a theoretical book that primarily concerns itself with one area in the history of Christian mission work--translation. Sanneh attempts to demonstrate through an analysis of the history of Christian mission that a central characteristics of Christian mission is that it enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the world's various cultures; the Gospel adapts to it and the culture responds the the Gospel through resurgence, cultural pride, and a move toward righteousness

Sanneh first examines the early Church's apostolic missionary efforts to proclaim the Gospel among Greek-speaking gentiles. While there was an ethnocentric attitude on the part of Jewish Christians, God made his desire that the Gospel be preached to many cultures known primarily through the miracle at Pentecost and then subsequently through other miraculous signs as Gentile individuals and groups came to faith (e.g. Cornelius and his family). The Greek-speaking Gentile culture received the Gospel through vernacular preaching and found that it fit so naturally into their culture that they began to believe that when the Gospel came to these Greek-speakers, it came to its natural home. The result was a resurgence of cultural pride as they allowed the Gospel to shape them.
The experience of the early Church's missionary activity set a pattern that would be repeated throughout the church's life as it sought to spread the Gospel. As the Gospel was spread to Northern Europe and later to Asia, the Americas, and Africa, tension existed between Christians who advocated a conversion toed to cultural conformity (especially linguistic) and Christians who valued a conversion that allowed for a unique cultural expression of their new faith, especially in their native tongue.

A special focus is placed on post-Reformation missionary work in Africa as this is the author's own area of academic expertise and also because the African experience shows the extremes of both missionary paradigms--Western control and forced conformity as well as total cultural transference of the Gospel. Through this, Sanneh demonstrates that where missionaries are willing to allow a culture to have a translated Bible, express the Christian faith in their own way, and gradually take ecclesiastical leadership, the Church flourishes. Where missionaries attempt to change the culture, prescribe expression of faith, are reluctant to put a vernacular Bible in the peoples' hands, and local leadership is restricted, the Church struggles.

The book ends with a comparison between the spread of Christianity and the spread of Islam in Africa. While Christianity values cultural transference of the faith and Scripture/worship in the vernacular, Islam insists on maintaining an Arabic Koran and worship language. While the missionary paradigms differ radically (sanneh calls them mirror images of one another), each religion has managed to take hold in Africa.

Appendices include selections from Vatican II that reflect the Catholic church's growing acceptance of indigenous expressions of faith, a table showing the progress the Church has made in translating the Scriptures into the world's languages, and a list of languages that have a complete vernacular Bible along with the year this translation was completed.

There do exist flaws in Translating the Mission. One is that it is incomplete in terms of its theology. While it is true that much understanding of theology is culturally conditioned, not all theology is subjective. Where the line is drawn is not always clear and (admittedly) the purpose of this book is not to draw this line, but the fact that heterodoxy and orthodoxy are not addressed decreases the usefulness of this book. When Gnosticism, charismatic theology (prophesy, healing), and liberation theology are addressed, they are all assumed to be authentic expressions of Christianity, to be accepted because they are grass-roots movements. However, just as translated Bibles are "handed down" to other nations, so doctrine is also to be "handed down" or at the very least regulated. How the training of natives and balancing doctrinal purity with authentic expressions of faith, and how these two concepts interact with Scriptural translation would have made this book more valuable. As it stands, Sanneh's theology of the Word apparently excludes the concept of maturing in the faith and thus theological training.

Also, Sanneh is illogical in his comparison of Muslim and Christian mission efforts in Africa. Sanneh had argued throughout Translating the Mission that Christian missionary effectiveness is directly correlated with translating the Scripture into the vernacular. He then argues that Islam also spread, albeit with a refusal to translate the Koran into the vernacular. Furthermore, Sanneh offers few insights into why this happened, limiting his research to proving that it happened. Although this reader appreciates Sanneh's academic integrity in presenting evidence that contradicts his thesis, he does not show the relationship between these contrasting-yet-successful mission paradigms. This reader now walks away questioning Sanneh's thesis and evaluation of the evidence.

This book is helpful with regard to missiology in that it reinforces the idea that a person's upbringing and culture prepares a person to receive the Gospel and also influences his understanding of it. It is important for one to remind himself that God has given his people a diversity of gifts and experiences (personal as well as cultural). It is important for the Church to embrace a diversity of gifts while recognizing the Church's unity.

Leadership transference is also an important message of this book. The Church depends on local and specialized leaders to be raised up, to take ownership, to make decisions, and to work toward unique, contextually relevant ends. Identifying new leaders (regardless of their culture) empowering, and supporting them is necessary for the ongoing mission of the church.

This book is recommended.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A clear, inspiring view of Christian history. 1 May 2011
By David Marshall - Published on
Translating the Message can be seen as a long historical reflection on Pentacost and its aftermath. The essence of how the Gospel relates to cultures lies in its "translatability," Sanneh argues. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but the records of his life are in Greek. At each stage of translation, missionaries tend to demand that hearers learn their own "civilized" ways along with the Gospel. But the nature of that message mitigates against this cultural presumption, so that when the Gospel has been translated, indigenous people find biblical support for their own independence from the missionaries and their (not infrequently imperialistic) culture.

As Sanneh argues, while human beings may share foibles, in this respect Christianity contrasts sharply with Islam. The Koran was written in heaven in pure Arabic. Sanneh's point here is right on the mark: an Iranian friend of mine converted to Christianity partly because, when he went to Mecca, he was told that since his Arabic was so poor, he should divorce his wife! I'm not sure of the logic, but the upshot was that he recognized Arab culture as sautered to Islam. V. S. Naipaul's books describe how this works in places like Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. More and more, as education spreads and people want to read their sacred books directly, Muslims around the world are asked to become Arab.

Sometimes Christians have made the same mistake. What Sanneh explains well here, is that despite our stupidity, the Gospel itself, both its content and the very fact that it is translated, eventually encourages a plurality of Christian cultures to spring up.

If this pluralism matters so much, one reviewer asked, why has Islam also won the allegience of so many Africans? The 20% of Africans living north of the Sahara were converted in the initial military expanse of Islam. 25% or so of Africans live south of the Sahara, and converted over 1000+ years of military and economic expansion from that powerful northern base. Another 40% live south of the Sahara and have converted to Christianity, mostly in the past 150 years, mostly voluntarily. I think that pattern does show that affirming cultures is better than denying them, even as strategy: otherwise with its huge head start, one might have expected Islam to have easily swept through the rest of Africa.

Quite a bit of the book deals with Africa, though Sanneh also talks about Greece, Europe, India, the Americas, and Japan a fair amount. Translating the Message can be read as a universal history of Christianity, from one particular perspective.

My area of expertise is China and East Asia. My first book 15 years ago was called True Son of Heaven: How Jesus fulfills the Chinese Culture, so I've been thinking about these issues for a while. Sanneh doesn't talk about East Asia much, here, but what he says is interesting. A few characters who are especially fascinating in the light of his thesis, whom he either fails to mention, or says little of: the Nestorian missionary Jing Jing; Mateo Ricci (of course); the Jesuit missionary to Vietnam, Alexander Rhodes (an amazing and successful career, following Ricci's example, but great at friendship and at trusting Vietnamese); James Legge (the China translator par excellence); and John Ross, who read Legge and can almost be seen as the founder of the Korean church, though he lived in China. For those who are interested in my part of the world, I recommend you look into the lives of these remarkable men.

My approach to Gospel and world cultures is through what I call "Fulfillment Theology," which is more involved than translation, but Sanneh lightly touches on some of these deeper issues here, too.

Sanneh is writing for an educated audience that is willing to invest time and thought into following his argument. He tends to repeat himself a fair amount, so if you skip a few pages, you won't miss his point, though you might miss a good example, or even a good story, some amusing. Some passages are a little top-heavy with abstract nouns, others flow smoothly, or achieve a sort of eloquence. Anyone can learn a lot from this book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Christianity's Journey Across Cultures and Languages 6 Feb 2013
By Mj - Published on
In his revised work, "Translating the Message," Lamin Sanneh, the professor of Missions and World Christianity and professor of History at Yale Divinity School, strengthens his argument that from the inception Christianity has identified itself with the need to translate itself out of Aramaic and Hebrew to contextualize its message to the diverse cultures and vernaculars of the world.

The main purpose of this book is to show that Christianity is not a surrogate of Western Christianity, neither had it spread because of its European arm; rather it has powerfully advanced because of its inherent nature of translatability. In addition to combining "history and theology" to attest his thesis, Sanneh also shows the striking differences between two missionary religions-Islam and Christianity, and their contrasting attitudes in the aspect of translatability. He emphasizes on the Christianity's translatability over non-translatable Arabic Quran and its faith, not to put Islam down by comparison, but to emphasize his main argument. Some will certainly feel that Sanneh did not give a fair shot to Islam in this book. Author's European, Asian, especially, African perspective of `mission and colonialism' have been very selective in making this book possible.

Sanneh's thought, even some sentences are repetitive in the book. Neverthless, this book is not boring. This monumental work is very helpful for both western and non-western readers in understanding how Gospel has made at home in all world cultures from its beginning that no particular culture today can claim to be authoritatively Christian.
4.0 out of 5 stars "Absolutely Liberative and Transformative" 8 Nov 2012
By Roger Hedlund - Published on
"Translating the Message" is a worldview-transformational book. When first released, the message of the book was absolutely transformative. Contrary to the colonialist assumptions of many, Christian missionaries were not party to the exploitation of native populations. Mistakes were many, no doubt, but translation of the Bible and the gift of literacy proved immensely liberative for African and Asian populations. This revolutionary book by the Professor of History and World Christianity at Yale University--himself of African origin--is essential reading for all skeptics. Highly recommended. Available through Amazon Market.

Roger E. Hedlund, PhD, Chief Editor, the Oxford Encyclopaedia of South Asian Christianity, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012.
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