Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture

Lamin Sanneh. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989. Paper. 255 pages, including index. ISBN 0-88344-361-9. US $25.00

Now in its fourteenth printing, this elegantly-written volume combines penetrating analysis with numerous examples and a clear structure, making it a pleasure to read.

Simply put, Sanneh believes that “translatability” lies at the heart of the Gospel of Christ. Just as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” in Jesus, so the Word constantly “becomes flesh” in particular human cultures as the Bible is translated into vernacular languages.

He lays the historical foundation for his case by examining the ways in which the Gospel escaped the confines of Jewish culture; came to terms with Hellenistic civilization; expanded into the Germanic and Slavic “barbarian” peoples; and then transformed much of his native Africa.

In each instance, missionaries had to express the Gospel in a new tongue, adopting fresh terms and even adapting some of their methods to local mores.

This process of translation necessitates preliminary work that usually changes the translators. As missionaries have sought the right words for “God,” “spirits,” and so forth, they have had to delve deeply into local traditions. Their study of language inevitably has taken them into concepts, including myths, legends, ideals, and customs.

As a result, they recognize the traces of the image of God in the peoples whose souls they came to save. Not only individuals, but significant cultural features, reflect some of God’s truth, beauty and goodness. Without denying the necessity for their hearers to trust in Christ, missionaries have come to appreciate both the common humanity which they share with the “natives” and the integrity and worth of different cultures.

A Western preacher of the Gospel may arrive in a foreign land with a conscious or unconscious sense that his own culture possesses unique, even normative, suitability for receiving, expressing, and even embodying the truth of the Bible. After a while, however, he realizes that his host culture also has the potential for glorifying God as its members accept the message of Christ. Those of us who work with Chinese can certainly testify to this invigorating effect on our own outlook.

In the process of translation, then, cultures are de-absolutized. That is, Christians discover that no one culture can claim special status as a bearer of truth and goodness. Often, these same missionaries become critical of their own traditions.

Indeed, though the great centuries of Christian expansion paralleled the voracious appetite of European imperialism, the propagation and acceptance of Biblical truth by non-Western peoples ensured the demise of Western domination. For one thing, missionaries spoke out against exploitation and cruelty, sometimes mitigating, or even slowing, the juggernaut of merchants and mercenaries.

More than that, however, new believers in occupied lands began to appreciate their own vernacular languages and traditions as they saw God’s Word being translated. The linguistic and cultural studies of the translators fostered the creation of schools where these studies were taught. Quite often, a cultural renaissance ensued. Although sometimes, as in the case of the reformation of Hinduism in India, this retarded the penetration of the Gospel, more often it led to enthusiastic acceptance of the new world view.

As new churches sprang up, their “native” leaders began to perceive the faults of the so-called “Christian” nations which had taken control of their lands. The nationalistic movements which forced the withdrawal of European powers were often led by these leaders or their ideological heirs.

Along the way, the younger branches of denominational churches either reflected local cultural forms – such as prayer for healing and exorcism - in their own preaching and worship, or new “independent” bodies emerged, led by some charismatic figure, often a woman. Not a few of these contained heretical elements, but more hold to the core truths of historic Christianity.

Sanneh, who was born in Gambia, draws most of his illustrations from Africa, but can find significant parallels in the history of Christianity among Chinese. Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping rebellion, stands out as an extreme example of fanatical nationalism garbed in heretical Christianity. Closer to the Bible, but still considered less than fully orthodox, would be the True Jesus Church in Taiwan. Watchman Nee’s Little Flock started out as an idiosyncratic, but mostly Evangelical organization, but what are we to think of the Local Church that Witness Lee made of that indigenous movement?

The Taiwan Presbyterian Church may exemplify the unforeseen political consequences of missionary work. Did Campbell and Mackay know that they would plant the seeds for an organization that would someday come to lead the charge for a culturally and politically “independent” Taiwan?

No one is perfect, and the author, at least when the book was composed, seems to have had little exposure to Evangelical writers, such as the commentary on John by Leon Morris. Though at a recent conference Sanneh seemed to be appreciative of Evangelical doctrine, some of his ideas would be challenged by those who hold to the unique authority of the Bible. In particular, he seems occasionally to minimize the transcendent origin and universal truth of the Scripture; at best he is unclear.

This reviewer also had difficulty with the author’s numerous, uncritical citations of Arnold Toynbee and his apparent acceptance of Eugene Nida’s theory of translation. Read Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with Paganism, by Lit-sen Chang (P&R, 1999) for a bracingly refreshing contrast to the Sanneh’s benign ecumenism.

Enough has been said to indicate the provocative nature of this fine book, despite its limitations, however. In my mind, at least, Sanneh has implanted the hope that the Gospel would transform and penetrate deeply into the various brands of Chinese culture and lead to a transformation of all sectors of society.

Reviewed by Dr. Wright Doyle