Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African

By Willimon, William H. | The Christian Century, October 17, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African

Willimon, William H., The Christian Century

Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African

By Lamin Sanneh

Eerdmans, 299 pp., $24.00 paperback


For the last three decades, Lamin Sanneh has been a reliable and perceptive guide for those of us trying to think through interfaith issues, rethink missions and understand Christianity in its global reach. When I discovered Sanneh, I found his angle on Islamic/Christian conversation to be a provocative and refreshing relief from some of the fluff we were getting on that topic. Sanneh's was also the first voice I heard to renovate the commonly accepted negative view of Christian missions.

A major reason Sanneh has been so interesting to scholars in North America is that he is African, grew up Muslim and became a Christian as a young adult. His origins and life story give him a unique perspective among contemporary scholars in world Christianity and missions and enable him to say things about Christianity and Islam that few others can say.

Summoned from the Margin is a gentle, constantly engaging, irenic and revealing story of how North American theological education received the gift of Lamin Sanneh. He opens his story by quoting another African convert to the faith, St. Augustine, as Augustine marveled at the mystery of human memory. In many places in this autobiography, Sanneh's way of recollecting his life reminds one of Augustine's Confessions. Born into a polygamous home in Gambia, Sanneh recalls the joys and the challenges of growing up poor, African and Muslim--periods of horrible famine that tested the family, squabbles among his father's competing wives, harsh Islamic schoolmasters and a resigned fatalism that explained all of life's disappointments and injustices as what "God wills." His description of enduring the months of "the hunger season" is unforgettable, a gripping account of famine through a hungry child's eyes. Brace yourself for his gruesome account of his village's circumcision ritual.

With eager anticipation I awaited Sanneh's recollection of his conversion to Christianity, and I was not disappointed. The journey of this brilliant but rudimentarily educated young man from Islam to Christianity is sure to become a classic in the literature of Christian conversion.

"I was not abandoning faith," he says of his entrance into Christianity. "Quite the contrary, I had embraced Jesus because I could not keep him down in my thoughts of honoring God." It is as if his devotion to Islam, his determination to be a true lover of God, led him out of Islam to Christianity. Sanneh found himself drawn toward the Christian faith by his youthful "pestering curiosity," a tendency that was not cultivated by his Islamic upbringing. Islam filled him with a deep sense of God as "ethereal, haunting," as "All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and All-Seeing":

   My picture of God was of a being whose
   mind was so big and whose ears were so
   good that I could not do anything or be
   anywhere without God knowing and seeing
   me, and whose name was so holy I
   could not say it without being mindful.

In Christianity, particularly in the Eucharist, Sanneh found some of the awesome mystery of the holy God whom he had known in Islam, yet he was now open to a warm sense of God's palpable love and real presence.

We Western Christians--conditioned to think of the Christian faith as a fabrication that comes at the end of our searching, the result of our rummaging about in our egos--will be startled by Sanneh's faith story.

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