The other day, Zondervan sent me a preview of the Africa Bible Commentary (ABC), a one-volume commentary written by seventy African scholars co-published by Zondervan and WordAlive Publishers in Nairobi. Along with two forewords, a vision statement, an introduction, the Oversight Committee, the name and country of each of the "African scholars" (no South Africans, white or black; but one African American), and a couple other short items, the bulk of the preview is the text of the commentary on James written by Solomon Andriatsimialomananarivo of Madagascar. (One reader of this post told me the post is racist, that I haven't recorded Mr. Andriatsimialomananarivo's name correctly. I'm simply recording it as it appears in the copy of the text.)
The ABC vision statement reads, "The general aim of the commentary is to make the word of God speak relevantly to African realities today." What should we expect from the whole ABC based on Andriatsimialomananarivo's work on James?
In a few small ways "African realities" are addressed; we find a short, helpful discussion of favoritism by Soro Soungalo; Andriatsimialomananarivo cites the African proverb, "Thin cows are not licked by their friends;" we read that "the fall of rich people is very common in Africa;" there's a mention of non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and so on. But Andriatsimialomananarivo is muted when it comes to two of the texts in James where the Africa context cries out to be addressed--James 1:27 and 4:2a:
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
This example derives from the Old Testament, which commanded God's people to care for those who had no one to support them financially. Orphans had no fathers, widows no husbands and foreigners no land to cultivate. James does not mention foreigners in this letter because the Christian Jews to whom this letter is addressed were all foreigners themselves. But pure religion is not just a non-governmental organization, an NGO doing social work. The work done by believers is the product of their faith and the religion is characterized by the holy lives of its members.
You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:2a)
These conflicts can take dramatic form. James speaks as if his readers are at war among themselves, and even killing each other, which seems unbelievable for a Christian group. No doubt (James) is exaggerating to force them to recognize the gravity of the situation. While there may not have been any literal war or murder, the tensions and disputes would have left victims. Such use of language was perfectly acceptable in ancient literature, and is often found in the Psalms (for example, Psalm 59:6).
Note the AIDS crisis and millions of orphans left behind aren't mentioned in connection with "true religion," nor the chronic wars and Rwandan genocide in connection with "you commit murder." Instead, James' mention of "murder" is said to be his "exaggerating," and any idea that Christians would fight, quarrel, or murder "seems unbelievable" to Mr. Andriatsimialomananarivo.
Would it seem unbelievable to the 800,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans who were hacked to death by machetes wielded by their friends and neighbors between April and July of 1994? After all, during the genocide we were reminded that murderers and victims alike professed Christian faith.
Although Mr. Andriatsimialomananarivo's commentary is quite fine in other respects, addressing the text straightforwardly without any parade of learning or unnecessary tangents, it's quite a disappointment to see the first sampler of the ABC lacking such prophetic words from Africans to Africans. Maybe other parts of the commentary will begin to engage real life, speaking prophetically concerning AIDS orphans, civil war, and the Rwandan genocide. May God grant it.
Blurbs on the preview's cover assure us that John Stott views the release of this commentary as "a publishing landmark." Rick Warren breathlessly reports that "This monumental work of biblical scholarship is filled with helpful insights into God's Word that every pastor [who doesn't already buy his sermons from me]...will benefit from. We've needed this commentary for a long, long, time."
The wait isn't over yet.