The Madaeans-Baptizers of Iraq and Iran

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Karen Baker
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock Publishers
    , September
     2017.
     130 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532619700.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

I can find little in Karen Baker’s The Mandaeans to commend it to the readers of this forum. Nearly all of Baker’s information on the Mandaeans (excepting testimonial interviews with two Mandaeans who have converted to Christianity, 100-104) is derivative of other recent, better studies, most written just as accessibly as Baker’s. The author’s original contribution lies in haphazard comparison of this information to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in service of her book’s purpose, namely, “that a better understanding of the Mandaean people and their beliefs would enhance the opportunity for the gospel to be shared with them in light of their unique circumstance as refugees” (95). 

Despite a degree of redundancy, Baker is generally competent in weaving together her sources on each topic discussed, and she accurately represents the many points of debate and uncertainty in the modern academic study of the Mandaean religion as well as of “Gnosticism” more broadly, to which she assigns Mandaeism in agreement with many contemporary scholars (chapter 2). The concept of “syncretism” or “parasitism” then guides the author’s approach to the “History and Sources” of Mandaeism (chapter 3). Assuming that Mandaeism is best characterized by “its ability to reinvent itself based on new information or influences” and “to incorporate other beliefs and practices into its system” (27), the author seeks to “discover the elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that have become part of Mandaeism” (32). Her method is ultimately fruitless. Rather than actually demonstrating Mandaean appropriation of any elements from these religions, she provides tables comparing Mandaeism to Gnosticism, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Islam, each by different, arbitrarily selected features. For example, comparison to Judaism is made on the basis of “view of the Old Testament,” “response to circumcision,” “relationship of ethnicity & religion,” “purification of tableware, kitchenware, pots, pans,” and “prohibition of eating meat” (38). Lest the reader think that this odd assortment was chosen for those “elements ... that have become part of Mandaeism,” in fact many of these are contrasts, rather than agreements, and others that the author seems to take as agreements are only broadly structural and phenomenological in nature (e.g., purifications, directions of prayer, authority of leaders—yes, Mandaeans, like several other religions, have such things) rather than anything demonstrative of “syncretism.” The tables comparing Mandaeism to Roman Catholicism and Islam are much longer, but equally arbitrary in their points of comparison and yield few meaningful results. The choice to compare Roman Catholicism rather than one of the Syrian Christian communions is odd, given the much longer contact of Mandaeism with the latter. The comparison with Islam includes a quite serious mischaracterization of Muslim views of and access to the Quran.

The remaining, quite short chapters briefly examine “Membership and Community” (chapter 4), “Authority and Organization” (chapter 5), “Rituals and Holidays” (chapter 6), and “Signs and Symbols” (chapter 7), before a concluding chapter on “Opportunities” (chapter 8). They are succinct, organized, and clear, although at times quoting sources from the 1930s as if they describe contemporary conditions. The practices of Mandaean priests are given a facile comparison to those of ancient Jewish priests (74-77) when comparison to Zoroastrian, Hindu, or any number of other priesthoods would yield similar points of comparison. 

The last thing that must be said of Baker’s book is the purpose to which she puts her analysis: namely, to provide resources for evangelizing Mandaeans. I will let the author do most of the talking here. “The unrest in the Middle East has brought unprecedented opportunities to reach the unreached for Christ,” the book begins (1). Specifically, “three wars in Iraq and the ongoing conflict have the potential of bringing…spiritual freedom to the Iraqi Mandaeans” (4). “The fragmentation and disintegration of their community provides the opportunity for discussion of an eternity built on a better foundation … which has already been provided by the sacrifice of Jesus” (69-70). Because “continuing their rituals and traditions has become increasingly untenable,” due to their refugee status, “some predict that the Mandaeans are on the brink of extinction; that the Mandaeans will be fully decimated within 30 years” (4). Since the author is fully aware that “their ethnicity is tied to their religion, and if one leaves the religious sect, he is no longer considered ethnically Mandaean” (3), she can only be understood to be encouraging this extinction and decimation of the Mandaeans through evangelization: “The assumption of this book is that the Mandaeans, as refugees, are in a unique position to receive the gospel message. Their situation of dislocation and dispersion as refugees and the disruption of their previously closed community, while lamentable in itself, may have positive result in that it tends to make them more sensitive to spiritual truths” (11). In other words, the trauma of their refugee conditions makes them vulnerable to a kind of religious war profiteering that Baker endorses, alongside other “opportunities for which Christians must be prepared,” including “wars, terrorism and lawlessness, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other natural disasters” (6). She speaks repeatedly of earning the trust of the Mandaeans through material assistance and other forms of support, even developing “a friendship relationship … as a first step toward sharing the gospel” (97). 

I recognize that it is not the obligation of a researcher to value or even respect the religion she studies and analyzes; there is no requirement that a researcher be invested in the future and well-being of the community she investigates. But such dispassion is a far cry from actively plotting the demise of a faith community, of setting forth a plan to earn trust only to undermine a person’s existing faith. That is why I look through the many photographs of Mandaeans that grace the book, smiling in the attire and practices of their traditional faith, and cannot help thinking that, if the author has her wish, they would become images of an extinct culture from the past.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason BeDuhn is Professor of the Comparative Study of Religions and Asian Studies Comparative Culture Studies at Northern Arizona University.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karen Baker's enthusiasm for other cultures has prompted her and her beloved husband to travel around the world, as well as to welcome refugees and immigrants to American culture. She has an MBA from St. Thomas University and an MA from Liberty University. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and has authored The Balkars of Southern Russia and Their Deportation (1944-1957) from the Hidden Peoples of the World series.

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