Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East
Basic Books, 2014
352 pp., $28.99
Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms
Some discoveries have, of course, made the rounds, including some Mandean texts published in the 1930s unveiling a wild and untamed mythology beyond the imagining of even the most apocryphal extra-canonical biblical texts. There is a dragon in Ur, whose belly is made of fire and who sits above an ocean of flammable oil. And there is Russell's personal favorite, the demon Dinanukht, "who is half man and half book and sits by the waters between worlds, reading himself." There is the Alawite theological crisis provoked by Neil Armstrong's moon landing, for the Alawites—like the Harrannians—believe many heavenly bodies are physical manifestations of spirits, mediators between God and man. An Alawite sheikh wrote a book called After the Moon in an attempt to redress the problem, but it has disappeared. And there is the taboo of Melek Taoos, "the devil." The Druze believe it was the peacock, not the serpent, that was the tempter in the Garden of Eden. Some Zoroastrians believe that the peacock was the one good thing that the devil made, as a way to show that he had the power to do good if he chose to. The same Zoroastrians have bequeathed a legacy of enormous influence on the region and its religions, including the word "magic" from the name of Zoroastrian priests, the Magi (who make a cameo in the Christian gospels).
This can be one of the more jolting revelations for Protestant people who stand in a legacy of fighting a whole Reformation for the essentially flat nature of faith, of all people equidistant from the divine, of all faithful as prophets, priests, and kings. Gnosticism, the heterodox Christian tradition that secret knowledge was passed down by word of mouth to a privileged few from Christ, to the apostles, and so on, was obviously more than a merely Christian theological idea. The veneration of Greek thinkers as saints and, in some cases angels/minor deities, lives on. The idea of the "most learned" being best suited to rule, Russell suggests, was taken straight from the pages of Plato's Republic and found comfortable home in Shi'a political theology.
The privilege and power of secret knowledge is not something our Secular Age is terribly impressed by, and definitely something that at least North American evangelical theology, characterized by personal faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, has a hard time coming to terms with. An unapologetically hierarchical and gnostic faith seems not only intrinsically undemocratic but possibly dangerous. Add in these fantastical elements of magic, spells, curses, fallen and resurrected angels, planetary alignments, sacred flames and ritual slaughters, and you have a world of "forgotten kingdoms" that can seem forbiddingly alien.
Which is what makes Gerard Russell's travelogue of disappearing Middle Eastern faiths such a treasure. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is neither exhaustive nor academically meticulous (rather than footnotes, we have chapter summaries of "research sources"), but it is a beautiful and very human telling of stories we know in the merest part, stories that disturb and decenter the easy narrow-mindedness of literalists believers and dogmatic atheists alike. Blessed are the peacemakers, Russell says, who by painful researches seek to remove those veils which have so long concealed mankind from each other. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is exactly such salve and balm for a Secular Age paradoxically brimming with religion.
Robert Joustra teaches politics and international studies at Redeemer University College, where he also directs the Centre for Christian Scholarship. He is a fellow with the Institute for Global Engagement and with the Center for Public Justice.
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