Words, words, words. There’s all sorts of importance to words in Christianity. In the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus himself is described as the word of God. On the other hand, the whole of the bible is also referred to as the word of God. One of the very first things God does is speak. Adam names the animals. Language is confounded at the tower of Babel. A variety of folks are given new names after doing importnat things because the old word which referred to them is no longer accurate. Folks in the early church speak in tongues; a language that only one person can speak. People in churches today believe (I guess that they are correct in this belief) that they mantain this tradition of speaking in tongues. Jewish traditons have all sorts of interesting practices around not writing God’s name down. (This lead to that annoying “LORD”, written in small capital letters all over the place, in the bible, where the original texts said God’s name, which some people translate as Yahweh, and others translate as Jehovah.)
If somebody wants to comment, observe, hypothesize around any of the above, I’d be happy to chat about these. But this is not the direction I’m thinking about tonight.
What I’m thinking about is that somewhere along the way we messed this up. Perhaps it was an intentional perversion of the truth by the forces of evil. It seems equally likely that typically ignorant humanity got it only half-right.
Names come to have all sorts of mystical connections in countless religious traditions. Many types of witch craft and sorcery are built on the assumed belief that there is this secret language and that knowing the real names of things gives the speaker power. This idea has made it’s way into fantasy literature. For example, the classic “A Wizard of Earthsea” places a big emphasis on the true name of things. The book (and to a lesser extent the film versions) of Dune emphasize the mystical power of certain sound combinations. (It’s a moment of high drama in the book when they discover Paul’s name is a “killing word”) Even the Harry Potter books place an emphasis on wizards saying the nonsense word in the right way to have the desired effect.
The thing I’m thinking about today is how this mystical (mistaken) belief actually shows up in scripture.
Jesus is named and described numerous times by demons he’s busy casting out. (For example Mark 3 and Mark 5) The observation I’ve always heard about this is that even the demons knew who Jesus was. The issue is not whether you know who he is. It’s whether you choose to follow him.
I suppose this is all true. But it seems to be missing something. It doesn’t really explain why so often this happens: demons name Jesus and he tells them to stop. If demons are supposed to be liars, why would they tell everybody who’s among them? If they hated humanity why would they help the humans faith by confirming Jesus identify?
It seemed to me that there must be a bit more.
When I was doing some research on some other questions, I came across this interpretation that I found to be a pretty interesting take on all this. The idea is that the demons are operating on these incorrect ideas about the nature of names and of naming things. The belief that they are operating on is the belief that in naming Jesus they will have power over him. Jesus shows this to be incorrect, as he casts the demons out despite the attempts. In one case, Jesus asks the demon’s name in return. The answer, “Legion” is basically a smart alec response. It’s sort-of like saying “Name? You’re only looking for one name? There’s a whole army platoon in here! Which one of our names would you like?” Jesus then casts them out into the pigs despite this.
If you’re not a theology geek like me you probably gave up on this post about 2 sentences into it. But even if you are, it might be natural to wonder “O.K. But what does this mean? Why does it matter?”
Beyond the fact that it’s another layer of stuff going on in scripture, I think there is a more important thing. I don’t have it all worked out. But I’ll sketch some preliminaries and hope for some help.
#1) It’s clear that names are powerful things. The act of recognizing things for what they are, and having the courage to identify the “elephant in the room” are powerful acts.
#2) It’s easy to mistake this power, to over estimate it. In our own lives, we can think that simply by knowing the name of something I control it. It’s easy to think that once I have a title for an issue I don’t have to work on it anymore. By merely knowing that a person suffers from an Autism Spectrum Disorder I can think that I know everything that there is to know about them. By knowing that I suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder I can rationalize that I no longer need to seek out treatment. If I call a group “African American” instead of “black” I can think I don’t need to make changes in my heart or in the world around me because I’ve changed the label.
I guess the bottom line is that naming things are a critical first step. God wants us to call things like they are. And then He wants us to do something about it.
When I was working on my Master’s Degree in Special Education there was this poster. It said “Label jars not people.” It drove me crazy! I think I’m on the same page with scripture. (This doesn’t often happen without a lot of work for me. Thank you God for this one.) I think it’s demonic, ultimately, to think that labeling is enough, that the label somehow gives us power. But it’s pointless to avoid labeling in the first place… we have to name things, and then we have to move on and do something with that name.