What’s in a name?

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.



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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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