What’s In a Name?
by Peter Jones
Naming is an essential part of the human experience. We all place names on things around us. That is a car. That is a Toyota Sienna minivan. That is a 2001 tan Toyota Sienna minivan with three dents in the hatch. And on and on it goes. We follow after our Creator who named the night, the day, the sun, the moon, and man. But he did not just name things as nouns, he also declared them to be good or very good. After the fall he named things good or bad, righteous or unrighteous. The Scriptures explicitly forbid us from calling good evil and evil good (Isaiah 5:20). The Christian life is one of naming things correctly.
In our postmodern era, it is hard to hold this line. Our world is a complicated one. Things were simple once, back in the day. But now we have become more aware of the overwhelming complexity of this world. Names used to be so obvious. But we were deceived then. There used to be truth that we could name, but now there are only truths, socially constructed ideas that help us name our various realities. We used to know a woman from a man. Now is it a woman or man? Who knows?
Here is an experiment. Read these sets of words and ask yourself what comes to mind with each word: other woman, adulterer, loose, whore, slut, fornicator. Homosexual, alternative lifestyle, gay, sodomite, lesbian. Abortion, pro-choice, pro-life, woman’s rights, reproductive rights, murder. Alcoholic, drunk. Which of the above names are most commonly used? We can see how the shift in what something is named matters. Today alcoholism is seen as a disease. But it used to be that a man who drank too much was simply a drunk. That was his name. Ah, but complications have arisen due to the latest research from the university. A man who cheated on his spouse used to be an adulterer. But now we discretely call it an “affair” and don’t call him anything. When was the last time anyone was labeled an adulterer? We used to have a name for a woman who ran around sleeping with men. A child used to be disciplined. Now they are abused. A man used to be called lazy. Now he is underprivileged.
Richard Weaver wrote this next quote in 1948. It is a description of the way words were used during World War II. He understood at the time that there must be a constant point of reference for us to be able to name things.
A course of action, when taken by our side was “courageous”; when taken by the enemy, “desperate”; a policy instituted by our command was “stern,’ or in a delectable euphemism which became popular, “rugged”; the same thing instituted by the enemy was ‘brutal.’ Seizure by military might when committed by the enemy was ‘conquest”; but if committed by our side, it was “occupation” or even “liberation’ so transposed did poles become. Unity of spirit among people was a sign of virtue; among the enemy it was proof of incorrigible devotion to crime. Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences.
Weaver’s point is that we rename things so that the story makes us look good and gives us power. Why do we do this? Sean Hannity is a great example. He excoriates President Obama for doing the same thing he praised President Bush for doing. And the conservatives still love him.
What we call things matters. Words matter. Semantics are rarely just semantics. It is odd that Christians of all people forget this so easily. We are people of the Word who are delivered by a living Word. Paul bases an argument on a word being singular instead of plural (Galatians 3:16). Yet for some reason we are happy to toss out words in order to be relevant. We change our vocabulary so we don’t sound offensive. So we don’t look like fundamentalists stuck back in that time when the world was less complicated. Why be offensive, when we don’t have to be? But why did we exchange abortion for murder? Why did we stop calling homosexuality sodomy? Why do so many Christians side with the Republican Party when it lies just as much as the Democrats? Why when America spies on her people it is protection, but Russia sends agents around it is tyranny? The answer is not hard to see. Weaver saw it in 1948. We have lost transcendent truth. We are postmoderns. We have forgotten the One who names all things. He names the nouns and he attaches adjectives to actions. He calls good, good and evil, evil. We have forgotten God. Until we come back to the Triune God, who properly names all things, we have no point of reference. Until we come back to God we will struggle to name the most basic things. And so we will continue to stare in glassy eyed wonder and say, “Is it a woman or a man?”