On November 20, 2012

Names #2: Don’t Think of an Elephant

So this is a short series on why names matter. but more specifically it’s a series on why the book of Genesis talks so much about names. Because one of the greatest gifts that God gives to humans is create with Him, and to name that creation.

I’ve noticed that it’s trendy among younger Christians to use language that older generations find offensive. And I get that. After all, every generation stretches the boundaries of language. Otherwise we would never hear the word pregnant on television, and “sucks” would still mean what my mom thinks it does. But I think it’s important to not forget that the Scripture is telling a story in which the language we use, the names we choose matter very much.

And here’s why:

I have a friend who had been married to his wife for a decade when he found out that she had cheated on him…a lot. He remembers the night that he found out that she had really never been faithful to him, in fact, he discovered there was a very good chance that their kids weren’t even his. And so my friend had a choice. He knew that the marriage was over, in a sense, it had never really existed. But he had to decide what to do with the children. He could probably walk away from any responsibility at all, or he could get DNA testing to find out which ones belonged to him biologically.

But he didn’t. Instead my friend went to court and fought for everyone of his kids without qualifiers. It cost him a small savings, but he did it. And later, when his kids found out that there was a chance that he wasn’t their biological father, they asked him why he fought so tirelessly for them. He told them, “Because I named you.”

Which is an interesting answer isn’t it?

It implies that there’s more to creating a kid than a sperm fertilizing an egg.

Naming a child has something to do with what kind of child you have created.

A couple of years ago, I heard a story on NPR about how the Social Services had noticed the most popular names for children right now are Jacob or Isabella or Edward. Which sound like great names, until you realize that they are all from the movie Twilight. So it’s a bit like the naming version of getting a Justin Bieber tattoo.

I think most of us name our kids after stories we like, stories that have affected us, that inspire us, but be careful how you name. Because some stories can’t bear the weight of the names. Some stories are just too trivial to become names.

A few years ago, I had one of my teachers tell me about a book called, “Don’t Think of An Elephant” (Which is kind of a genius title for any book.) The basic idea behind the book is that the metaphors that we use when talk about life matter more than we think they do. We use metaphors to describe life and stories, “If the world was a tuxedo I’m a pair of brown shoes.” We compare the political parties we don’t like  to the Nazi’s, or we compare our marriages and relationships to movies and novels. We say “this” is like “that.”

That’s a metaphor. It’s the way we name things.

And the big idea behind the book “Don’t Think of An Elephant” is that how much these metaphors shape us. Think about the way we talk about cancer for example. We say that she is fighting cancer, or that he battled cancer for a while. When we talk about cancer we use the metaphor of war. Scientist have said that the way people think about their cancer actually affects how their body deals with the disease, and because of the wide-spread use of this war metaphor, it actually adds more  pressure to those who have the disease!

Or what about the way we think about our relationships? We say we value someone, or that we are going to invest in the relationship. We spend time with them. Donald Miller points out that the overwhelming metaphor for our relationships is economic. Which means we think of our relationships and our ability to love, as a limited commodity. That’s the metaphor we’ve been handed.

That’s one of the ways we’ve been taught to name the world.

And here is the point of all of this. Names matter more than we think they do. Because the way you name the world will always frame how you see the world. And the way you see the world will always shape how you name it.

I know that this may all sound like a new-fangled idea, but it’s actually a very old one that we have forgotten in the modern world.

Just read through the Old Testament sometime. If you ever want to know the emotional state of a Hebrew woman, just look at what she names her kids. There are kids who are named things like, “I am depressed.” or “God must not love me” Which I think is bound to make the first day of school awkward.

But before you start thinking how bad those names are, remember, we name our kids after vampire movies.

See I think, underneath most of the names we give each other, is the assumption that they really don’t matter. That’s why we use words like “fag**ts” or “nig**rs” to talk about people who might be different than us.  It’s why we use words like “bit*hes” or “whores” to talk about women.

It’s because we really have no idea the power of a name.

Did you know that in every genocide that we have record of, before the people were killed those in charge started changing what they called them? Jews were called “rats” the Tutsi’s in Rwanda were called “Roaches” Because you can’t kill a person, but you can kill a bug.

This is why Christians historically have cared about the kind of language we use.  But we’ve often been guilty of thinking way too small about it. We talked as if somebody refrains from saying a four letter word then they’re doing fine. But I’ve heard some of the worst mouths on people who don’t say dirty words. They just name poorly.

To name is to create a world. And once it’s created, it can’t be forgotten.

And if you doubt that, than just Don’t Think of An Elephant…or for that matter, a vampire.

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  • http://twitter.com/DChristianson David Christianson

    Well said. We see naming as transformative, as well, in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, and Peter, renamed not for who they were, but who God would make them. As our language influences our perception of reality, so do the names that we call people influence our perception of them (or ourselves). Looking forward to more of these posts.

  • Mac

    If people would read more Tolkien your thoughts wouldn’t sound new fangled either.  You know how in the LOTR movies Gandalf and Saruman fight with staffs that sling each other around the room?  That’s not Tolkien’s vision.  In the Silmarillion, when it comes time for big magic battles the contestants try to out-poetry each other, to tell stronger stories, to name deeper names, to sing stronger songs.  In Lord of the Rings, the only character who is unaffected by the ring’s power is Tom Bombadil, the first and unnamed one.  ”Tom’s songs are stronger songs.”  That’s what you get from a guy who started making his world by creating a language for his characters to speak.  

    Another great book that has “Metaphors matter” as its central thesis is Terrance Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective.  

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks David! Yeah, that’s one of the stranger things about the Bible story that we are just so used to we’ve stopped noticing. Jesus just walks up to people and changes their name…”No, you’ll be Gary from now on.” I think you’re spot on, he changes their name as a first step to changing their identity and how they see the world. Good word. Thanks for weighing in. 

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Mac! Good to see you on here man! First off, anybody who quotes Tolkien and Terrance Freitheim in the same comment…while having a Superman avatar, I think should comment on every post. I love Tolkien as an example of this. When I first read the LOTR, thats one of the big things that stood out to me as well. Tolkien knew the power of language. Great observation Mac.  (Fretheim is one of my favorites by the way)

  • bCheatham

    We spelled our sons names with these ideas in mind. BryOn and JerOmy…both with o’s….a navtive american symbol for wholeness and completeness.  It worked out well.