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Consequential Naming


My husband and I recently took a short trip to Truth or Consequences, a small city in southern New Mexico. The place won its name in a 1950 contest celebrating the 10th anniversary of the radio show “Truth or Consequences.” T or C is also known for its mineral hot springs (the main reason we went). But the effect of its unique name on tourism has faded. The streets are quiet, buildings crumbling and patched with rescued junk, bright paint fading.

T or C’s commerce seems to revolve around two things: 1) repurposing—a “truthing” of sorts where metal is tested and if found firm assigned new value (antiques, recycled textile art, used books)—and 2) healing—consequences of living apart from the body’s truths (cures range from mineral baths to dolphin-assisted therapy).

It is a strange mix of hippie and redneck, perhaps leaning more to the latter. T or C is next door to the white supremacist haven of Elephant Butte Lake (where we nervously watched a man buy ammo for his assault rifle; the store owner, who mainly rents kayaks, whispered that the man was a mercenary who loves combat). The residents may not agree on what truth is or what the consequences of breaking the truth are, but both figure strongly in their day-to-day life.

The tiny town in Colorado, hardly a dot on the map, where my grandparents lived and farmed also found its name in an unconventional way. Years ago, ranchers and farmers in their area decided they needed a post office closer than the nearest town of Dove Creek, twelve miles away. So they applied to the state to become a town with their own postal code and the name “Range.” When a cowboy rode into Dove Creek to get the mail and found that the name had been rejected because a Range already existed in Colorado, he wasted no time and wrote right back requesting their town be called “Egnar” (range spelled backwards).

For a name, it’s not too bad (though it sounds rather odd), describing a place that is a bit backward, at least compared to our fast-paced, crowded, concrete culture. Egnar is wide open, spacious, hardly tamed—fields of pinto beans and wheat are hemmed by scrubby sagebrush and juniper, canyons of standstone, a place where rattlesnakes, deer and coyotes reign.

I’m fascinated by names—how they are chosen, what they mean, their effect upon those who bear them and those who call them.

At birth I was named after a missionary my parents knew: Joelle—of French origin, from the Hebrew for “Jehovah is God.” Jehovah—a Latinization of the Hebraic vocalization of the unspeakable name of God, יהוה(YHWH, Yahweh).[i] God—Germanic from the root gheu(e), to call or invoke, or perhaps to pour a libation.[ii]

Then there are the nicknames: my dad’s affectionate “JellyBelly,” my mom’s song-like “Chickadee,” and the host of names from classmates, friends, colleagues—some endearing, others less to my liking. And the names I’ve called myself, depending on the day: Stupid, Beloved, Ugly, Miraculous, The Ghost, She-Who-Chooses-Life. I can trace how these names have made me, how I’ve lived within them or pressed against their confines.

As others invoke my name and I respond, there is a building of relationship and familiarity while also a subtle mystery—the name doesn’t hold all of me; no one can own me by calling my name. Yet giving my name away (online, to a stranger, greeting a new neighbor) does give the other some clout. I’m still recovering from a miserable bout of identity theft!

There is power in a name.

Recently, Spectrum readers reacted strongly to the use of both masculine and feminine pronouns referring to God. Some of their comments:

God is never referred to as “she” or as “her” in any inspired writings, nor ever in God’s own words. Inserting a distinctly human issue into a conversation about the Divine is the epitome of presumption. I don’t believe God is laughing at this “joke.” – Tongkam

God is neither male or female, or how could women as well as men both be described as being made in God’s image. The only good reason to have a male God is if a female God was also available to procreate or have fun with. Otherwise, all the dangly bits have no purpose. – billman

Here are some of “God’s own words.” God referring to Godself delightfully & reassuringly—as a mother hen. [H]ow often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Matt 23:37, Luke 13:34) – hopeful

God is always referred as He in the Bible and he is the one who inspired the Bible writers to write it that way. – pagophilus

1. Verbal inspiration is not an Adventist belief.

2. “God is spirit” John 4:24

3. Limits of language:
The use of he to refer to a person of unknown gender was prescribed by manuals of style and school textbooks from the early 18th century until around the 1960s….
•In a supermarket, anyone can buy anything he needs.
•When a customer argues, always agree with him.

This may be compared to usage of the word man for humans in general.
•”All men are created equal.”
•”That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
•”Man cannot live by bread alone.”[iii]

– hopeful

God is referred to in anthropomorphic terms: God’s arm; his eyes (he sees), as illustration for those who first heard about him. But that does not mean that he actually has arms and legs, etc. “No one has seen God” as even Moses saw only his hind parts or a very bright light. – Elaine Nelson

No, we cannot capture God in a single or even two pronouns. God isn’t a person, though we speak of God in our human ways. We use the language at hand, the metaphors that are familiar, sometimes comforting (a mother hen) or terrifying (a lion). No single name can do God justice. Yet these words do have power and meaning. So it behooves us to choose well, to look closely at the names we call upon in hymns, prayers, Scripture.

What does our choice of names for God tell us about God, ourselves, the world? How does our name-calling of God include or exclude others? How do these names affect our beliefs and behavior?

God can’t be contained by a name. The simplest, and thus the most expansive and comprehensive, leaves much to our imaginations: I AM.

The Jews won’t even speak God’s name—it’s too sacred. But they do breathe God’s name! Try it. With relaxed tongue, lips, and jaw and mouth slightly open, inhale: Yah; exhale: weh.

Name—from old English for name and reputation, from Sanskrit nama.[iv] Namaste—an ancient Sanskrit greeting roughly meaning, “I bow to God’s presence living in you.”

Namaste, reader. I bow in respect, for your name, your identity, is rooted in God’s grace and goodness and all-encompassing-other-ness. I bow to the mystery of our separateness, our unique names and characters, and simultaneous commonality as human beings beloved by God.

What name are you called by?

By what name do you call God?

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