The Power of a Name

I have heard it said many times, that knowing someone’s name gives you power over them. The ancient Jewish culture of the Old Testament demonstrated this by giving people names that said something about them, so that knowing someone’s name meant knowing something about them. Many traditional societies would sometimes think of this in a superstitious way- that knowing someone’s name would allow you to put hexes or curses on them. Today, even if a name is just a random assignment of a familiar series of sounds with a person- there’s no significance to someone having a name, usually, than that the parents liked that name- still, using someone’s name makes them feel more familiar and comfortable with you. Every salesman knows that using someone’s name creates empathy. So there’s still power in a name. You call someone’s name, they hear it, and they turn around. You have some measure of power over that person’s behavior by knowing their name. Similarly, people are less likely to engage in culturally unacceptable behavior if people know who they are. A family man would be less likely to go into a strip bar if he thinks someone who knows him might see him.

You’ve probably heard the expression, “I’m no -ism, unless it’s ‘aintism’- I’m against -isms!”

I hate that expression.

I was thinking the other day about why it annoys me so much when someone refuses to classify themselves religiously or politically. If one is the pastor of a charismatic church, why would one resist being called charismatic? It occurred to me that it’s related to this idea, the power of a name. If I call someone charismatic or Lutheran or whatever, then I have some measure of power over them, insofar as I can expect them to hold a certain range of opinions and views, and to behave in certain ways. If someone identifies themselves as progressive or conservative, then I know something about them, and therefore have some power over them. Perhaps people resist that. Perhaps people resent being understood, because they resent others having any measure of power over them. If I say, “I’m an evangelical Christian” then people will likely, and rightly, suspect that I am pro-life. But perhaps I’d like to be pro-abortion, and so I don’t identify myself as an evangelical, even though all of my other views are consistent with that label, because the inconsistency of my position could then be used against me.

I don’t think there are any totally original thinkers. We all fall into patterns of thought and belief that, for the most part, many many other people have taken before us. These patterns have been given names- Lutheran, Reformed Jew, animist, Zoroastrian, Reformed Protestant, etc. It seems to me that to refuse to identify yourself with the pattern of beliefs most closely resembling your own represents either ignorance of the history of your beliefs, or an act of hostility to others. I say hostility because it represents a lack of trust. It’s a refusal to allow others to know anything helpful about you so that they have no power over you. It’s like a man sneaking into town in a black cloak- why is he hiding? A civilized honest man comes into town in daylight and tells people who he is and what his business there is. An honest man identifies himself. He gives his name.

So, to practice what I preach:

I’m a Reformed Christian. I’m traditional, and Calvinist. I’m supralapsarian and amillenial. I’m a member of the Reformed Church in the United States. I’m a Republican, conservative, and pro-life. Any questions?

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