October 22, 2017

What’s In A Name?

I hate name tags. I really do. On the “hate” scale, I hate them more than I hate tomatoes, but not quite as much as I hate the Michigan Wolverines. About once a quarter or so, someone at church will decide that it is “Name Tag Sunday” and everyone will be greeted at the door with a little name tag sticker and a Sharpie. Sometimes I can evade this craziness, other times I am stopped and shamed into participating. So I do—but under protest. On those days, my name becomes “Hoyt.”

“Hello. My name is Hoyt.” That’s what my name tag reads. There are people in my church who only know me by Hoyt. Every time someone says, “Hi, Hoyt,” I know I have just defeated the evil name tag demon at its own game.

Why the venom? I figure if someone wants to know my name, they can ask. I don’t need to force it on them. Let someone watch me, see me, before they care enough to ask my name. I don’t ever deny them my name (although it may vary whether I say “Jeff” or “Hoyt,” depending on the mood I’m in at the moment). I just hate wearing in on my shirt.

I have gone by another name for nearly 37 years now, a name that I have tried to grow into daily. That name is one that is widely misunderstood, even by those who share it with me. It is tossed about like a beach ball, even here on the Internet Monk site. This name is used as a proper noun, a verb, and an adjective. The name is Christian.

I once edited and published a book by Dan Thrapp, the late religion editor for the L.A. Times, called Mutiny’s Curse: A Novel. It starts off with the line, “His name was Christian, though his faith was not.” I acquired the book after that one sentence. How many of those who call themselves Christians might fit into that box: That is their name, but not their faith?

And just what does it mean to be called “Christian” anyway?

That great fount of knowledge and wisdom, Wikipedia, has this to say:

A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who Christians believe is the Messiah (the Christ in Greek-derived terminology) prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, and the son of God. Most Christians believe in the doctrine of the Trinity (“tri-unity”), a description of God as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit, but a minority are Nontrinitarians.

The term “Christian” is also used adjectivally to describe anything associated with Christianity, or in a proverbial sense “all that is noble, and good, and Christ-like.”

Nice and sterile, that. But it covers most of the bases. The first time we find the word “Christian” in the scriptures is in Acts 11:26 where we read that “in Antioch the Lord’s followers were first called Christians.” I’m not sure that it was a compliment then. The “Lord’s followers” were being called “little Christs” as the way they lived caused them to resemble Jesus the Christ. And that, in those days, was not a good thing. It branded one as a rebel, an outcast in the Jewish religious system. It was not, apparently, a name these followers adopted for themselves, but one that was put upon them by observers of their way of life. In a short time, to be known as a Christian meant your life and the life of your family was in danger. Saul—before he became Paul the Apostle—went from house to house, dragging men and women off to jail just for being known as Christians.

The persecution against Christians increased for several centuries until Constantine declared that all under his domain were now Christians. With one decree, those who were known as Christians went from being snack treats for lions to being everyone in the entire Roman empire. The meaning of the name Christian no longer reflected those who followed Jesus, even to their death; it was now simply another way to say Roman.

Over the centuries, the name Christian has gotten farther and farther away from its original meaning: “little Christ.” Today in our Western culture, we use it as an adjective to describe the forms of entertainment we are comfortable with (Christian music, Christian movies, Christian fiction), the style of clothing we wear (Christian t-shirts), the kinds of businesses we deal with (Christian doctor, Christian hair dresser, etc.). We hear it used as a verb to describe one’s actions (“That wasn’t a very Christian thing to say”). And we use it as a noun to label what we believe. “I’m a Christian.”

It is this label that is in question today. Just what allows one to be called a Christian? Is it by subscribing to a set of beliefs? By the act of baptism in infancy? Does one earn the right to the name for repeating a certain vow or confessing a specific creed? The answer to each of these questions is both “yes” and “no.” How am I doing here? Helping out at all?

The name Christian has so many permutations in our culture today that trying to say it “always means this and never means that” is just an invitation to disaster. So much time is spent by supposed followers of Christ defending their turf for the exclusive usage of the name Christian that could be spent actually living as Jesus lived. Sigh.

The name Christian has accumulated so much baggage over the years it is now very weighty  to carry. When I say I am a Christian, people may automatically assume I am against gay marriage, against national health care, against President Obama, against taxes, against the Democratic party agenda. The first thing that comes to their minds is not how I reflect Jesus in my life, but the cultural and political things I am against. I try not to get sucked into those discussions, because it is so hard to then turn them back to the saving power of Jesus. And yet there are many who wear a name tag with Christian written on it who do stand against many or all of these things, and do so loudly. There are just as many who are called Christian who are for some or all of these issues. Then there are Christians who could care less about cultural and political issues.

There are Christians who listen to classical music, and Christians who listen to scream-o. There are Christians who abhor tattoos, and Christians who are tatted from head to toe. Christians are poor and rich, skinny and fat, educated and illiterate, Catholic and Protestant. Christians are conservative and liberal, gun owners and peaceniks, carnivores and vegetarians. They could come from any country on earth—and do. In other words, anyone can be called a Christian.

And you know what? Jesus is just fine with that. It doesn’t seem right, does it? The rules for membership should be much stricter than they are. For instance, how is that Anne Rice can say she is renouncing Christianity but not Christ and still be called a Christian? Shouldn’t she be drummed out of the club? By our rules, yes, she would have been by now. (She may not have been admitted in the first place, if some of us had our way.) What about those who believe a different creed than I do? How can they still wear the name Christian? What of those who speak in tongues or don’t speak in tongues? Those who believe the days of miracles are over? Those who believe that the words we speak literally shape our lives? Do I really have to share my name with someone who confesses prosperity for himself and is out shopping for that new Mercedes?

I want at times to go back to pre-Constatine days when the name Christian meant something more. It meant someone so closely identified with Jesus that their life was endangered. I want only those who look like Jesus to be allowed to wear the name Christian. But Jesus doesn’t share my enthusiasm for exclusivity when it comes to the name Christian.

Jesus opened the door to the Kingdom of Heaven and said, “Y’all are all welcome. Come on in.” He doesn’t have a bouncer at the door to make sure we are on “the list.” (Yes, I know about the Lamb’s Book of Life. Could it be that everyone’s name is written there, and the reason some are not admitted is because they turn away from the door that leads to life, instead wanting to find a way they can make themselves? But I think that is a discussion for another day.) Anyone who wants to can put on a name tag and write Christian on it. Anyone. Really. Anyone. Even a filthy criminal in the final stages of execution. Even those who show up at the very last hour of work.

Does this make you mad? Do you prefer a more exclusive club of those who wear the name Christian? Too bad. It’s not your name they are taking on. It is the name of the Messiah.

“Well, at least they ought to start acting like Jesus before they are called ‘little Christs.'” Yes, I agree. But for some reason, Jesus doesn’t care. One can take the name Christian while still in a life of sin and destruction, act like anything but a little Christ, and Jesus still welcomes him. Brian Welch, the former guitarist from the group Korn, was high on meth when he went to church one Sunday morning and surrendered his life to his Savior. “Ah,” you say, “but he never used meth again after that, did he?” You’d like to think that. But it’s not true. (He is clean now, however. And he is very thankful that he is.)

So, here we are. We have a name tag all filled out with our name on it. It reads, Christian. At times, I’m not sure I want to be identified with others wearing the same tag. I don’t want to be in the same group with conservative Rush-quoting, Obama-hating Christians. And I don’t feel very comfortable with abortion-advocating, tax-raising liberals either. But I am not asked my opinion. I’m told that this is my family. There are some who are loyal to their church, and some who, like Anne Rice, are fed up with what they see as a game and have quit the church. There are those of whom it could be said, “His name was Christian, but his faith was not.” But I still don’t get to choose whether or not they can keep their name tags. That is not up to me.

I’m not sure I have really helped us along here or not. The name Christian is used liberally, wrongly, unjustifiably. It is worn by those who look nothing like I think Jesus should look in this day. And Jesus seems pleased as Punch to invite them all in. He sends his servants to the highways and byways inviting in all kinds of nuts, weirdos, misfits. Not all are as handsome and right-thinking as I. Yet Jesus sees their name tag and greets each one: “Welcome to my party, little Christ. Glad to have you.” Well, it is his party after all.

I’m glad I was invited. I’ll wear my name tag that says “Christian.” You’ll know which one is me. Underneath this name I will have written in smaller letters, Hoyt.

Comments

  1. I don’t like the idea of Christian being associated with a political platform.

    However, I do not mind so much “Christian” being semi-exclusive. I like the idea of a church that takes a long time to really “join” and that isn’t afraid to worship in such a way that non-Christian would not understand it right away.

    That being said, I am not about trying to keep people out or anything. Only that some emphasis on a community of Christians for Christians is a good thing.

  2. Buford Hollis says:

    Wikipedia is way too wordy. (Maybe I should go change it.) “Christian” is either an adherent of Christianity, or an adjective referring to same. Or a boy’s name.

    There’s also a “Christian Church” (or “Disciples of Christ”) which is the name of a particular denomination. Founded by people who didn’t want there to be denominations (hence the name), and today most of them can laugh at the irony. The Church(es) of Christ used to be the same group, but they drifted away a hundred years ago over the issue of instrumental music.

    Anyway, these groups have settled onto these names which they use for convenience as much as anything else, so if you look them up in the phone book, you’ll know which is which. After all, technically a Catholic church could be considered a “Christian church” or “church of Christ,” and they also claim to be “orthodox” (just as the Orthodox claim to be the “catholic” church), but they have basically ceded these names to one another.

    Maybe this is happening with the name of the religion itself. It’s not so much that Anne Rice is being drummed out, as she doesn’t want to be in the same group as people who call themselves “Christians” today, and you’re trying to drum her back in! (There was this sci-fi novel in which the Catholic church divided into Left Catholic and Right Catholic, maybe there could be Left Protestant and Right Protestant!)

  3. Paul Davis says:

    I chuckled at the name tag defiance, but what I hate even more is when a church makes new members raise their hands so you become a target for every single well wisher in the congregation 🙂

    We’ve even tried hiding in the back when visiting some churches and of course it never works, I’m convinced that some churches have a state of the art facial recognition system for identifying new people. My daughter even had a woman wait for her in the lady’s bathroom so she could pump her for
    information, creepy…

    On your main topic…

    I’m not sure I’m a Christian anymore, but a follower of Christ. I don’t agree with everything Ann Rice believes but I would welcome her with open arms because she’s being who she is. She’s not pretentious and full of false piety, I can’t stand anymore the standards ‘Christians’ have set. I can’t stomach the falseness of it all, I work with a gentleman who is rough and tumble, loud and brash and a good honest Christian, he doesn’t fit the western mold. But start talking about Christ or the bible and you might get a surprise, that to me is a follower of Christ who’s not caught up in appearances.

    Grace is a dangerous thing, and I am so thankful it’s not up to us who gets in and who doesn’t, cause we would screw it up just like we have everything else 🙂

    -Paul-

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      My daughter even had a woman wait for her in the lady’s bathroom so she could pump her for
      information, creepy…

      Or kinky.

  4. In her most recent statements Rice says she is renouncing the Catholic Church, not Christianity.

    I completely understand a Christ-follower renouncing a particular church or even organized religion in general.

    My issue, and now that she has clarified perhaps I don’t have an issue. Nevertheless, as a writer words are her craft. If a word means something to you and you detest the popular usage, you don’t discard the word. Instead, help others see how you find meaning in the word.

    Let’s say there was a woodcarver. For some reason everybody disparaged his favorite variety of wood. Instead of tossing it into the fire he should find ways to carve it into works so inspiring that people began to see why he found it wonderful.

  5. Hi Jeff,

    This is a great post. The God revealed in Jesus is a God of infinite compassion, mercy and kindness. His kindness extends even to the ungrateful and the wicked. It extends to us all for we have all failed to love God with our whole being and others as we love ourselves. As you point out grace is for all.

    A Christian is a sinner saved by the free and unmerited favour of God given by him so joyfully and willingly. When we are walking with God on a daily basis, then (over time despite our many failings) we grow to be more gracious in our relationships with others and more tolerant of differences on peripheral issues. We are all created by a loving God for the purpose of entering into a loving relationship with him and others. When we take our eyes off Jesus of Nazareth (the crucifed, now risen Messiah) then other issues such as theological differences or behavioural differences or political differences etc. become more important to us.

    My prayer is that we become more compassionate persons today and tomorrow than we were yesterday and this can only happen if we are led by and controlled by the Spirit of Jesus. When we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, then peripheral issues remain peripheral rather than becoming dominant.

    Shalom to you all,
    John Arthur

  6. You had me at “I hate nametags.” But “Amen!” through the rest, too!

    • What she said!

      Perhaps it’s time to consider whether we should stop using the term “Christian” to refer to ourselves because of how its meaning has been corrupted. The translators of the King James Version used “charity” in place of love in 1 Corinthians 13, because in the parlance of early 17th-century England “love” largely meant “sexual activity.” They weren’t afraid to set aside a term whose meaning had changed; maybe we should do the same …

  7. “Christians are… carnivores and vegetarians.” I think the dictionary defines “carnivores” as people on the Atkins diet. The rest of us are omnivores, I think. ;P

    You should have found the name tag that says, “HELLO, My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” Like on this T-shirt at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Princess-Montoya-Prepare-Nametag-T-Shirt/dp/B0013F9F5M

    • You may have just cost me $17.99, Josh! I wish I had thought of this t-shirt first!

      And you’re right. Omnivore would have been a better fit. Of course, my mom was always complaining that I didn’t eat my veggies…

  8. Mindless ranting. Is that all that makes you write a column? It must be adull week for you.

    • And yet you read it all. AND commented on it besides. You must be really bored, Vern!

      In fact, if you’re suffering from that much ennui, would you mind coming over and helping me with some chores this weekend? At least it’ll give you something to do. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, right?

  9. I agree with the sentiment. Often on name tags I will write “Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Other times I will write the name of a fictional character like “Milo Minderbender” or even “Frodo Baggins” depending on the context.

    I think fish symbols and bumper stickers are a manifestation of name tags. Personally, I would never have one largely because it is self-congratulatory. Jesus never declared himself the Messiah stating that if he were to make such a declaration then it would by its very nature be false. I would rather be discovered to be a Christian than announce that I’m a Christian and by that very declaration be a false one.

    Most people I talk to don’t get this about Jesus or being a Christian and think I’m off my rocker.

    On the other hand, it’s fun when they ask if I’m a Christian to reply, “I’m trying to be.”

  10. textjunkie says:

    What is the big deal about nametags? You walk into a room where everyone is wearing a nametag, it communicates that not everyone knows everyone else’s name. It’s not a clique; you’re not an outsider. You don’t have to *earn* the right to know everyone’s name, they aren’t fighting to keep their identity private. If you happen to forget someone’s name that you were introduced to before, you’re not embarrassed to have to ask again, because it’s right there on their shirt.

    We do it at conferences, at business meetings, at conventions, family reunions, anywhere where we can assume not everyone knows each other but we want to be able to function together–why not at church on Sunday?

    (Contrast that to wearing the big freakin’ virtual sign that says, “Hi! I’m a newcomer! you all know each other and I don’t!” which is what you have to do when everyone knows everyone else’s name and you keep having to look stupid and ask. :P)

    Yes, I feel strongly about it. 😉 I have a really, really bad memory for names and need all the help I can get, and a church where everyone is wearing a nametag says to me that they care about the outsider and newcomer at least a little bit.

    though I appreciate that isn’t the main point of your post–and I loved the explicit contrast between what you want, and Jesus not being so picky. 🙂

    • Here is the problem I have with Name Tag Sunday and name tags in general:

      It turns a church full of Christians into a crowd of conference goers, business meetings, game-show contestants, and convention hounds looking for a new sales lead.

      It always attracts the ‘salesman” type who has never met you before, but points and reads the name tag and starts talking to you like he has known you for ten years and you wait for the “sales pitch” and the “catch” behind the pitch. Or it makes people into game show contestants when they tell me that “They are a minor employee at a major corporation who is a major player in (______) who is majorly in love with Jesus along with their spouse and their three minor children”.

      Or worse, the gung-ho name tag installer who is overzealous and wants to write your name down, peel off the adhesive backing, and slap that name tag on your shirt and try to shake your hand at the same time.

      It is very embarrassing to me to see people act this way and makes me very uneasy and uncomfortable to the point where I either try to avoid name tag Sunday altogether or if I really had to go for some reason (an after church committee meeting), arrive very late when the name-tag crew is taking a break between services and it appears that no one else is showing up, wait until they go to the fellowship hall and then go in the church.

      This mindset has even happened to me at certain Christian retreats (paid in advance) where in order to be admitted, you had to wear the name tag. i always carried an old pager belt lanyard and wore those tags there because technically, the tag was still on my body. I can understand that concept to keep the people who think they will get in for free from doing so but I still despise the behavior of certain people who act in the ways mentioned above.

      —–

      However, in this era of heightened church security where people have been tragically shot and killed in their own church, I can actually see the day coming when some church’s insurance company and/or legal team will, in the name of “security” (and a cheaper insurance rate along with trying to decrease liability), require everyone to wear a name tag to distinguish church staff from ushers/greeters from members from frequent attendees from one-time visitors to where anyone without a name tag is “suspect”, the tension is heightened and ushers put on alert, and the person without a name tag is watched with deep suspicion until they leave the church facilities. The name tag concept may one day become the norm in a church.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It turns a church full of Christians into a crowd of conference goers, business meetings, game-show contestants, and convention hounds looking for a new sales lead.

        Isn’t there a Geico commercial where the registration table at a conference tries to stick a standard-sized nametag on The Gecko?

    • As another person who has a good memory for faces but is abysmal at remembering names (which means I go around telling my family “Oh, Mrs Whosit said hello today in the supermarket” and then they have to deciper which neighbour it could have been), I would also appreciate nametags.

      But on the other hand, having sat through several team-building exercises that the higher-ups at work thought the bees’ knees, I can sympathise with the “What fresh hell??” element of the post.

      🙂

  11. When I was in high school, my church made everybody wear name tags for family night potluck, and I hated them. I filled mine out “My name is LEGION”.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I used to correspond with a cartoonist who could top that. How’s this:

      HELLO
      my name is
      SHUB-NIGGURATH, GOAT OF A THOUSAND YOUNG!

  12. This post seems to me to be nearly a complete opposite of this post – http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/do-you-trust-the-abbreviated-jesus

  13. If you’re not good with names, like me, nametags are a wonderful thing. If I’m talking to some people at church, and we know each other but we’re just not sure if we have the names right, it’s very awkward. (I will say that I used to hate the practice and would always try to slip by the tagging operation when I visited churches, but then I stood out by not having one.)

    I guess the solution might be to only attend churches small enough that you can remember everyone’s names, but that’s a mighty small church in my case.

  14. Re: funny names on nametags, I like to give my name as “Donner” when putting my name in at a restaurant. Hearing “Donner Party, your table is ready” just cracks me up but my wife not so much.

    • That’s cute, Fish! I wonder if anyone ever says their name is “Communist?” So….”Communist Party, your table is ready” would likely get a chuckle even from the host or hostess. If they were not very well-read in history, they may miss the “Donner Party” reference!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “I went to restaurant. Waitress ask ‘How many in your Party’? I answer ‘Ten million’. She gives me a corner booth.”
        — Yakov Smirnov, mid-1980s

  15. Personally I don’t reject the name Christian, But for reasons I’ve mentioned before, largely having to do with the American church’s participation in the forced assimilation, and even attempted genocide, of the First Nations (a.k.a. American Indian) peoples, I prefer to use the term “follower of Jesus.” And believers amongh the First Nations communities will generally use the term “followers of the Jesus way.”

    So I will answer to the name, and explain as necessary. But given that is was originally a name that was put upon us, and which originally was not exactly a badge of honor, that’s not a hill I’m willing to die on. And in order to avoid offense I am more than willing to avoid it altogether.

  16. I’ve recently been making an effort to insist on the word Christian as opposed to “religion.” It seems that whenever someone is getting ready for a nice bashing session (which will inevitably involve the Crusades, gay marriage, and the speaker’s past experience with hypercheerful “witness-ers”), they always call the target of their aggression “religion.”

    I find that slowing them down and saying, “Hold on a minute. Are you talking about ALL religions equally, or do you mean Christianity?” often makes them temper their words. If they say all religions equally, they’ll be bashing Jews (which is suicidal) and Hindus (which is uncool). But if they say Christianity specifically, then you can give them specific answers and historical and doctrinal facts rather than trying to defend a vague concept of “religion in general” – plus it requires them to actually THINK. It helps!

    • I find most arguments of that sort rest on generalizations and vagaries rather than specifics. Bring out specific facts and cases and you destroy everyone’s vitriolic fun. It’s a good tactic you have there, a good technique for turning anger to reason.

      I know several people who hate ‘homosexuals’ – until they actually meet a person who is homosexual. A lot of homophobia applies only to a vague bogeyman which vanishes the instant any light shines on it. Sometimes I think people just need to hate something so they have something to be indignant about.

      • To quote, “Sometimes I think people just need to hate something so they have something to be indignant about”

        I agree 100%! It is no wonder so many people are always tired – hatred is quite exhausting! ~ L

    • Buford Hollis says:

      I think every religion (including Judaism and Hinduism) is capable of good and evil, and unless it was started yesterday, has a record of both. Whether the good outweighs the bad is difficult to say, but religion isn’t going to go away. We’d better make the best of it.

      It’s okay (in fact much better) to admit that Christianity messed up with the Inquisition, witch-hunts, etc. No religion is perfect, at least not as expressed in the real world. Hopefully we can at least remember our own flaws and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

  17. I’ve thought before that I should invent a new term or word to use instead of Christian. But it always seems to me that doing so would be an exclusionary act – as though I have some superior form of Jesus discipleship, and that I can judge whether or not other people or groups match the criteria. So I’m not going that road. I do find myself cautious, nonetheless, about calling myself a Christian at times – so much baggage associated with it.

    Wat do?

    I could just call myself a disciple of Jesus, I guess. When I need to say something that won’t immediately shut off all lines of useful communication.

  18. I attended a college rather hostile towards Christians. I often received a litany of the evils perpetuated on the earth by Christians, the more popular being The Crusades, homophobia, patriarchy, child-abuse, not caring about the poor or the environment and (my favorite) intolerance. Over time I learned answers, depending on my relationship to the person, that ranged from quiet listening to invitations to study The Book of Luke or John together or asking where they got their ideas or explaining why I believed, and even saying I’m sorry. These did not always work, but I learned to defend my faith and not be a coward (which I was).

    As for who is “in or out” of the Kingdom of God, I don’t know, nor is it my place to decided. That is God’s alone. This I do know: God is good and God is just. He alone knows the heart of man. In the end, whatever He decides is right and fair and no one can question Him. My concern is not who is in or out – my part is to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and to love my neighbor as myself. I am thankful my part is small; I’m a great deal too foolish to be judging the fate of others.

    I respect the God-given free will of others to believe whatever they chose. But I admonish them, whatever they chose, to not “believe just because” but to know without doubt they believe the truth. With eternity at stake, make sure you are right; it’d be dreadful to die and find out you’re wrong.

    As my dear husband pointed out, however, I take this live-and-let-live view because theological discourse is too smart for me and I tend be a “just the facts” sort of person. He is right, as usual, lol ~ L

  19. I found some relief in this article. I have come to feel 100% claustrophobic (& resentful) about the fact that in order to believe what I do about the God of the Bible and Jesus Christ I am stamped with the virtual badge “Christian”, which brings with it an identity that pretty much replaces much of who I actually am. I find I am automatically enrolled in a subculture whose style, lingo, and viewpoints I utterly detest. “Christian” has become a “brand”. A brand of merchandise that encompasses identity, affecting politics, music, style, beverage choice, speaking and language, mannerisms, personality…. And it’s the only brand in the store.

  20. Isn’t it a lie to wear a false name tag? Wouldn’t it be simpler to just peel it off and put it in your pocket?

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