What’s in a Name?
Every Saturday night over the last year or so, from 10:45-12:00, I play hockey with a group of guys I connected with through one of the dads at the kids’ school. After the game last night, amidst the usual mélange of sweat, beer, colourful language, and conversation about what this or that guy has “under the hood,” one guy came over to me and said (loudly) “So, I hear you’re leaving us in a month.” “That’s right,” I said. He continued, “and I hear that you’re a minister?” Hmmm, well how to respond to that. “Well, I will be,” I said. “What denomination?” came the reply. Hmmm….
In the past, when I’ve told teammates that I’m a Mennonite, there has usually been a rather awkward silence, followed by a question like “is that like the people that ride in wagons?” I wasn’t all that eager to deal with these kinds of questions but, with some trepidation, I affirmed that I was, indeed a Mennonite. I hadn’t expected to be confronted with the complex issue of names—what they mean, what they do, how they’re understood, and how we ought to use them—at Saturday night hockey, but blog-fodder sometimes comes from some rather unlikely sources.
So why didn’t I just quickly, confidently, and unambiguously self-identify as a “Mennonite?” I wondered about this as we drove home and as I was sitting through a (Mennonite) church service this morning. What prevents me from confidently embracing the whole complex of terms that are variously thrown around in the church circles of which I have been a part—names like the aforementioned “Mennonite,” or “evangelical,” or “born again” (those whom Frederick Buechner has described as having “the relentless cheerfulness of car salesmen”)? Am I ashamed of or embarrassed by these names?
Well kind of, actually. I don’t agree with everything that Mennonites have historically represented, nor do I consider myself to be an obvious example of what a Mennonite might look like. I don’t care for or want to be associated with many of the connotations that the word “evangelical” carries in our North American context, and would not be concerned in the slightest to see the term go (I’m not alone here, even within the MB tribe). I’ve always shuddered to use the term “born again,” mainly because despite the fact that I was quite certain that I had performed all of the necessary steps to secure this status as a kid, I never felt very born again. While I certainly admired the dramatic stories of radical life change and victory over sin that others experienced upon committing their lives to Christ, this simply was not my experience. I usually felt like the same old ordinary guy with the same old ordinary struggles.
Having said all of that, I recognize that there are good and useful things communicated by these names that we use. I’m proud to be a Mennonite even if I don’t agree with everything Mennonites have ever said and done. I deeply admire our historical commitment to peace and justice, not to mention our theologically appropriate suspicions of the tendency to abuse political and ecclesial authority and our emphasis upon personal freedom and accountability.
Similarly, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the name “evangelical.” It simply means “good news,” and I am convinced that the news of what God has done for his world through Jesus Christ, is certainly “good.” And as for “born again,” well a significant part of the “good news” is that this status is not dependent upon how “born again” I may happen to feel at any given moment; rather it speaks of what God has done, is doing, and will do in the lives of his people. I can appreciate all of this, and yet… I still have difficulty embracing these names.
I suppose that at the heart of my resistance to attaching myself to these levels in an unqualified way is a simple suspicion of the nature of names and what names do. They are inherently restrictive, and while this isn’t a bad thing (it’s actually unavoidable—all naming involves building a fence of sorts, so that some things belong inside and some do not), the temptation is to avoid going beyond our (limited) understanding of a name to discover the actual person we’re using the name to describe.
In a lecture by my thesis supervisor John Stackhouse last year, he remarked that the names we use for others often serve the threefold purpose of labeling, limiting, and liquidating. For example, breathe the word “evangelical” in certain circles (hockey dressing rooms, say) and you could be labeled (instantly put into a [probably partial and inadequate] category which people have in their heads), and thereby limited (guess I can’t say this or that in front of them any more, guess they must be a little weird) or, in some cases liquidated (don’t bother with him – another crazy religious fundamentalist). Names can be useful ways of opening doors into conversations and relationships, to getting a bit of a sense of what interests and animates people, but some names just slam the door or, at the very least, make it very difficult to reopen.
But names are what we have, so we use them. Ideally, we ought to use them in ways that leave the door for conversation—what kind of a Mennonite/evangelical are you? How do you understand terms like “born again” and “saved?”—but often this is not the case. Often, we label and we limit. Sometimes, we even liquidate, writing people off as not worth talking to or getting to know because they’re clearly either hopelessly stupid or lamentably unspiritual. Names have a tendency of becoming more important than people, mainly because labeling, limiting, and liquidating is a whole lot easier than getting to know someone and discovering how, where, when, and why the names may or may not apply.
My experience at hockey last night reminded me of the importance and the limitations of names. They are necessary because they orient and locate us within this or that particular framework. They are suggestive, and give us clues as to what people might be about and what areas of conversation might be worth exploring. But names must be used carefully and with appropriate allowances for qualification, expansion, and explanation. Everyone is more—much more—than the names that they and others use to describe themselves. I hope that we will be gracious enough to give others the time, space, and freedom to explain how exactly they fit their names and their names fit them.
Happily, my hockey comrades seemed mostly unconcerned to discover a “minister” in their midst, and continued to blissfully colour the air blue. If they were in the process of labeling, limiting, and liquidating me, it certainly didn’t show. Most were more annoyed that I had scored the winning goal (the puck actually went where I wanted it to go on a breakaway—for those who doubt that miracles do happen!) than by the discovery that I was “religious.” Indeed, I was even invited to a beach party by one particularly interesting fellow who is currently in the process of trying to get his Pontiac Firefly to run on hydrogen, and among whose recommendations in the past have included destroying my TV and attending a nude “cultural festival.”
Sounds like intriguing stuff, but perhaps not the kind of options that a good Mennonite/evangelical/born-again minister should be entertaining (well, maybe the TV one….).