catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 17 :: 2006.09.22 — 2006.10.06


Naming well

“We read to know that we are not alone.” So says C. S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, in the movie Shadowlands. That line struck a chord with me, because reading to know I wasn’t alone expresses part of my experience in growing up. I was a shy child who moved a lot and loved books, and I learned pretty quickly that the characters in books were still around after a move.

Seeking for community wasn’t the only reason I read, of course. I also read because my world and understanding was expanded by the othernesses I found there. I read to learn about people and places that I could imagine only because others imagined them first and recorded them for me. People and places and events out of the scope of my real life. People and places that were most certainly not part of me. I think at least a bit of any ability I may possess to love people who are different than me may have been born in my reading experiences, and I’m thankful for that.

So I read in part to discover new and different experiences. But I also read—and was able to understand and empathize with the othernesses I found in books—because authors had managed to encase thoughts and experiences and emotions in words that I had found to be true, but hadn’t the words to express myself. It was very redemptive for me, this discovery that others could name these thoughts, these feelings, these experiences. I felt like there were others like me. That I had companions on my journey. I’m not sure whether I would have told you at the time whether the companions were the fictional characters or the authors themselves, but, as L.M. Montgomery put it so well in Anne of Green Gables, I knew I’d found “kindred spirits.” And I’d found out that they were kindred spirits because they put things into words that helped me understand my experiences and the world better.

In short, they’d named things that I couldn’t.

And I grew up with the desire to do the same. As the poet Naomi Shehab Nye once put it, I knew I wanted to “join the conversation” among writers, adding my voice to the throng. Hoping that I could somehow express the world in a slightly different way. To name things that hadn’t been named before in quite that way so that others might be able to glimpse themselves, others, or the world differently as a result. For that matter, to help myself to understand God and the world better by writing things out. And so far, I’m amazed how much healing the activity has brought. To me and a few others, at the very least. 

This impulse doesn’t drive only me, though. And it isn’t confined to writers or even artists. It drives teachers who want to name things for their students. It drives those who want to understand and work out problems in relationships. It drives those who spend time looking for just the right gift for someone to express their relationship. And it drives all manner of researchers working to expand our knowledge of the world and to find new ways to express it.

Naming is an incredibly challenging task, and even if it weren’t, its results would still be tainted with the brokenness that touches so much of creation. But that doesn’t mean that the impulse behind this naming is a fallen one. In fact, according to the account in Genesis 2, the task—and passion for the task—has been around since before the big brokenness hit in Genesis 3. In human terms, it’s as old as Adam naming the animals in Eden. And in divine terms, it’s at least as old as God’s expression, after each day of creation, that the things he’d created were good. God didn’t just make things in the new world—he also expressed his satisfaction. And then, when he made Adam, he gave him a name, told him who he was, and then turned around and asked him to do the same for the animals.

Naming is a part of God’s role as creator, and it’s significant that he passed that role on to humans so soon after he’d created them. In so doing, he gave us the ability to extend his work of creation. No wonder so many of us feel the need to give voice to things. To extend the bounds of what we know.

It’s significant as well why God gave the first human this task. Adam was alone, and that wasn’t a good thing.

So because Adam was alone, God asked him to name the animals to see if any of them could be capable of building a community with him. I can’t imagine that Adam wouldn’t have delighted in the process of extending God’s work of creation by naming each animal, marveling at the otherness of each created variety. By the time he was done with that work, he would have certainly understood both the concept and the joy of otherness. But he would have also understood better his desire for commonality, for communion with another that was like him—a desire given by and patterned after the community exemplified in the Holy Trinity.

Since no companion was found, one had to be made. So God created another—Eve—out of the same stuff as Adam, making the object lesson of their commonality so obvious, by actually using part of Adam to do it, that it was impossible to miss.  And Adam seems to have been very excited—so excited that he in trying to express how he felt, the first words by a human recorded in the Bible came out as poetry: “This is now bone of my bones / and flesh of my flesh.” He’d found someone else who was like him, and he felt the need to express that joy, to name it, in the same way that God had named his approbation of his creation earlier in the story.

Adam was excited to know he was not alone, and so he expressed that joy by words that showed his joy in having a companion and then by naming his companion in relationship to himself. Clearly he was thrilled that he had someone to commune with, someone who would share in the task of naming with him. And in trying to express how he felt about it, he proceeded to speak his thoughts and feelings about her with words that emphasized the commonality, the communion, of the first human relationship.

Women—including me—are at times not sure what to do with parts of this story and the gender roles that are so often associated with it. But when I think about the story in terms of why I read and why I write, it seems to speak less about gender roles and more about naming.

The story tells me that naming seems to have been from the beginning about learning about, putting expression to, and appreciating distinctions and variety—othernesses—in order to extend the work of God’s creation. And it also seems to have been, from the beginning, about fulfillment of the desire for communion as well. That is, an important gap in creation was filled that day when Adam’s God’s-image-driven desire to commune with others like him was fulfilled. And that was good. (And God said so.)

Thinking about this story in this way helps me to remember why naming is important and to understand why I and so many others feel so driven to do it. It also drives me to pray that I may be given the grace to use this impulse—this gift—to fulfill the work I have been given in a faithful way, something which isn’t easy in a post-Genesis 3 world.

The brokenness in the world that came with the Fall means that the fulfillment that comes with naming is often broken. Expressions, even if true, are often hurtful. Knowledge, and our expression of it, isn’t always true or honest or helpful. The communion between God and humans, and between human and human, is often broken and difficult. The othernesses in creation seem to be dominant, and they often seem to attack one another rather than living in harmony. Bridging those gaps, helping to heal them, isn’t an easy thing.

But, as I learned first by reading and then by writing, with God’s grace naming can be redemptive. It can bring both appreciation and understanding of otherness as well as unity and communion with the common bonds we as humans share. It can bring healing. And I hope that I can play a small part, however I am able, in that process. I certainly plan to try.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus