The size of a name

This is a reflection I gave at mid-day prayer at Emmaus Chapel in the St John’s School of Theology – Seminary on April 18, 2013.

Reading: Exodus 3:11-17.

Names. As you might imagine, the last few weeks of my life have been filled with people saying, “How cute! What’s her name?” “Hildegard” gets plenty of memorable reactions, of which the most generous was certainly Martin Connell’s offer to contribute to a fund for her future therapy bills.

One response, though, has stayed with me. My obstetrician, at my first post-partum visit, looked down at her and crooned, “That’s a big name for such a little peanut!”

Yes, I thought. She still has to grow into it.

When we give our children the names of saints, or when we take them for ourselves, we do so with a terrifying hope.

When Moses asked, “Who am I?” to challenge world rulers, to lead the people I fled from, to attempt your work of liberation, God gave him the divine name. I have to imagine it was a little too large. “Uh, thanks, Elohim, but I was hoping you’d just ask someone else.” Moses took this heavy name back and shared it with the covenant people, who stumbled under its weight many times. Still, they carried it, wrapping it with their reverent silence and passing it on to their children.

In baptism, Christians too are offered — or better, are burdened with — the divine name, the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, another name that baffles human logic. If we’re paying attention, we too should find it a little too large. “Uh, God, this name that means the redemption of the world? It’s too big. Keeps sliding off. Couldn’t you have given me a better fit? Or… maybe I could just give it back?”

In the readings from the Acts of the Apostles in these first few weeks of Easter, we should find our terrifying hope. Three weeks ago, Peter denied the name of Jesus, but in these first few chapters from Acts, he calls it the only thing he has to give, the cornerstone, the only name “under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” By the gift of the Holy Spirit, the apostles grew into the divine name. We can too.

The hope is terrifying though; the name of Jesus Christ led many of the first Christians into strange lands and even to death. It required them to call those they mistrusted “brother” and “sister.” Most of us will probably not face violence in God’s name, but we must be willing to face painful truths.

One truth is embedded in baptism itself, and it troubled the early Jewish Christians, but it is still troubling today. Baptism is a sign of God’s great love, but of course, in baptism God will take just anybody! In baptism God loves us — but no better than our enemies. We may be “chosen people,” but as Moses discovered, I AM, frankly, doesn’t seem to be much of a connoisseur.

When we call that Good News, when we are willing to share the burden of the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with those we despise, then we will have grown into the new covenant.

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13 comments

  1. Way too many people these days pick names because they sound nice rather than because they have thought into the significance of them and I think that in so doing they lose a lot of richness.

  2. A terrifying hope indeed that we might be able to call those we find difficult “brother” and “sister”! Thank you for a beautiful and thought provoking piece, and blessings on Hildegard, who I do not doubt will grow into her name.

  3. Babynames: The Popular SSA website

    All names are from Social Security card applications for births that occurred in the United States after 1879. Note that many people born before 1937 never applied for a Social Security card, so their names are not included in our data.Name data are not edited. Different spellings of similar names are not combined

    http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/

    Well Hildegard has not been in the top 1000 most popular female names for babies since 1918 when she was ranked #954! From then back until 1891Hildegard had been in the top1000 all but four years but never higher than #630 which occurred in 1902. Perhaps Hildegard was a victim of World War I. My German ancestors indicated there was much anti-German feeling at this time, e.g. German no longer being taught in high school.

    Martin was #56 in 1891 but was on a slow downward slope into the #90s by the 1940s. It was rescued back up to rank #62 in 1962 (an MLK effect?) only to plummet again into the #100s by 1970 reaching #203 by 2004 and a nadir of #262 in 2011.

    John (my baptismal and legal name) was #1 from 1891 through to 1923; it slipped to #2 in 1924; #3 in 1929; #4 in 1953 #5 in 1955.
    However it climbed back to #4 in 1959, #3 in 1961; #2 in 1963 (JOHN 23 and JFK effects?).
    Then it slipped back to #4 in 1966, #5 in 1972 and slowly declined to #10 in 1986; again to #20 in 2008, and to its present rank at #27 in 2011.

    Obvious many things affect the popularity rank of baby names. Ethnicity, e.g. Juan does not get counted with of John. Relatives, e.g. both my father and grandfather were named John. Media effects such as popes, national leaders and various forms of “stardom.” Other factors include Protestants choosing biblical names, and Catholics choosing saints names.

    However, three general trends are important from my study of the data:
    1. The baby name liberation movement introducing more diversity since the 1960s.
    2. A century of corralling of men more than women into fewer names.
    3. That women (including Hildegard) ) continue to lead this movement.

  4. The Baby Name Liberation Movement

    In 1950 the top 10 boy names accounted for 33% of the boys,
    and only 24 boy names accounted for half the boys,
    100 names accounted for 76% of the boys,
    and 500 names accounted for 93% of all boys.

    By 1970 the top 10 boy names counted for only 26% of the boys,
    and 32 namesm were needed for half;
    100 names for 70%,
    and 500 names for 90%

    By 2009, the top 10 boy names accounted for only 9% of the boys,
    and now it took 134 names for half of the boys,
    and 500 names only accounted for 70% of the boys.

    In other words there has been a “Baby Name Liberation Movement” which has freed us from the dullness of the industrial era which peaked in the period from1940 to 1955 when the smallest number of names were used to account for most of the boys and girls!

  5. A Century of Corralling Men into Fewer Names: 1912-2011
    http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/decades/century.html

    The top 10 male names plus the only female name that would have made it into a list of the top 10 names regardless of gender; then the number of people in the database for the 100 years 1912-2011
    1 James 4,877,368
    2 John 4,771,740
    3 Robert 4,677,163
    4 Michael 4,246,425
    5.William 3,758,373
    1. Mary 3,675,303
    6 David 3,513,288
    7 Richard 2,517,162
    8 Joseph 2,430,380
    9 Charles 2,212,351
    10 Thomas 2,189,104

    35,193,354 persons were covered by the top 10 male names while only 15,305,190 were covered by the top 10 female names, i.e. 19,888,164 more people, i.e. 2.3 times as many men as women were covered.

    Top 11-20 names: 5,408,090 more males (1.6 times)
    Top 21-30: 3,272,632 more (1.4)
    Top 31-40: 1,507,560 more (1.2)
    Top 41-50: 931,379 more (1.2)
    Top 51-60: 409,223 more (1.1)
    Top 61-70: 23,426 more (1.0)

    The top 70 names covered 31,440,474 more males (1.6 times as many men as women). After the top 70 the process begins to reverse. Essentially more than half the men have been covered each year; therefore there are less men around to be paired with remaining names.

    Most of the corralling takes place at the very top of the list of men, i.e. the top ten and top twenty names.

    Of course the corralling process had its highest point in the 1940s and 1950s. The data would probably look much stronger for the period 1912-1961 than 1962-2011 when the baby name liberation movement began.

  6. Women the Advant-garde of the Baby Name Liberation Movement

    In 1950 the top 10 girl names covered only 23% of the girls (10% less than the boys)
    and it took 46 (22 more than the boys) to cover half the girls,
    100 covered 66% (i.e 10% less than the boys),
    and 500 covered 88% (i.e. 5% less than the boys).

    In 1970 the top 10 girl names covered only 16% (10% less) of the girls,
    84 covered half (53 more were needed) of the girls,
    100 covered 54% (16% less) of the girls
    and 500 covered 82% (8% less) of the girls.

    By 2009 the top 10 girl names accounted for 8% of the girls
    (essentially the boys and girls had become highly similar in their less use of the most popular names),
    however, it took 321(187 more, double the number were needed) to account for half of the girls,
    and 500 names accounted only for 57% (rather than 70%) of the girls.

    While there has been a Baby Name Liberation Movement for both men and women, women have been the leaders. They were never confined into so few names. Especially recently (probably due in part to the Baby Name file) diversity of women names has been very strong with 43% of the names not in the top 500. Men have caught up to women only when it comes to the decreasing usage of the most popular names.

    So reaching out beyond rank #1000 continues the movement toward diversity. Three cheers for Hildegard the avant-garde!!!

  7. Since I work with kids, I come across all sorts of interesting names. I sometimes like to ask kids why they have a particular name and enjoy hearing the reasons. I’ve noticed a rise in unisex names (Payton, Teegan, Devin etc), as well as names that describe ideas or virtues (Justice, Unique, Honesy, MyLove). I see the rise in popularity of unique and “pretty” names as a way to eventually make the Canon of Saints sound even more interesting.

    The only time names ever peeve me are when the parents either give a common name a strange spelling to make it unique, or obviously didn’t know how to spell and gave them a name that can’t be sounded out. I don’t mean spellings that come from another language or culture, either.

    I always liked my name, even though almost no kid in the 80s or 90s was named Jack. The only other Jacks I ever met were either really named John, or were born in the 1920s. Jack wasn’t even a popular nickname for John in my age group.

  8. Oh Baby! By Ben Witherington

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2013/05/08/oh-baby/

    Some countries think that there is a limit to stupidity run riot when it comes to naming one’s children. In fact, New Zealand has done something about such brain dead decisions. You have to run the name of your new born by a government registry in Kiwi land. If only this had existed in America when I was growing up with a girl named ‘Candy Apple’ and another named ‘Merry Christmas’ (I am not kidding). Such parents should be immediately deported to New Zealand, and their children should be put in the name protection program.

    Here is a list of some the names banned in New Zealand since 2001 — and how many times they were proposed by people as their child’s name.

    The Naming Police!

    But then in New Zealand when you prang your car, you take it to the panel beaters. Seems with language like that that they would be a little more tolerant, or perhaps that is why they have Naming Police there.

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