What’s in a Name?

The other day I saw a billboard for an area university that promised that its graduates would be “conquerors.” This was not the word I expected. It seems to me that another description might be more accurate. Competent comes to mind. Or perhaps capable. Or maybe even hirable, as long as it was combined with the additional qualifying phrase: “in certain economic environments.”

It seems to me that the trouble with a school advertising that its graduates will be conquerors is that it is making a promise that it cannot possibly deliver upon. I suppose it might be appropriate if the school specialized in military strategy and its students were preparing to be despots or generals. But even then I think I would be suspicious.

This billboard is an example of the kind of hyperbole we often hear in our culture. It isn’t limited to marketing. Sometimes it creeps into the names some families give their children. In the old days bread and butter names like Jack or Suzie were perfectly acceptable choices for our children. Now the names we hear sound more like titles. Instead of Phil it’s Royal. Instead of Judy it’s Precious. These aren’t names. They are adjectives.

Of course, I understand what is going on here. Such names are meant to send a message to the child. They are intended to build a child’s self-image. Parents want their children to feel that they stand out from the crowd. Why merely be Mark when you can be Magnificent instead? Still, sometimes I think we do children a disservice by promising so much. Parents who were forced to be more honest in their naming might call their child Average or possibly Irritating.

Some will say that the Bible sanctions this practice. After all, didn’t Jesus change Simon’s name to Peter which means rock? This is true. But I will point out that the term doesn’t seem to mean a boulder but something smaller. It is more like a stone. Do you know how annoying it is when you get a stone in your shoe? Jesus called James and John the Sons of Thunder. These were the two brothers who offered to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus (Luke 9:52-56). One wonders if there wasn’t just a touch of affectionate ridicule in the name.

Then, of course, there was the prophet’s daughter-in-law who named her son Ichabod after the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:21). According to Old Testament scholar Robert Alter, the name meant something like “inglorious,” or “Where is the glory?” But this was more of an observation about current events than a value judgement about the child.

The trouble with marketing hyperbole, of course, is that it is empty. By saying too much it says nothing at all. I am afraid that the church is too much given to meaningless hyperbole in its rhetoric. When the church slips into marketing speech, it exaggerates its experiences and misrepresents the nature of the Christian life. It relies on sentimental tropes, pat answers, and superficial analyses of life’s problems. Such talk blunts the force of the Bible’s true hyperbole.

The Bible does not call us conquerors. It says that we are more than that “through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). In the same context it also mentions trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and the sword (vs. 35). This is no marketing hype but real life that has been intersected by the grace of God.

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