November 16, 2009

What’s In A Name?

There was a story or editorial in the Fresno Bee last year or so in which the writer suggested that parents give their baby girls gender neutral names. 21 years ago I had the same idea, naming our first daughter Jessica (Jessie or Jess), and 18 months later naming our other daughter Valerie (Val). The author of the newspaper piece had a rather narrow rational for the suggestion: namely that if you buy an airline ticket for your son and need to change your plans, you could then have your daughter use the ticket in your son's name without paying a transfer fee. Whatever. I had nobler visions of enabling my daughters to better compete in a world where the playing field is not yet level between genders. While much has changed in the past 21 years, this is still, in many respects, a man’s world.

While a girl might want to neuter her name to level the playing field, there really aren’t a lot of good reasons for a boy -- or at least a normal boy -- to want a girl’s name. In 1974 Johnny Cash recorded a song called “A Boy Named Sue.” The lyrics started out like this:

"My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn't leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me Sue."

In Cash's song Sue was a tough name for the boy to live with, but it gave him “gravel in his gut and spit in his eye.” My wife's parents named her Sue and they pretty much got the same result. If you were ever a student in her fourth or fifth grade classes – or, for that matter, late for dinner or neglected to call, you’d know what I mean. Cash ends by singing “and if I ever have a son, I think I’ll name him ….. Bill or George, anything but Sue.”

Now George is a name I like and it just so happens to be my given name. My Christian name. When I was a kid my father -- known variously as James, Jim and J.R. – short for James Richard -- would take me to the Reedley Municipal Airport where he and my mother had a number of airplanes. George Kevorkian ran a crop dusting service from that airport, and I remember he had a sign in the office that said “Let George do it!” I believe that phrase came from a 1940 British comedy film of the same name featuring George Formby. I was named after George the cat. My mother liked that cat. Well, I think she liked the cat, or anyway I hope she did.

Sue’s late uncle was named George Russell Wing. For some reason he did not go by George. I knew him as Russell, though sometimes he would sign off letters as G. Russell. I’ve always liked the name George. In elementary school the kids would sing “Georgie Porgie … kissed the girls and made them cry.” Somewhere along the way I learned to say “for more.” Adults would kid around by saying “by George, I think you’ve got it!” To this day I sign off my correspondence and writings as “by George!”

A former tenant in one of the houses I manage had the name “Hipolito,” which is pronounced “ee-poe-lee-toe.” I have learned enough Spanish now to know that “ee-poe” means “hiccup” and “lee-to” means little. When Hipolito came into the office I used to call him “little hiccup.” He really didn’t think that was funny. Most people like their names and don’t want you messing with them. I think Hipolito actually means "little horse."

One thing I have observed is that a person will be perceived differently by different people, and also will be called different names by different people. I’ve experienced this. I am variously called “George” “honey” “dear” “dad” “father” “Señor George” “Mr. George” “Jorge” (pronounced “hore-hey”) “padrone” “el dueño” and a number of names too off color to print. My father, a colorful man, used to opine that “it’s better to be known as a son of a bitch than to not be known at all.” I guess I am not at risk of not being known at all but I'd just as soon not be called bad names. However, I answer to a lot of different names.

My business partner, Ahmed, is a devout Muslim who refers to God by the name “Allah.” It can be literally translated as “The God.” The first pillar of Islam is that “there is no God but God.” Jews and Christians believe this also, and interestingly all three religions claim that the one true God is the God of Abraham (Ibrahim in the Arabic to English translation). Jews and Christians refer to God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Exodus 3:15) though Muslims properly assert that God is the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob. See Genesis 16: 11-12.

Until European settlers were kind enough to bottle them up on reservations and send them missionaries, Native Americans did not have the benefit of the Old and New Testament teaching, nor prophets such as Moses, to help them give a name to God. They did alright, though, referring to God as “Great Grandfather” and “Great Spirit” and other appropriately respectful names. Being part Native American myself (Blackfoot or Blackfeet, if you prefer), I want to give “them heathens” the benefit of the doubt. We may ponder whether, by different names and with different perceptions, ancient Jews, medieval Muslims, 18th century Native Americans, and modern day Christians have each been praying to the same God.

Sometimes it’s awkward to ask someone for their name. Especially when you’ve been in some kind of relationship for a while but never got around to asking for a name. For the past four years I have kidded around with the mailman who delivers mail to our office. The other day Valerie (Val) asked me what his name is. I hadn’t a foggy clue. I’d never asked, and neither had he. Well, really, he doesn’t need to ask, since he delivers my mail every day.

Sometimes it’s scary to ask for a name. God spoke to Moses and Moses had the temerity to ask God his name. In response God simply stated “I am who I am.” Moses wanted to be able to tell the Israelites who it was that gave them the law, and God told Moses to tell the Israelites that “I AM has sent me to you.” Exodus 3:14. See also

In Old Testament times “Jesus” was apparently a fairly common name given by Jewish families to their sons. These days the name “Jesus” (pronounced “hey-soos”) is popular in Mexico and not so popular among practicing Jews. The reasons may seem obvious but I ponder them nonetheless. It was God, himself, who instructed Joseph to name Mary’s son Jesus. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebraic name Joshua, which means “the Lord saves.” Matthew 1:18-25

There is power in some names. It is written that simply by the name of Jesus we can be healed (Acts 4:10) and also that by the name of Jesus our sins can be forgiven (Acts 2:38) and that by believing in the name of Jesus we may have life (John 20:31) and even eternal life (John 6:40). See generally "the name of Jesus" and "eternal life" at

Not everyone who calls on the names of God believes in the power of Jesus’ name. I do. And I believe that all who call on the name of Jesus will be saved. This is a basic tenet of the Christian faith, and I am a Christian.

But there are a significant number of Christians who believe that only by calling on the name of Jesus can one be saved, and then, only by calling on the name of Jesus in your lifetime on this Earth, however short that may be, will you be granted the gift of eternal life. I have searched the scriptures and I am not sure that I can agree with this assertion. I am comfortable in believing in the promise of God that, by calling on the name of Jesus I will be saved. Yet I am also comfortable with the possibility that God really did come to save us all, and that, by whatever name He may be called, the great I AM may have a plan for redemption of those who call on Him, but who for whatever reason do not, in this lifetime, come to believe in or call on Him by the name of Jesus.

I would be interested to know what you think of this idea. Leave a comment for public consideration, or email me with your thoughts.


  1. Hello George - One thing I think people who ponder such things need to consider is the "historical Jesus" (Funk, Borg, Crossan) movement/work. I first saw it about 15 years ago with the Jesus Seminar and how they voted on the veracity of scripture (see and more recently in Bart Ehrman's work (_Misquoting Jesus_, in particular,, and Christopher Hitchens (_God is not great_, Ehrman's personal story is pretty interesting.

  2. I refer to myself as a Christian, and when asked what religion, I hem and haw. I attend a Lutheran church, and frequently joke by saying "well, that's Lutheran" or "I'm not Lutheran".

    I refer to myself as a religous mutt. My Dad grew up Mennonite, my Mom grew up Catholic and Methodist, I was reared Southern Baptist, in college the walking distance determined what demonition I entered, and in grad school was baptized in a General Baptist church and now we attend a Lutheran church. Aspects of most of those religions are in my thoughts and beliefs. Eric has attended our church since he was born, I claim he runs for mayor!

    Now when we started our engagement, I felt like his church was Catholic. We "shopped" around for a church, but how do you erase a lifetime of family and friends watching you grow and now watching our marriage and family grow? Especially in his case when many of them were father figures for him (Eric's Dad died when he was very young). So, Lutheran I became. We attended a 16 week course before I was "confirmed", in order to become a member and then get married. Let me tell you, taking that class together was the best thing to make both of us ponder what we really believe and why. Every example in the class was presented with Baptists as being the opposite, very difficult to grapple with.

    The biggest deal? Infant baptism. I was totally against it, didn't understand, but here I stand with 2 children of God that know that God loves them and accepts them with unconditional love. It is very sweet to hear Simon's comments as we watch other children be baptized. Let the little children come to me. Many households were baptized in the Bible. I have some difficulty explaining what in my heart I have come to accept and understand. But I hope my children do not have the guilt of weekly alter calls and doubt that filled my childhood. I also do not believe that Baptism is the only way that saves someone (as is in the liturgy and thanks to my rearing) and that if a child is taken by God, they are welcomed with open arms into heaven. I also know that baptism alone is not enough for my little lambs to live their Christian life.

    And as for feeling Catholic, well, I have also grown to appreciate the formalness and the grandeur and the ceremonious feel that comes with festivals and holidays. Our church especially knows how to use music to worship on special occasions without a performance feel. I truly love the season of Advent and Lent to prepare for Christmas and Easter. But every so often, I need the contemporary service to get that "less-than-Catholic" feel.

    But it is God who does the work. God alone is the only one who forgives our sins and washes us clean. It is a gift freely given, not for the asking but for the accepting. Not by anything I say or do, but his act of grace. It is through faith by grace that saves me.

  3. If you believe that there is only one god then anyone who prays must be reaching out to that God. The fact that different people have different requirements for their deity doesn't have much to do with the deity. If you want to discover the path for yourself which fits best with God's intention then you need to hang out with God. Some people seem to connect better than others, and hanging out with them may help. If you have an idea what the path is it is probably good to hang out with people who have a similar concept. If that doesn't work, try a different group.

    Telling people they have to accept your conception of God is just silly. If you don't want to hang out with people who have different ideas, don't. Do remember that spiritual growth seldom happens in a closed mind, and that certainty is the usual path to error.

    And that's all I have to say about that.