What’s In A Name?

Naming is an essential part of the human experience. We all place names on things around us. That is a car. That is a Toyota Sienna minivan. That is a 2001 tan Toyota Sienna minivan with three dents in the hatch. And on and on it goes. We follow after our Creator who named the night, the day, the sun, the moon, and man. But he did not just name things as nouns, he also declared them to be good or very good. After the fall he named things good or bad, righteous or unrighteous. The Scriptures explicitly forbid us from calling good evil and evil good (Isaiah 5:20). The Christian life is one of naming things correctly.

In our postmodern era, it is hard to hold this line. Our world is a complicated one. Things were simple once, back in the day. But now we have become more aware of the overwhelming complexity of this world. Names used to be so obvious. But we were deceived then. There used to be truth that we could name, but now there are only truths, socially constructed ideas that help us name our various realities.  We used to know a woman from a man. Now is it a woman or man? Who knows?

Here is an experiment. Read these sets of words and ask yourself what comes to mind with each word: other woman, adulterer, loose, whore, slut, fornicator.  Homosexual, alternative lifestyle, gay, sodomite, lesbian. Abortion, pro-choice, pro-life, woman’s rights, reproductive rights, murder. Alcoholic, drunk. Which of the above names are most commonly used? We can see how the shift in what something is named matters. Today alcoholism is seen as a disease. But it used to be that a man who drank too much was simply a drunk. That was his name. Ah, but complications have arisen due to the latest research from the university. A man who cheated on his spouse used to be an adulterer. But now we discretely call it an “affair” and don’t call him anything. When was the last time anyone was labeled an adulterer? We used to have a name for a woman who ran around sleeping with men. A child used to be disciplined. Now they are abused. A man used to be called lazy. Now he is underprivileged.

Richard Weaver wrote this next quote in 1948. It is a description of the way words were used during World War II.  He understood at the time that there must be a constant point of reference for us to be able to name things.

 A course of action, when taken by our side was “courageous”; when taken by the enemy, “desperate”; a policy instituted by our command was “stern,’ or in a delectable euphemism which became popular, “rugged”; the same thing instituted by the enemy was ‘brutal.’ Seizure by military might when committed by the enemy was ‘conquest”; but if committed by our side, it was “occupation” or even “liberation’ so transposed did poles become. Unity of spirit among our people was a sign of virtue; among the enemy it was proof of incorrigible devotion to crime. (Ideas Have Consequences)

Weaver’s point is that we rename things so that the story makes us look good and gives us power. 

What we call things matters. Words matter. Semantics are rarely just semantics. It is odd that Christians of all people forget this so easily. We are people of the Word who are delivered by a living Word. Paul bases an argument on a word being singular instead of plural (Galatians 3:16).  Yet for some reason we are happy to toss out words in order to be relevant. We change our vocabulary so we don’t sound offensive, so we don’t look like fundamentalists stuck back in that time when the world was less complicated. Why be offensive, when we don’t have to be? But why did we exchange abortion for murder? Why did we stop calling homosexuality sodomy? Why do so many Christians side with the Republican Party when it lies just as much as the Democrats? Why when America spies on her people it is protection, but Russia sends agents around it is tyranny? The answer is not hard to see. Weaver saw it in 1948. We have lost transcendent truth. We are postmoderns. We have forgotten the One who names all things. He names the nouns and the verbs and he attaches adjectives to them. He calls good, good and evil, evil. We have forgotten God. Until we come back to the Triune God, who properly names all things, we have no point of reference.  Until we come back to God we will struggle to name the most basic things. And so we will continue to stare in glassy eyed wonder and say, “Is that a woman or a man?”

Book Review: Postmodern Times

Postmodern TimesPostmodern Times by Gene Edward Veith Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is good introduction to postmodernism. Veith wrote this book in 1994 so we are twenty years removed from his critique. But I enjoyed that aspect of the book. I can see how he was right in many areas, but also wrong in a few. The strengths of the book were:

He consistently showed how postmodern thinking can open doors for the Christian faith. For example, the idea of community and culture being central can make a church that has a solid community life influential on those around it. He also says that Christians can utilize the postmodern “hermeneutic of suspicion” to draw out sin.

He pointed out that postmodernism is built on power and desire. When there are no absolutes desire dominates and those who have power get what they desire. Thus the goal is to gain power so we can get what we want.

He calls Christians back to a confessional Christianity build on solid doctrinal truth and morality.

He does a good job of talking about technology and how it has helped usher in postmodernism without completely disparaging technology.

The idea that truth is determined by societies/cultures was helpful. It is not so much that truth is a construct of the individual, as it is a construct of the society in which the individual is a part of. Thus, every sub-group has it’s own truth. There is no overarching group.

I enjoyed the book, but want to read a more recent treatment of postmodernism to gain more insight into it.

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Spoiled-Child Psychology

Here are some quotes from the chapter “The Spoiled-Child Psychology” in Richard Weaver’s book Ideas Have Consequences. The book has been ground breaking for me. In this chapter, he is writing about how we, as a society, have become spoiled. He connects this directly to our love of comfort, the promise that technology will make our lives easy, and materialism. The chapter is a prophetic rebuke to my  entire generation. I was stunned by how I fit the criteria of a spoiled child, demanding ease and comfort and declaring the world unfair and blaming those over me when I did not get it. What is even more amazing is the book was written in 1948. Some things have changed since then. But the central points of the book remain dead on.

“The spoiled child has not been made to see the relationship between effort and reward. He wants things, but he regards payment as an imposition or as an expression of malice by those who withhold for it. His solution…is to abuse those who do not gratify him.”

“The right to pursue happiness he [the spoiled child] has not unnaturally translated into the right to have  happiness.”

“Let us consider the ordinary man living in Megalopolis. The Stereopticon [For Weaver this was movies, radio, and the newspaper. For us this would include TV and the Internet. P.J.] has so shielded him from sight of the abysses that he conceives the world to be a fairly simple machine, which with a bit of intelligent tinkering, can be made to go. And going, it turns out comforts and whatever other satisfactions his demagogic leaders have told him he is entitled to. But the mysteries are always intruding. so even the best designed machine has been unable to effect continuous operation. No less than his ancestors, he finds himself up against toil and trouble. Since this was not nominated in the bond [part of the contract], he suspects evil doers and takes the childish course of blaming individuals for things inseparable from the human condition. The truth is that he has never been brought to see what it is to be a man. That man is the product of discipline and of forging, that he really owes thanks for the pulling and tugging that enable him to grow–this concept left the manuals of education with the advent of Romanticism. This citizen is now a child of indulgent parents who pamper his appetites and inflate his egotism until he is unfit for struggle of any kind.”

“In effect, what modern man is being told is that the world owes him a living.”

“Absorption in ease is one of the most reliable signs of present or impending decay.”

“Let us rather see the problem in its essence and ask whether the worship of comfort does not follow necessarily from loss of belief in ideas and thereby induce social demoralization.”

“Great architectonic ideas are not nourished by the love of comfort, yet science is constantly telling the masses that the future will be better because the conditions of life are going to be softened. With this softening, the masculine virtue of heroism becomes, like the sentiments of which Burke spoke, “absurd and antiquated.”

“It is obvious that hardness is a condition of heroism. Exertion, self-denial, endurance, these make the hero, but to the spoiled child they connote the evil of nature and the malice of man.”

Postmodern Times

I just finished All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers. It was an interesting, if dated, exploration of pop culture and its effects. I am now reading Postmodern Times by Gene Veith. Reading these books back to back has been helpful. Veith advances and builds upon some of Myers’ ideas. This has been helpful for me because of how far downstream we are from Myers’ original context. I just finished chapter 3 of Postmodern Times, which is on deconstructing truth. Here are some of Veith’s descriptions of postmodernism. All italics and parenthesis are his. Brackets are mine

“Postmodernist ideology is more than simple relativism.  Whereas modern existentialism teaches that meaning is created by the individual, postmodern existentialism teaches that meaning is created by a social group and its language. According to this view, personal identity and the very contents of one’s thoughts are all social constructions.”

“Since there is no objective truth, history may be rewritten according to the needs of a particular group.”

“Postmodernist theories begin with the assumption that language cannot render truths about the world in objective way. Language, by its very nature, shapes what we think.  Since language is a cultural creation, meaning is ultimately (again) a social construction.”

“Language does not reveal meaning (which would imply that there is an objective, transcendent realm of truth); rather language constructs meaning.”

“Knowledge is no longer seen as absolute truth; rather knowledge is seen in terms of rearranging information into new paradigms.”

“Abstract ideas are not the only casualty [of postmodern thought]. When the objective realm is swallowed up by subjectivity, moral principles evaporate. Other people-even spouses and children-are valued only for what they can contribute to my pleasure.”

These quotes are all from the negative first half of the chapter. Veith goes on to note how postmodern theory has some basis in truth. He says that postmodern theorists are suspicious of everything. They are always looking for the hidden power play. Christians agree. There is a hidden power play: sin.  He also notes that because we are sinners people do use words to oppress, manipulate, twist, lie, etc.But there is one big difference between Christians and postmodern theorists. We believe there is a final, transcendent word. They do not.