The reaction to the death of Michael Jackson has been fascinating to observe. The real flesh-and-blood person who was Michael Jackson is almost irrelevant. The myth, the image, the character (or caricature), and the concept of MICHAEL JACKSON eclipses any kind of appreciation for the man. Listening to all the many testimonials on television and the web, it strikes me that while people are talking about Michael Jackson, they generally refer to one of four of his incarnations — the child prodigy of the Jackson Five, the young phenomenon who changed pop music and music videos, the eccentric and somewhat bizarre adult temperamental artist, or the slightly disturbed and disturbing Peter Pan of Neverland. Very few people speak of all four as one individual — Michael Jackson is a mythic figure, meaning many different things to many different people. His name is one of the most recognizable across the globe — as evidenced by the near-crippling of the world wide web within moments of his death.
Few names carry such power. A few celebrities and world leaders have “name power” — some famous, some infamous — but the general power of names isn’t what it once was. In ancient Israel, names (shem) were all important. Names defined more than just families — they delineated tribes and property and power. Reputation was more valuable than gold or jewels. Being blessed by progeny to carry a name forward was a sign of honor and pride. To go childless (or to fail to produce a male heir) was nothing short of a tragedy. In an age and culture that didn’t define immortality as eternal life, immortality depended on an unbroken lineage of successive generations carrying on the family name. Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Elijah, David — these were not even family names, but they became universal signifiers of a people, of a particular identity. Nothing could undermine the importance of having Abraham as one’s “father,” or to be a “son of David.” Everything worldly could be stripped away — possessions and property, family and friends, power and prestige — but no one could take one’s name and heritage.
The concept of shem — naming — is a bit deeper and weightier than what we generally ascribe to people’s monikers. In the Hebrew culture, a name was not merely a label, but a descriptor of the character and core of the individual. People had to live into and up to their names. Dan-i-El, for example, meant “God’s judge,” and it was expected of a child with this name that righteousness (in Israel, righteousness meant unimpeachable justice, not good behavior) would define his entire existence. Honoring the name Daniel meant living a life of honesty, integrity, mercy, and fairness — without exception. The only way a person could keep the commandment to “honor mother and father” was to live up to their name — to be what they were called. We don’t think of, or use, names in this way any more.
It is one of the reasons that we may miss the significance of Jesus renaming Simon or Saul not only having a conversion of the heart on the road to Damascus. When Paul speaks of being a new man in Christ, he is not tossing off a catchy phrase. Paul was a completely different person, representing a different “family” and breaking a lineage. This was monumental. All of Paul’s language about “belonging” to Christ, being “in Christ,” and being a “new creation,” was more than hyperbole. Saul died, so that Paul might live. Simon was changed “to stone,” made “the rock” upon which the church would find its foundation. We think of this as sweet symbolism. For Peter, Paul, and the other followers of the Christ it was like entering a premodern witness protection program — in an instant a completely new and different reality replaces the old.
Having interviewed and surveyed thousands of spiritual seekers outside of mainstream religion in the United States, I am fascinated by what the name of Jesus means to people. For the most part, people who believe in God have at least a measure of respect for the man Jesus, and at most a mythic admiration for a supernatural teacher and miracle worker. Many people love Jesus — whether it is a mainline orthodox Jesus, or a third-grade Sunday school level Jesus caricature, or a Jeffrey-Hunter-King-of-Kings Jesus, or some interesting hybrid of what television, children’s books, movies, and bad theology have allowed Jesus to become. Great teacher, good man, Son of God, Messiah, Savior, kind, caring, miracle-worker, healer — almost everyone has something positive to say about “Jesus.”
It gets a little confusing when you talk about “the Christ.” Most Americans believe “Christ” is Jesus’ last name, and even a large percentage of active church members cannot explain what the title “Christ” means. While many Christians proudly speak of our trinitarian theology, the vast majority cannot explain it, and do not fully understand it. We struggle to think “theologically,” we are ill-prepared to think “Christologically.” While many fantastic and thorough Christologies have been written, not too many have been read. “The Christ” is simply Jesus — the man and the Messiah so inextricably connected that what goes for Jesus goes for the Christ as well. Most people feel positive about the whole concept of “the Christ,” just as they do about “Jesus.”
Where things get dicey, and a bit embarrassing is when it comes to “Christians.” Outside of organized religion, the name, label, and/or title “Christian” is suffering a severe image crisis. Approximately 1-in-5 people ascribe positive characteristics and behaviors to the people called “Christian.” But 3-in-5 hear about those named after Christ and the words and descriptors that come quickly to mind are such things as “hypocrites,” “judgmental,” “pompous,” “self-righteous,” “narrow-minded,” “hateful,” “angry,” “small-minded,” “annoying,” and “whiny.” (These are the top-ten words used to describe Christians from a survey of 2,633 Americans who believe in God, but don’t go to church, from an unpublished survey I did in 2004-5.) If the responsibility of honoring one’s namesake is how well we live up to our name, this should at least cause us to pause and reflect for a moment. Certainly, such a blanket indictment is not completely fair, but 2,600+ people can’t all be wrong or deluded. They must feel these things for some reason.
Somewhere between the positive feelings about “Jesus/Christ” and “Christian” falls the feelings and attitudes about the name “church.” People are conflicted about “church,” due in great part to the mixed messages of the glorious good that comes from the church along with the heinous evil perpetrated in the name of God. Dan Kimball explores the phenomenon among younger people in his book, They Like Jesus, But Not the Church. This title adequately sums up the attitude of a significant population of spiritual seekers — of all ages — in our culture. Those who call themselves “the church” have not done the best job possible preserving and protecting the name. It is easy to hear such a statement and feel defensive, especially if we are not among “those” Christians who work so hard to give “us” a bad name. But the very fact that we can defend ourselves by drawing an “us/them” dichotomy speaks to the deepest root of the problem. We are not one in Christ — we do not live up to our namesake.
While I am blathering on, I might as well finish with the most trite and cliched naming issue at work in our culture today: being “spiritual,” but not “religious.” For centuries, being religious wasn’t really an option. Choosing not to be religious often meant choosing to die young. Instead of choosing not to believe, variations developed — new “flavors” of the same old faith — resulting in the modern miasma of denominationalism and sectarianism we experience today. For centuries, the “weird” believers were marginalized and sequestered. In the couple hundred years, the “weird” simply broke off the mainstream and set up shop for themselves. Our original vision of cosmic and universal unity in the one body of Christ has splintered into thousands of incompatible shards — in essence, giving “religion” a bad name. To be “spiritual” feels better. Any individual can be spiritual — not being required to accept a set doctrine, shared beliefs and practices, or be bound by rituals and teachings. Anything goes in “spirituality,” in a way “religion” never allowed. Problem is, “spirituality” is suffering the same fate as religion — basically because so many “religious” people have decided to name themselves “spiritual,” without fundamentally changing anything.
What’s in a name? Is it merely a label? Is it a symbol of something deeper? Is it even possible to embrace the concept of shem in our church today — not just a name, but a representation of our deepest values, purpose, and identity in relationship to God’s world? And what of the name “United Methodist?” It has been a source of deep pain and discomfort whenever I visit United Methodist Churches so ashamed of our identity that they removed “United Methodist” from their signage and name. “Oh, but people are turned off by denominational labels,” they say. Or “Once we establish a good reputation, we’ll put it back in,” they explain. No one seems to question why people are suspicious of denominational names. The vast majority of Americans have no idea what makes a “United Methodist” a Methodist. And when they look at our witness to the world, and the way we promote ourselves, and the way we conduct ourselves at General Conference, and the types of videos we post on YouTube — are we living up to the name “United?” Many, many United Methodists are proud to be the UMC. I am one of them. Not that I am not deeply troubled by the way we behave, and not that I don’t think we sometimes act in ways that dishonor our name, but I do believe in my heart of hearts that we have the potential to be a great church, a wonderful witness to God, and incredible opportunity to be Christ’s body for the world. I wish it were a goal of our denomination to make “United Methodist” synonymous with mercy, justice, love, peace, grace, kindness, and joy. What a name that would be!