Thursday, 29 May 2008

What's in a name?

There's an interesting article on the Religious News Service here by Shona Crabtree on the nameless heroes - and heroines - of biblical narratives.

The article quotes Adele Reinhartz, professor of religious studies at the University of Ottawa, who is the author of "Why Ask My Name? Anonymity and Identity in Biblical Narrative".

Reinhartz notes that while there are actually more unnamed men than women in the Bible, proportionally within each gender, there are more unnamed women."The cultural context that gave rise to the Bible is very male oriented. So it's not only that the culture more highly values males and gives them most of the authority and leadership, but also the text itself was largely authored by men, and so they're naturally going to focus on themselves."
The article also quotes Karla Bohmbach, religion professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove as saying that the power of naming starts at the very beginning of the Bible. God named the heavens and the earth, but didn't assign names to Adam and Eve until after they had sinned. Adam was also given the power to name all the animals - and his wife. "Naming denotes a sort of authority over that person". In post-biblical texts, starting around 200 B.C. and going all the way through the 13th century, Jewish rabbis and others bestowed names on the nameless. Assigning names to previously anonymous biblical figures was part of a broader tradition of enriching and explaining biblical stories.
This discussion reminds me of the powerful title of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's key feminist theology text In Memory of Her, about the woman who annoints Jesus with perfume and whose story is still told in memory of what she did. Nameless, she often gets confused with Mary Magdelene, Fiorenza reclaims her witness and act of faith.
The article also made me think about names and namelessness in the parables of Jesus which we've been studying in our feminist theology group this year: A sower went out to sow; A man had two sons; What woman does not take a lamp; a rich man ... a wise man ... a foolish man ... wise virgins ... foolish virgins. Somehow I don't want Jesus' parables to be about Freda or Malcolm or Pascal, the situations speak more universally because those involved remain real people but nameless. Perhaps these stories thrown down next to other stories, thrown down next to the story of people's lives, have to have characters who remain nameless in order for us to be able at different times in our lives to name the people and situations in them. Perhaps the characters serve more as archetypes when they are nameless.
There are always stories in our names, identities and power we weave around naming. Does getting hung up on naming people detract or add to the driving force of the biblical narratives? What do you think?

Crabtree's article ends with this thought:
Ultimately, the multiple interpretations and names for unnamed biblical figures speak to the human need for narrative and finding meaning."That's what we really learn from these texts -- the power of narrative and the drive to create it, to transmit it, to think about it, to use it as a way of understanding spiritual truth," said Reinhartz.