A. Trevor Sutton: The biblical power of names

istock/Life on White

Getting to know the creatures in his backyard prompts a Christian writer to consider the power of names. Authentic relationships are crucial, and we cannot truly care for something that we do not truly know.

What does the fox say? I can tell you exactly what the fox says; it sounds something like a dog with laryngitis. A barking fox sounds like it’s in desperate need of an Altoid.

Last winter I became an expert in what the fox says. Our backyard was, for the entire month of January, fiercely contested territory between a fox and a cat.

It began one night when my wife woke me up in a panic. She was startled by a horrible sound outside in the backyard. I dutifully got out of bed to investigate the noise. I peered out my back window to see a heroic standoff between a rusty red fox and a fluffy white cat.

This nightly quarrel continued for a month. It always sounded as though the fox was winning. The cat, however, had claimed a shrub as her bulwark, and she defended it with gusto. After an uninterrupted month of yipping and yapping, the battle suddenly stopped.

It is likely that one ultimately bested the other. I prefer to think that the engagement ended on amicable terms of capitulation.

Since he was a nightly visitor to our backyard, we gave the fox a name. We called him Michael. His full name was Michael J. Fox. It became a sort of shorthand when our sleep was interrupted. My wife would wake me up and say, “It sounds like Michael is back to fight another day.”

Michael is not the only creaturely visitor to our backyard. Our backyard is a menagerie: Tina the turkey and her 10 children, Jimmy the deer and Sandy the sandhill crane.

One favorite is a mint-green tree frog named Dilbert. He claimed the front door as his territory. In the summer, when the porch light was on, Dilbert would eat his fill of bugs swarming around the bulb. It was oddly comforting to come home and find Dilbert guarding the gateway to our house.

I always feel a bit sheepish when I tell people that I have named the animals in my backyard. People look at me like I am 5 years old when I tell them that I have named a tree frog. (Thankfully, we have a young daughter to legitimize all this silliness.)

There is, however, something biblical about naming the animals. Adam, drawn from the same clump of earth as the other creatures, was charged with the task of naming them: “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19 ESV).

Names have generative power. A name generates affection by moving something from the realm of generality into the realm of particularity. That is not just any fox; that is Michael J. Fox, the scrappy nighttime fighter. That is not just any tree frog; that is Dilbert, the faithful defender of our front door. That’s not just any turkey; that’s Tina with her chicks. Once a creature is particularly known, that creature can be particularly cared for and celebrated.

Names also have a locative power. My backyard is not just any ecosystem and habitat; it is a specific home to specific creatures. Along with the other creatures, I am raising my family in this specific place. It is a unique place filled with unique creatures, quirks and memories.

Adam’s charge to name the animals is not a cutesy mythical story. The responsibility of ruling over creation given in Genesis 1:28 invites us to know the creation and creatures under our care.

This is one of the most important acts of leadership -- knowing those who work for and with us. Authentic relationships are crucial, and we cannot truly care for something that we do not truly know.

God did not ask Adam to care for ecosystems, habitats and animals; rather, God asked him to name the other creatures and thereby know the other creatures. From this place of proximity and personal knowledge, Adam was placed in the garden to “work it and care for it” (Genesis 2:15).

Christ, from a place of proximity and personal knowledge, cared for his creation. He is the embodiment of God’s intimate care and protection. Rather than loving us from afar, God entered into our habitat and knew it personally by his incarnation.

Jesus did not enter into a nameless and placeless world; he was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. He did not engage an abstract people to be his disciples; he called specific individuals by the names of Peter, James, Thomas, Judas. He grieved the death of Lazarus because he knew Lazarus.

Jesus worked the salvation of all creation from a place of close proximity. He cared for the eternal well-being of his creatures with intimate knowledge.

Close proximity and intimate knowledge have caused us to love the creatures in our backyard. Sadly, however, we have not seen Michael J. Fox for a few months now. We last saw him bounding through the grass at the edge of our yard. Though the grass was more than 3 feet tall, he sprang high above it with ease.

It has been many months since that day, but we still talk about him and often speak his name.