About seven years ago, I joined the ranks of parents who name their child something unusual. My husband and I fell in love with the name Zora and gifted our first daughter with that name. In advance of her birth, we shared the name with only one relative, fearful that someone would grimace or try to talk us out of it.
She’s grown into the name, and it’s grown on others. People tell us they love the name, that it fits our little spitfire of a daughter perfectly. Last year, Zora and I had a charming 20-minute discussion with a woman who overheard me calling her by name and marveled that my tow-headed daughter was named after one of the great authors of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston.
According to Jaleesa Martin, she chose the name Messiah for her 7-month-old son not because of meaning, but because of sound (her older children have names that begin with M as well). And Messiah is not as much of an outlier as you might think. It was 387th in popularity for boys in 2012 and fourth in the rate of its increase in popularity between 2011 and 2012. But this past week, when Martin and the boy’s father appeared in court over a dispute, the child-support magistrate, Lu Ann Ballew, ordered them to change his first name, since, “The word Messiah is a title and it's a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” She cited concerns that this child would grow up facing problems in a predominantly Christian community with the name Messiah.
Naming was a gift to us right from the beginning.
Messiah is not my first choice for a name. I agree, if you know the literal meaning, that it’s quite a bit of pressure to place on a child. But I’m not completely convinced it’s sacrilegious or disrespectful. I also think of all the baby boys who shared Jesus’ given name (Yeshua) at the time of His birth, the current popularity of that name in Hispanic culture and the banality of the anglicized Joshua. And then there are those who carry names that incorporate the Greek word for Messiah: Christopher, Christian, Krister. There’s a longstanding tradition within Christianity of names with meaning that honor the One whom we follow and whose name we bear. There’s also a longstanding tradition of people giving names even if they’re unaware of the name’s meaning. How many of us have picked a name for the sound alone?
Naming was a gift to us right from the beginning, when God presented Adam with all the animals and gave him the pleasure of assigning them names. I’ve always thought this to be one of the most wonderfully whimsical moments in the Bible. Naming is one of the loveliest ways we share with God in the act of creation. I like to imagine Adam’s delight as he discovered the good feel of language on his tongue. I like to think he assigned the names with some humor and wordplay (just as his own name means “the man” and is a play on the word for the earth out of which God formed him).
If creativity is one of the ways we bear God’s image, and if sound and meaning and language are meant to be a delight to our senses, why not allow there to be some freedom and play in our names? And if we are allowed creativity, there will likely be issues of taste, culture and class that come into play. But surely a Messiah who gave one of His closest and most mercurial friends the nickname Peter (“The Rock”) will allow us some leeway in our own naming.