What's in a Name?



Just when it seems as though nothing more can be said about the Joe Paterno/Penn State scandal, some new wrinkle comes to light, a disturbing new revelation about who knew what when arises, or, in this case, someone writes a book. Journalist Joe Posnanski’s Paterno, which was released on Tuesday is the authorized story (unprecedented access was granted to Posnanski by the Paterno family, including Joe) from behind the proverbial battle lines. Excerpts from the book were published in the September issue of GQ magazine, and one quotation is particularly interesting. “My name,” the Hall of Fame coach was quoted as saying, “I have spent my whole life trying to make that name mean something. And now it’s gone.”

There is a truism in theological anthropology (the study of humankind as it relates to God) that states that as one’s opinion of oneself rises, one’s need for a savior falls. In other words, the higher your view of your moral quality, the less likely you are to acknowledge your failings. The inverse is also true: as your anthropology falls, your Christology will rise. The worse off you see humans as naturally being, the more powerful you need Christ to be. In mathematics terms, these two variables are “inversely proportionate.” They fall and rise in relation to one another, but always in the opposite direction.

So often, our downfalls come at the very times when we think we’ve crested a hill, when we’re finally ready to “make a name for ourselves.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as your car breaking down the minute you finally found the end table that perfectly suits your living room. Isn’t this always the case? Our lives seem incapable of being all put together at once. There is a theological reason for this: God, as the saying goes, is in the business of tearing down our idols, and the most precious idol in each of our lives is our own self-sufficiency: the quality of our name.

When someone hears our name, we want them to think of competence, even excellence: attractiveness, wisdom, and a razor-sharp sense of humor. The last thing we want associated with our name is the phrase “paralyzing need.” As we build the mythology of our name in our mind, we do everything we can to associate it with success: a high anthropology. This leads inevitably to a low Christology—when and where we think our name is great there is no room in the equation, no need, for the one whose “name is above every name.” But when we fall? Or, more accurately, when our true nature is revealed? The name we spent so long cultivating is revealed to be a hollow husk, surrounding a rotten core. It is usually only when we are forced to—when our name is gone, as Joe Pa put it—that we can acknowledge the true state of our humanity: sufferer, sinner, nameless.

But the good news is this: our name is not ours to make or break; it is God’s to give (Gen. 35:10). And this name, the peace and identity that God gives in Jesus, can never be “gone;” it is written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 13:8; cf. Luk. 10:20).
Joe Paterno spent his whole life trying to make his name mean something; something other than what our names all mean: desperately in need of a savior. Praise God that He knows our true names, and sent us just the savior we needed.

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