Posted by: Keith Clark | November 10, 2011

The Changing of Names

A few months ago, I read The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry. Ever since I read the book I haven’t been able to shake from my thoughts Berry’s portrayal of a particular episode in Jack’s life.

Old Jack, as he’s growing older, realizes he wants to pass on his farm to his daughter and son-in-law when he dies, but they have no clue how to take care of a farm. The farm beside his comes up for sale and he floats before his wealthy son-in-law, Glad Pettit, the idea of buying it. If he’ll buy it, Glad can learn from Jack how to tend a farm before Jack is too old to teach him. Glad, who’s enamored solely with making money (“he wants to lend money to people to make worthless things and buy worthless things”), has no desire whatsoever to go to the trouble of buying the farm and learning to tend it. Disappointed with Glad’s refusal, Old Jack, who “never had called Glad Pettit by name–they were too different, too distant from each other, for that,” took to calling [Glad] ‘Irvin.'” While Jack’s daughter thinks he renames Glad simply as an outgrowth of his childishness, but Mat, Jack’s nephew, knows better: “[Old Jack] had renamed Glad Pettit to signify that he was done with him” (139).

As I read those words, I was reminded of a guy who refused ever to call me by my name. Instead, he simply called me “preacher.” I’m sure most interpreted it much the way Jack’s daughter interpreted his calling Glad “Irvin”: it must just be an outgrowth of his childishness. At the time I had a hunch there was another reason, but I couldn’t quite place it. After reading Old Jack, though, I finally figured it out: he was signifying he was done with me.

There are all kinds of ways we can signify we are done with others. For some, it’s refusing to call a person by his or her name, or by renaming them. For others, it’s using a certain tone when calling a person by his or her name. Avoidance, passive-aggression, pure aggression only skim the surface of the additional available means for signifying we’re done with others. I’m sad to say I’ve not only been on the receiving end; I’ve used a few of these before. Perhaps you have, too. The truth is these means provide us a way of propping up an inner sense of superiority in a way that others often cannot see.

Not long after I thought about the guy who refused to ever call me by name, I thought about Jacob, whom God renames Israel, and I thought of Simon, whom Jesus renames Peter. In both cases, new names are given not as a means of signifying an end, but rather a new beginning. Jacob, renamed Israel, now symbolizes the hope of what God desires to accomplish through relationship with him and his descendants. Simon, renamed Peter, now symbolizes the hope of what Jesus desires to accomplish through relationship with him and his spiritual descendants.

What if I were to give up the means by which I can be done with people? What if instead I were to embrace the means by which I can start fresh with people, the means by which I can symbolize the hope of something greater? Surely that’s the direction in which I’d grow if I were to take seriously God’s desire to transform me into the image of Jesus.



  1. Great insight, Keith. I think that we say so much about how we feel about others simply in how we address them. Thanks for this post.

    • Thanks Spruce! You’re exactly right!

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