Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
2 Corinthians 5:17
The story of the loss and regaining of identity is, I think, the framework of all literature. —Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination
Wearing name tags can be awkward at times. I’m not talking about the adhesive kind with the “HELLO My Name Is” that we use for social gatherings. I mean the more subtle descriptions that we often tag onto a name. Think about the associative tags we use to describe many of the twelve disciples. When referring to the two disciples who both share the same name “James,” it is common to speak of the son of Zebedee as “James the Greater” and of the son of Alpheus as “James the Less.” Certainly, it would be flattering to be regarded as “the Greater,” but who wants to be known as “the Less”? Or take the infamous “Doubting Thomas,” for example. What kind of tag is “Doubting,” and how does it influence our understanding of this disciple? I argue that this tag is dubious, distorting our perception of the Gospel story’s lasting impact upon him. After all, Thomas is the first disciple to confess Jesus’ true divinity when he exclaims, “My Lord, even my God!” (John 20:28). Should we not better speak of him as, say, “Believing Thomas”—or perhaps even better as “Thomas the Confessor”—remembering and celebrating his Gospel transformation from despair-ridden doubt to hope-filled faith?
How we describe a character says a lot about how we understand a story. Rahab, of course, is another case in point. For most of us, if we were to fill in the blank for “Rahab the _____,” we no doubt would think, “prostitute.” Yet another unfortunate modifier, is it not? To be fair, it is helpful to know that the preacher of Hebrews does say, “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies” (11:31). But notice the stress of his description accentuates her lasting faith, not her former prostitution. Marvelously, the preacher juxtaposes the priority of her righteous obedience over her previously sinful lifestyle to call our attention to her Gospel transformation. So why are we still inclined to tag her name with “prostitute,” perpetuating her association with sin, rather than with righteousness? Does commonly speaking of “Rahab the prostitute” reveal our understanding of the Gospel’s remarkable transformation of her identity? I think not. I suggest we follow Matthew’s example, who made no mention of Rahab as “the prostitute,” when he named her in his gospel’s genealogy of Jesus (1:5).
Implicitly, we remember someone’s character by reference to his or her name. A name like Adolf Hitler justly resonates in our memories in the infamy of his evil. Blessedly, though, we remember the apostle to the Gentiles as Paul and not Saul. In His wisdom and grace, our Lord saw to this by changing this apostle’s name upon his conversion. Formerly, Saul of Tarsus persecuted Christians, but following his Gospel transformation, he proclaimed Christ. Jesus so pervasively changed Paul’s identity that He christened him with this new name to mark the lasting difference (Acts 13:9). Our Lord did the same for another apostle, renaming Simon as Peter to designate his faithful obedience in following Jesus as the Christ (John 1:42). Appropriately, the Church now speaks of Peter and Paul as two of her holy apostles, no longer calling them by their former names, because they are not the persons those names once represented. By remembering their new names, then, we celebrate our understanding of the Gospel story—of how they became “new creations in Christ.”
In Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers from his Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is a profound moment when the hero-hobbit Frodo confers a descriptive tag upon his faithful companion that is worthy of Sam’s transformed character:
Sam: “I wonder if we’ll ever be put into songs or tales.”
Sam: “I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring.’ And they’ll say, ‘Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the most famousest of hobbits. And that’s saying a lot.’”
Frodo: “You’ve left out one of the chief characters—Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam. Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.”
Sam: “Now, Mr. Frodo, you shouldn’t make fun; I was being serious.”
Frodo: “So was I.”
Sam: “Samwise the Brave...”
By calling his friend “Samwise the Brave,” Frodo reveals his understanding of Sam’s character, as it has been forged by the story of the Ring. So when we follow Frodo’s lead by remembering Samwise the Brave, we show that we understand Tolkien’s fantastical retelling of the Gospel story.
What, then, do we do with a name like Rahab? How might we tag her name in a way that would show that we understand the Spirit’s telling of the Gospel story? Come to think of it, “Rahab the Brave” may be a good start. After all, the spies wouldn’t have got far without her.