What’s in a name?

Meaning and significance, symbols, and metaphors

Ever since I learned in the graphic design program that I took in college that there was a school called the Bauhaus, I have been fascinated by what this scrappy, little band of artists were trying to do in the world. I even went so far as to appropriate the name for my first business in 1991. My last name is Bau and I was working out of the family home, so Bauhouse seemed appropriate, and I have been using the moniker ever since.

I am also fascinated by the Bible. I was taught to love my Bible by my parents, who are deeply committed Christian believers. I was raised by a man and a woman who met in the mid–60s at a hospital named after Saint Paul. My father was a Chinese doctor in residence, and my mother was a Caucasian nurse in training. I was conceived in the first month of their marriage.

I am also frightened by the Bible. I was taught to fear my Bible by family and church and that God, like my parents, can be arbitrarily and unpredictably angry, that you need to live a perfect life to be acceptable to the Christian church family or you will be socially excluded for breaking the laws and commandments and social norms. It was more than I could bear. Still, I persisted in trying, in spite of failing miserably.

Sometimes, when I consider the problem of evil, I often feel like Andy Partridge in his very own imprecatory psalm to this unknown god.

Dear God by XTC

Names

Names have the power to ascribe meaning to the past, present and future of a person, place or thing (animal, vegetable, and mineral). Naming the animals was a responsibility that God gave the first human, Adam, as the first symbolic act of one who had been given a position over nature, that is, a supernatural position of authority and responsibility over the earth and its creatures. Adam had both the wonderful privilege to enjoy the world, but also the grave and serious responsibility to care for, protect and steward all the natural resources of the earth. His first job, perhaps as a young man-child was to get to know his neighbours and their names and to become acquainted with the bare necessities of life. (He was bare naked, after all, but he felt no shame. What better life for a kid than to run around naked in a garden full of animals: a veritable paradise, if you ask me.)

Adam is the Hebrew word for “human,” and can also refer to “ground,” “earth,” or “clay.”

That is why the Bible refers to “them,” the “humans,” as being created as male and female. There was no hierarchy, no position of privilege or power. That is a “man-made” concept, invented by the male of the species to dominate the female by assuming a position of privilege or power. In the beginning, they were equals. Together, they form an intimate unity, by becoming one flesh, the ultimate physical manifestation of creative love, with both the wonderful ability to create new life, along with the grave and serious responsibility to care for, protect, and steward that life. Flesh gives birth to flesh. New human life comes out of the woman, so she was given the name Eve, meaning “living one” or “source of life.”

As a graphic designer, it somehow made sense to me to memorize the entire first chapter of the gospel of John, because it refers to the beginning and to the identity of the Word. The name “Word” refers to the person of Jesus, and the third person of the trinity (a mysterious three-in-one concept of the deity that is beyond the scope of this article). The name “Word” is the Greek word “logos.” If you can picture a father, a mother and a child in a divine dance, a perfect circle of familial love, I believe that is the image that God had in mind for us humans.

Logos is the logic behind an argument. Logos tries to persuade an audience using logical arguments and supportive evidence. Logos is a persuasive technique often used in writing and rhetoric.

(One could say that the U.S. President-elect is the anti-logos. None of what just happened was logical, persuasive, or an example of poetic or technical excellence in writing and rhetoric.)

The name “Jesus” is the Anglicized version of the Latin form of the Greek, which was a rendition of the original Hebrew name “Yeshua” or, what we might say in English, “Joshua.” You see, names have been passed down from one culture to another as history weaves through successive cultures, kingdoms, nation-states, and empires. The name means, “he saves,” and he is said to be the Saviour of the World.

The name “Christ” is derived from the Greek for “anointed one.” The Hebrew word is transliterated into English as “Messiah.” The nation of Israel, from the time of Samuel, would anoint the person chosen by God by performing the traditional ritual of pouring oil over the head of the individual to inaugurate the reign of the monarch, and to signify the blessing of God over the selection of the national leader. Jesus inaugurated his kingdom by declaring the year of the Lord’s favour at the beginning of his ministry. One might say that his anointing came from his Father in the form of a dove. Here again, we have a picture of the divine unity and diversity, this time expressed in the shared regal authority of the Godhead.

Saint Paul was once known as Saul, before his divine appointment with his Jewish Messiah on the road to Damascus. Saul’s identity had been formed over the entire course of his life as both a Jew, a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, and a Roman citizen from the city of Tarsus. Under the discipleship of Gamaliel, he mastered his profession and may even have sought the privilege of becoming the law and order candidate for the supreme court of his land, making a name for himself as chief of police in the defence of Jewish religious law and national purity. He was tasked with the cleansing of his land of the seditious revolutionary religious sect, called “the way.” Saul sees the light, when he encounters Jesus as a bright light that blinds him and asks, “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus gives Saul a new name, Paul, and his perspective and life are transformed.

My first name is Stephen. It is an Anglicized version of the Greek name, “Stephanos.” It is a Biblical name that means “crown,” or literally “that which surrounds.”

Stephen is regarded as the first martyr of the earlier Christian church period. He gets two whole chapters in the book of Acts dedicated to his story.

Now, imagine how that image of one’s final destination disturbs the heart of a child as he considers his impending and imminent death on a daily basis. I really took these names and words of the Bible to heart. For someone who never wanted to see the movie, Signs, I am the guy who tends to see signs everywhere.

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Signs by M. Night Shyamalan

It’s only natural. I am a graphic designer. I make symbols and signs for a living, including things called logos.

But I cannot help seeing the supernatural in everything.

My middle name is Samuel. It is another Biblical name that means “God has heard.” A woman named Hannah is infertile, but she prays to God and he hears her prayer for a child, whom she calls Samuel. She dedicates Samuel to serve in God’s dwelling, an elaborate tent called the Tabernacle.

Samuel, as a young apprentice to his mentor, the priest, Eli, often has a hard time getting to sleep. I wonder if he sometimes wondered if God was there, if God could hear his prayers, or whether his parents ever loved him, if they could abandon him to their silent, invisible God. In this instance, his mother had left him to be raised by a man with two lying, lazy drunks for children. It must have been a lonely life for a child. It also must have been difficult to avoid delusions of grandeur, and a sense of self-righteousness and superiority, given the provenance of his name and his providential position as next in line to the priesthood.

During one of these sleepless nights, Samuel thinks he is hearing his master, Eli, calling him three times. After the second time, Eli prompts Samuel to ask, “Speak, LORD, your servant is listening.”

When Samuel grows older and assumes the role of priest, he is also the prophet with the task of working with unruly people who have given up on the rule of law and would rather take matters into their own hands and do what everyone else is doing. This flat hierarchical structure and creative collaboration under the wise guidance of a loving God doesn’t seem to be working so well, not because God doesn’t know what he’s doing, but that the people can’t quite pull their act together and behave with fairness, justice and mercy with their neighbours. So, they have an idea. They want a king, just like all the other nations who are popular, powerful and prolific.

God says that it’s not a good idea. But he has given people free will, so they choose their own way. God finds a king, through his prophet, Samuel, that towers over everyone. Saul looks like a leader. So, the people install him as their first ever king. But, the whole sordid business devolves into an evil empire, because of the king’s moral failures.

So, Samuel goes looking for another king and stumbles across a young boy, named David. Samuel anoints David, the one whose destiny as king would be to establish the plan to build the temple in Jerusalem to replace the tabernacle in which God’s presence dwells.

Prophets, priests and kings

Leadership is less a position than a calling. I have no idea what I am supposed to do with my life. Life has been arbitrary and unpredictable in some ways, infused with hidden meaning, purpose and direction in other ways. Yet, in some ways, the names I have been given and the names I give myself can overwhelm and shame if I don’t know how to live up to these histories, realities and aspirations.

I keep stumbling across people who have helped me find a direction, with a vague sense of purpose that there is something to all of these signs and symbols. My names just make me aware of the seemingly supernatural significance of mundane reality. It is a small glimpse through a dark glass into a parallel reality all around us.

Underneath all of these ancient stories is a hidden mystery that reveals slowly over time. At first, nothing makes sense and the chaos of life is an impenetrable veil of confusion and darkness that covers us like a heavy, wet veil of anxiety, fear, panic, and conscious torment that steals our ability to breathe the breath of life.

Yet, there are times when light and a different lens in the form of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation brings clarity of sight and a fresh wind and breath that revives the spirit, rending the veil of confusion and bringing back to life the only things that will ever last: faith, hope, and love out of what was once only death.

Why is there evil? These are light and momentary troubles that do not compare to the amazing, wonderful world that will be revealed. Something terrible happened only to make possible the unfathomable and inconceivable that could not have come to reality any other way. We prepare only to be marvellously surprised by the mystery we cannot now understand. Childhood, as life, is a series of attempts to emulate something that is not possible until one grows, through pain and suffering, and transforms into the being that is our destiny.

I am reminded of a caterpillar named Patti, a character in a story my mother used to read to us when we were children. A perplexed little caterpillar dreamed about the wonders of flight. Little did she realize that she too would fall asleep one day and finally wake up transformed to realize her dream.

Standing on the Rock

Our world has been confronted by evil. People are choosing sides. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which side is which. Other times, it couldn’t be more clear. Whether we believe in these old stories, may not be the issue as much as how we respond to the challenges of our times.

What I remember from Sunday School is that it is usually best to choose to be second than to be first. In the story of Daniel, he tended to be the last one standing, while successive demagogues and empires fell. In the dream, the mountain became a rock and the great idol fell.

Is this the sign of our times, that we best take our stand? Will we be Saul or will we be Paul? We choose our own identity by how we stand. Can we find our balance? Shall we stand or shall we fall?

The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”

“A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.

1 Peter 2:7–8

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

Matthew 7:24

What does it matter what you call yourself?

If you call yourself Christian,
that may not mean you are following the path Jesus walked.
If you call yourself Evangelical,
that may not mean you are offering good news.
If you call yourself American,
that may not mean you are including all of the Americas.

Call yourself whatever you like,
it only matters what you stand for.

Shall we stand for the profane or the sacred?
Shall we stand for the insiders or the outsiders?
Shall we stand for exclusion or inclusion?
Shall we stand for division or unity?
Shall we stand for violence or for peace?
Shall we stand for hatred or for love?
Shall we stand for lies or for truth?

Christiane Amanpour standing for truth

Written by

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design. https://stephenbau.com

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