What’s in a name? (Hint: a lot more than you might expect)

What something or someone is called matters.

I ruminated a bit on this after reading Sharon Bially’s post on Writer Unboxed, “Simple Promo Tip: Call Your Book By Its Name.” Revolutionary, I know. But I’ve been guilty of this nameless reference making.

Worse, I refer to them by number, as if anyone really cares about the order I wrote them.

I’ve called these works The Cruelest Month and A Certain Slant of Light. (The current work in progress has a working title of Green-Eyed, but I’m hoping to change that.) Both are literary allusions—Eliot/ Chaucer and Dickinson—which may give an indication of their tone, if not their content.

Imagine the difference if I’d titled these books Braindead or Sex Slave. Face it, Juliet was wrong: Romeo wouldn’t be the same dude if he’d been named Bob Smith or Mortimer Jones; it matters that he’s Romeo. (For starters, he wouldn’t have been a Montague, and he and Julie wouldn’t have been star-crossed at all, just hormonal.)

A book’s title is important. It gives the work, even in the shapeless first draft mess, an identity.

My second novel never had a working title. It didn’t have a working anything, really, which is why I abandoned it after a year. Now it languishes on my laptop, a folder titled Novel 2, containing documents called Draft 1, Draft 2, and Draft 3. Perhaps I should retitle the folder Learning Experience because that’s all I got from that year of work.

Changing the name alters that identity, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. I’m certain that an editor would want me to change my chosen titles; the first is the title of a Louise Penny novel (I didn’t know that at the time) and the second is the title of a YA paranormal book (I didn’t know that, either.) From a marketing perspective, changing the titles would seem to be wise.

But how would the books change? Or would it be my perspective of the books that would change?

Our titles reflect our philosophy, and that extends beyond the art of novel-naming. They show our perspective on things as diverse as theology and business, gender and sexuality. (See Elizabeth Mallory’s post on defining bisexuality and queerness, and her response to my question about why the term homosexual might not be acceptable. Informative.)

In my particular area of the country, I’ve noticed a curious thing in conservative churches. Women might be the leader of a particular ministry, but she will be called the “director” of that ministry. In contrast, a man in the same position, performing the same duties, but he might be called the “minister” rather than the “director.”

In part, it’s a matter of education. In the churches where I’ve observed this, the men in those positions have been to seminary and ordained, and the women typically hadn’t. That’s a legitimate difference. But it doesn’t always apply: sometimes, the women graduated from seminary; rarely, they’re ordained in a different denomination.

In the latter cases, I’ve wondered if the alteration from minister to director is as much about pacifying the male-leaders-only crowd as about education and ordination.

If that’s true, here’s a question (or four):

  • What view of gender does this show?
  • What does this communicate to the other women and men within the congregation, including the children?
  • What does it communicate to others outside the church?
  • Does it hold true to scripture on spiritual gifts, leadership, relationships between the genders, and God’s view of people? (That should be my first question!)

These are questions Christians should consider. They’re big and controversial and contentious. Sometimes compromise is necessary. Discussion and active listening is definitely necessary.

But I will add this caution:

What isn’t necessary is for Christians on each end of the spectrum to arm themselves with Bible verses and sling them at those on the other end, as if they are David fighting Goliath. Only our fellow church members aren’t Goliath; usually they’re people trying to be faithful to God’s word, sometimes knowing that they may not have everything totally right, and sometimes a little overconfident in their exegesis. Referring to the “opposition” in belittling terms doesn’t bring about peace or understanding, either.

Imagine if I signed a book contract, my editor wanted to change the book title, and I started throwing lines from Chaucer, Eliot, and Dickinson at her.

Imagine how ridiculous it would be for me to insist that I knew what was best on Every Single Thing, even if I had no experience in those areas.

Imagine me becoming “that author”: the prima donna, the one with the reputation for being difficult, the one that my agent and editor groaned about each time I called.

Ridiculous, right?

But sometimes, when faced with difficult issues (and not just gender role ones), church members behave this way. 

So when I talk about gender in church, I want to be careful that, in referencing those who don’t agree with my position, I don’t communicate or promote an attitude of arrogance: I know better than they do, Women are better than men, aren’t they stupid not to see this, etc. 

I’ll try to behave better than that, and I hope that we can learn to discuss difficult topics with respect and love toward other people.





4 thoughts on “What’s in a name? (Hint: a lot more than you might expect)

  1. I completely agree with you, Laura. I have been thinking along these lines myself. I have been reading a book called, Emotional Intelligence, (I can’t remember the author off the top of my head) but I found it interesting that he was able to share helpful insights in a ways that are not dismissive, or coming across in an authoritative manner. This is not a Christian book, but the information was presented in a manner that was reasonable, gracious and backed up by research. Kind of like the wisdom that James referred to when he gave the guidelines for evaluating instruction. In some ways I think the Christian community would benefit from this kind of approach when offering opinions about different topics. I don’t mean to make generalizations, I know there are Christians that do this. However, there seem to be plenty out there that in their zeal to be counter-cultural, they come off as pompous, or worse self-righteous and unapproachable in their authority. That’s why I appreciate reading here, your method of writing is full of grace and willingness to hear the opposing opinions. May we all learn to do this!


    1. Thank you! I’ve been wanting to read Emotional Intelligence for a while, and now you’ve increased my interest in this book. I’m glad that you find my writing filled with grace. That makes me happy, because it’s really hard for me to read how my writing “reads” to others.


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