Names and Titles
A reflection on crosscultural worship experiences
Joel Payne is currently living Huancayo, a city high in the Peruvian Andes, with his wife Rhiannon. Having spent the previous 14 years working in UK churches as a worship pastor, he is now taking time out to help with a local Peruvian church. What follows is part of a series of reflections on the cultural differences he has encountered and the way they have impacted his experience of, and approach to, worship.
My English bible says the LORD to translate the word YHWH, or the name of God. The most popular Spanish translation translates it Jehová.
My English worship songs are broadly addressed to Jesus. Songs originating in Latin America, and those translated from the English, address Cristo. Or Christ, which means anointed one or messiah, with strongly royal overtones.
This may, at first sight, appear to be a simple matter of translation. But when we consider that our worship is an expression of relationship with God, in which we address God and relate to him, the difference between name and title becomes more important because, in sometimes subtle ways, it can define and influence the nature of that relationship.
The name of God
For a little while now I’ve had a beef with the way the NIV translates ‘YHWH’, the tetragrammaton, or the name of God. I expect the Bible translators know what they’re doing really, but it does make one important difference here. It was the name given to Moses when he met God in the burning bush. Previously God had been known as the ‘God of Abraham’, or the ‘God of Isaac’. He was known in reference to his relationship with someone else. In giving Moses, and Israel, his name he was telling them that they too could know him. For this reason, the ‘name’ of God was of high importance to Israel. When Solomon built the temple, he was at pains to make it clear that this was the place where God’s name dwelled. The temple was the place where God would reside among his people, the proof that God could be known, in particular because he had given his name. (This is a woefully short summary of the significance of God’s name, but helpful for our purposes here).
But the name of God was considered so precious and holy that it fell out of spoken usage. For fear of breaking the third commandment, devout Israelites wouldn’t utter the name, instead substituting the Hebrew word for ‘Lord’: ‘Adonai’. This tradition continued when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, using the word ‘Kyrios’. And subsequently, English translators have broadly followed this pattern; many English bibles have the text ‘the LORD’ when translating the name of God, albeit in special capitals.
What is the problem with this? Well the name of God appears in abundance in the Old Testament. God originally gave Moses, and Israel, a name by which he could be known, a sign of their special access to him. With time this became so revered that instead of promoting closeness to God it was feared, causing not closeness but separation, to the extent that it was avoided altogether and a title used in preference. Now, when we read our Bibles, in the places where God’s name would appear, we find instead this title: the Lord.
It’s unusual these days for people to use their formal names. For most of us the extent of formality is ‘Mr Someone’ or ‘Miss Someone’. It’s a form of address used of teachers, to establish a distance between them and the class. It would be too familiar for children to know their name; the teacher must remain ‘different‘ from the class. They’re used sometimes by older generations to younger, to imply a necessary respect. Extrapolate to official titles: consider the difference between meeting the Queen of England and being told either, ‘Call me Your Majesty,’ or, ‘Call me Elizabeth.’ The difference is substantial; the first says ‘keep your distance’, the second says ‘you can know me’. When we translate the entirety of the Old Testament substituting a title for a name, we add a degree of distance, using a name which was originally a means of access.
Here in Peru, we often sing the psalms, which are littered with God’s name. They certainly feel quite different and personal, at times almost inappropriately familiar.
The name of Jesus
In the New Testament the name motif is carried through into Jesus. He becomes the ‘name above all other names’, the way in which God can be known and the means of access to God. He is referred to as the Lord, once used to replace the name of God. For this reason, in the English speaking world, take that name on our lips with great joy and devotion, particularly in worship. But here, in Peru, they take the same songs we sing and translate Jesus as Christo. Jesus is a name and Christ is a title. As above, they mean different things in the context of a relationship.
There is, of course, a good reason why the Latins use this terminology.
I met Jesus recently. In fact I went for lunch with him. Along with his wife and two children. He lives in one of the more prestigious parts of Huancayo and is one of thousands called Jesus in the city, probably one of millions in South America. Jesus is an incredibly popular name here, as such it doesn’t seem all that special. But to sing to Cristo is powerful; it’s not just another name but a special title given to the saviour of the world. Interestingly, the early Christians had a similar issue. A recent study has found that the name Jesus (in it’s Hebrew form) was the fifth most popular name for boys at the time that Jesus Christ lived. His earthly father, Joseph, had the second most popular name. It’s little wonder that, apart from its theological significance, his title Christ was so commonly attached to his given name, rather than ‘son of Joseph’ or something similar.
What does this all mean for worship?
To approach somebody using their title is quite different to approaching them using their name. A title commands respect, a name implies intimacy. A title creates distance, a name removes it. A title is impersonal, a name personal. A title is separating, a name inviting. We find both in abundance in the Bible but broadly stick to one or the other for God the Father and God the Son. In England Lord and Jesus. In Peru, Jehová and Cristo.
What would happen if we flipped them round? What would happen in our worship if we pointedly used the other: Yahweh (the english version of Jehová) for the Lord? Christ for Jesus? Could we find ways to embrace one, where the other is more common? Would the psalms take on a whole new personality if they were addressed to a person? Would we approach the throne of grace in prayer with more confidence? And would our intimate songs to Jesus be transformed if we limited ourselves to calling him Christ - no longer primarily a friend, but an anointed king? Would we unlock new depths in worship by nothing more than a change of address? It might be worth a try.