In 1985, Ursula LeGuin published a work of short fiction in the New Yorker titled, “She Unnames Them”. I read it a few years later for a college English class and it was one of those pivotal moments for me. Lightbulbs. Choirs of Angels. The whole deal. I’ve never let that story get too far from me. My copy is well read, and has been oft shared.
I won’t offer a brief synopsis of the story because I’d rather let you encounter the story for yourself.
But this story caused a seismic shift in my understanding of the power of words. As you can infer from the title, the story involves a woman who unnames things. She encourages them to let go of the names that others have given them and claim names for themselves. By the act of unnaming them, she invites them to be responsible for their own stories and lives and names.
And I’ve struggled with names my whole life. Adopted daughter. Middle child. Fat. Statuesque. Smart. Strong. Confident. Fearless. Woman. Pregnant. Wife. Mother. Pastor. Leader. Beautiful. Feminist. So many names have been given to me—and not all of them bad. But the weight of them is hard to bear some days.
They don’t always seem to fit. Fearless? That’s someone else. Strong? Can’t be me. Beautiful? Don’t get me started. Can barely type the word.
On my better days, I remember LeGuin’s story, and I unname myself. I let go of how other people have named me. On my really good days, I let go of how I have named myself.
I give words such power. And yet I have such difficulty wresting that power back from them when it becomes unwieldy.
The words with which I spend my day are often the words of Scripture. I preach them. I proclaim them. And yet I often feel they need some unnaming as well. Women should be silent? Unname. Homosexuality is an abomination? Unname. Slaves should obey their masters? Unname.
We have given the words of Scripture power to hurt people, and we hide behind the name of “Holy” to justify it. How could words possibly be Holy if they wound? We have much unnaming to do.
As the theologian Macklemore has said in his song “Same Love”,
“If you preach hate at the service, those words aren’t anointed”.
Amen, sir. We are called to un-anoint hate, to unname it, to lay it down by the roadside of history and leave it there to be explored, to be seen, but not to be embraced or carried on down the road.
Scripture is also full of unnamed people, people whose stories and perspectives aren’t written in the text.
Noah’s wife—what was her name? What did she think of his building project as the neighbors stood at the fence and mocked him?
Sarai, Abram’s wife—what did she think about the name change she received late in life, becoming Sarah? Did she ever miss hearing the sound of Sarai as people called her by the other name? Is Sarah the name she would have chosen for herself? And how did she feel when she heard about the whole child sacrifice on Mt Moriah business?
Moses’ mother—what was her name? (edited to add: Jochabed, but how often do you hear her mentioned by name?) And what was she feeling as she placed her son in a reed basket and entrusted him to God as he floated on the waters of a crocodile infested river?
I could go on and on—so many perspectives on the Divine story that are not told in Scripture.
I feel these stories rising up, begging to be told, this Divine narrative that must be shared, these words that must be spoken. Because while some things must be unnamed, there are others still waiting to name themselves, to be born on their own terms and with their own stories.
LeGuin’s story ends with this awareness, after the unnaming:
“My words must be as slow, as new, as single, as tentative as the steps I took going down the path away from the house, between the dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining.”
And so I will be cautious with my words, the names with which I quickly want to label others and myself. I will give people the space and grace to unname themselves. I will seek to do the same for myself. And I will remember that the Divine story is still being written. God’s creative story didn’t end when they closed the canon. God is still naming and unnaming.
It is a weighty gift to be a preacher, to be entrusted with the stories of God and God’s people. Our words can invite people to unname themselves. In the act of proclamation, we can remind ourselves that God still speaks words of grace, and love, and mercy. May our words heal. May they be evocative. May they lead us into new narratives. May they give birth to beauty and joy. May our words be both true and courageous. May they draw us into the creative and life-giving work of the Divine in our world.
Let’s get to it. We have much unnaming to do.