Sinéad O’Connor, Anne Lamott, and the many names of God

Sinéad O’Connor, Anne Lamott, and the many names of God July 26, 2013

Sinéad O’Connor is bringing the gospel to the Lincoln Center Festival, presenting a set of spiritual songs tonight and Saturday.

If her public statements are anything to go by, she’s pretty excited about the opportunity. “In terms of maintaining my relationship with the Holy Spirit,” she said, “that’s going to be the biggest moment of my life, to be able to stand there and thank it.”


That nondescript, divine presence

Doing religious music well is a big deal to O’Connor, who sees lousy music as an obstacle to God. I’ve heard a lot of lousy religious music in my life (and some really transcendent stuff too) and think she’s onto something. Where I stumble is when she actually starts talking about God.

“There is a God,” she said in one interview about the upcoming performance, “whatever you want to call it — I don’t think he cares if you call him Fred or Davy. It’s a living presence and wants nothing but the best for us.”

While her desire to preserve the approachability of God is commendable, this doesn’t pass the sniff test. If God is a personal God, as Christians like O’Connor theoretically believe, then just any old name won’t do. Personal relationships are specific.

Then again, depersonalizing God is perhaps a way to help people skirt their hangups about him. Anne Lamott tried this in Help, Thanks, Wow. Defining prayer, she said,

Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or if that is too triggering or ludicrous a concept for you, to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions, and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s.

Nothing could matter less than what we call this force.


Any name will not do

After first reading that passage, I tried to think of episodes and statements about God’s name in the scripture. Some of these might have come just as quickly to your mind:

“There are any number of names under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4.12).

“At the name of Jesus or Johnny or Jill or Giuseppe every knee should bow” (Phil 2.10).

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy nondescript, interchangeable nomenclature” (Ps 8.1).

Yeah, so, maybe not.

I think we’d be hard pressed to say that God’s name doesn’t matter. “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed,” says Peter (1 Pet 4.14). Of course if “nothing could matter less” than the name we use, why not avoid the persecution and just say Caesar instead? To ask the question is to answer it.

Another sign of DIY spirituality

On a certain level, I can appreciate what O’Connor and Lamott are trying to do. But to say that God is approachable is one thing; to say that his name is something of indifference is quite another. It strikes me as an example of the modern impulse to see faith as a self-determined, self-created thing — DIY spirituality.

If your faith is merely whatever you choose it to be, then of course you can call God whatever you want to call him, her, it. But the Christian faith is not such a faith. It is not self-created; it is shared and handed one person to the next in a chain that goes back to the apostles and Christ himself.

The content of that tradition actually matters, including the name of God.

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