Monday, August 12, 2013

Don't Mess With the Messiah

 "So whaddaya think you'll call her? Oh, sorry - him?"

A judge of the chancery court in Cooke County, Tennessee has ruled that a mother cannot name her baby "Messiah," and promptly changed young Messiah's name to Martin, which is his own mother's surname. Ms. Martin had appealed to the court in the first place to be able to give her son her own surname rather than the father's, so the judge effectively trumped that move by renaming the kid Martin. Although I suppose it's not illegal to be called Martin Martin, even in Tennessee. Or maybe it is, since the judge also ruled, without further consulting its young bearer, that Martin would henceforth be called after his father's surname.

Tennessee is to Protestant hillbilly fundamentalism what Texas is to impromptu lethal injection tailgate parties or free market rattlesnake harvesting. Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew took issue with Messiah as a given, or "Christian," name because, as she explained to a local news channel, “The word Messiah is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ.” She added, “It could put him at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is.” (Nor, clearly, did anyone by the name of Lu Ann Ballew.)

So (ignoring for the moment all those guys named Jesus out there, and ignoring for the moment that titles are not in every case earned but awarded by some person or agency), let's in all charity take Judge Ballew at her word, afford her all the credence and regard we would afford a Talmudic or Koranic scholar, and see what a legal labyrinth she may have unwittingly devised. (I'm not arguing that the judge hasn't also done young Martin an unwitting favor.)

In the first place, if a name cannot be a title, then there are countless Admirals, Majors and Generals whose names must be expunged from the record, not to mention carboys of Dukes, Earls, Counts, Barons, Princes, Ladies and Sirs, and what-have-yous over the span of the centuries. This legal expurgation would wreak particular havoc in the realm of sport, where the loss of such titular monikers would diminish the color of the game. (And where would the Vuelta a Espagna be without its Jesuses?)

Duke Snider, ca. 1953

But, you may cavil, the judge meant, and said she intended, only those titles afforded a single person (or being, presumably). You mean like Son of Sam? I can't name my kid Son of Sam because that title was awarded to one and only one person? What about The Recording Angel, or the Most Corrupt President in the Nation's History, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Great Houdini, Public Enemy Number One, the Father of Lies, the Antichrist? Not that anyone would wish to bear these as names, but it seems a raw deal to rule them out for posterity. I mean, where would Western culture be without Madonna?

But in all fairness, perhaps the judge simply meant that if Jesus got there first, then his titles are off the table. So you could name your kid The Heavyweight Champion of the World or The Number One New York Times Bestseller or The Oldest Living Person, but not Messiah. Or Counselor, Prince of Peace, Lamb of God, The Way, The Truth, and/or The Life, the Everlasting . . .

(Playing with fire)

But then there's another interesting standard the judge brings to bear upon her taste in names: a name cannot put its bearer "at odds with a lot of people." Which would, in Tennessee at any rate, rule out people named Mohammed, Barack, Hillary, Eric Holder, Abraham Lincoln, Adolph, Fidel, Bradley Manning, Barney Frank or anyone named Kennedy. In other words, it is not the awful terror of divine wrath that moves Her Honor so much as the prospect of possible public opprobrium. The judge overlooks the strong possibility that naming your baby after its daddy in Tennessee could upset lots of folks too.

And what about those names that might be mistaken for something else - like Iris?