The Power of Expression: A Goofy Looking Dog
In the book Anansi Boys, Anansi, the African god of storytelling, is sitting on his front porch in Florida (he’s retired) when he notices a prize-winning dog strutting back and forth on the lawn across the street. It’s a boxer with all the proud defining characteristics of its breed. It has long legs and pointy ears. Its face has the classic smushed boxer look, and its name is Macinroy Arbuthnot the Seventh. Anansi looks over his beer and calls him a “goofy dog.” Now, As a master storyteller, Anansi, as a god of storytelling, has incredible powers so the tag sticks. The name slowly works its way up the street until everyone calls Macinroy the goofy looking dog. The owners take the boxer to shows, and even the judges catch on. Poor Macinroy no longer wins shows. He has become a goofy looking dog.
Stop for a second. What kind of person comes to mind when I say the name Obadiah? How about Herbert? How about Matthew? What about Matt? As a child, I wanted to name one of my sons Hannibal, because I loved the Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca. Most of you cringed when I said the name, and it was with much frustration that I learned most people did not in fact think of Hannibal Barca when they heard the name Hannibal. Most people thought of Hannibal Lecter. After getting married, I brought up the name Hannibal for a boy. My wife politely but firmly ignored it.
Names have power as does suggestion. My brother has a habit of eating strange new food and comparing it to something unappetizing. We had a plate of baba ganoush which while not amazing was certainly not bad. My brother stopped eating and looked at me. “This tastes like cigarettes.” No matter how much I wanted to continue eating it, I could not get the pronounced taste of cigarettes out of my mouth. What we say, and how we say it affects the world.
At the very beginning of Genesis, we are introduced to God, the Creator. How does he create? He speaks, and his speaking breaks out into the world. It takes on material form. Clearly, our words don’t have that kind of power. If I could make dinner just by saying it, I would probably be dead from a heart attack by now. Certainly I’d be a great deal fatter. But God has called us to a similar authority. Not the same, but similar. When God created man, he created man in his image, the image of God. Then he told us, “Subdue the earth and fill it.”
The exact nature of the image of God has long been a source of debate. But if we search within the context, I think some sort of answer becomes apparent. We are created in the image of God. What has God done up to this point? He has created. Then what does he command us to do? He commands us to subdue the earth and fill it. We will dwell on that second command, to fill the earth, in another post. But as for the first command, what is the first specific action that Adam does? He names the animals. This is what subduing the earth looks like. The first act of dominion was a creative one. By the authority God grants, we speak, we create, and we shape the world around us.
If something so simple as naming is an important part of that command to subdue the world, what kind of power do other forms of expression have? What can a film do? Or a building? If a name, a simple label, can shape someone’s identity, then what can a story do? I am not writing to argue that the arts are important. I am writing to tell Christians that ignoring the creative power of expression is a fatal mistake.
Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura
Culture Making by Andy Crouch
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
P.J. Wehry is a teacher, writer, and lover of all things cultural, particularly as it relates to how we as believers interact with the culture. P.J. is also an alum of the inaugural Gotham class.