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The Spiritual Act of Naming: Truth Telling in Writing

By Heather Walker Peterson on Tuesday, April 24, 2018


“Telling the truth is a task entrusted to Adam as he names the animals; it is a responsibility of redeemed humankind which has been told the truth about itself in Jesus.”—Oliver O’Donovan

My desire to write comes from an experience of reading. I read a transforming word. As I am transformed, I wish to influence transformation in a confusing and unjust world. Ethicist Oliver O’Donovan writes in Resurrection and Moral Order that Christ’s coming restored us to Adam’s place as a namer of reality: a truth teller. This calling as writers is an act of creativity, love, and dependency.


Truth telling, O’Donovan tells me, is creative because I participate in God’s created order. I am given the authority to name, to interpret the state of affairs that surround me. As a truth teller, I find that situations are not simplistic. I am not scared of the nuanced or even ambiguous because in O’Donovan’s words, God’s law “is as complex and pluriform as the created order itself, which it reflects.” Within myself, I also recognize creativity. I feel inward hands as I write, reaching out, picking up one object, setting it down, until they grasp, with a moment of relief, the object that makes a convincing metaphor for my audience.


Love, according to O’Donovan, is my response to the creative freedom that God gives me to name reality. Without love in my words, I am “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). O’Donovan’s description of love includes delight—in my slight paraphrase: we love others for who they are and that they exist. I think of Anne Lamott’s compassionate images of annoying people in her book Traveling Mercies, like the fundamentalist on the plane whom she had a laugh with after a turbulent ride.


But in my desire for the world to be a better place, I am tempted to control with my words. Or in my weakness, I flat out miss something I should have taken into consideration. As a writer, I am limited by time and context, some years later, revising what I said before or wishing I could.

This is where Christ’s departure from his disciples is our gift—the Holy Spirit. I am challenged to take a posture of listening. I listen to his Holy Spirit through Scripture and through the general revelation of his creation—whether the witness of the natural world or the stories of individual members of humanity.

Ultimately, O’Donovan writes that in my truth telling I will experience “exclusion” as Christ did, to the point of death on the cross. It may be simple. A writing friend dared to question a message of another writer and was blocked from her Twitter account. When something like this happens, may we remember that our first love was the One who gave us the creative freedom and love of others to truth tell in the first place.


What are you called to name in your writing?

Where do you recognize Christ’s gift of creative freedom, his heart for love, and your need for dependence in your truth telling?

What tempts you from your first love of Christ in your truth telling?


God you know our inward fears, weaknesses, and our callings. Won’t you give us the courage to face ambiguity, to look for nuancing? Help us with being intentional in our listening—whether time in prayer or in stopping our mouths or our fingers at the keyboard to hear others. Amen.

Used with permission from Intervarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network.