Birding can be controversial.
I imagine most people probably expect birders to be a serene tree-hugging lot, taking jovial strolls through the forest and picnicking with finger sandwiches. But at your next Audubon Society social, simply ask, “Do you think the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is extinct?” and watch the gloves come off. The true believers and the hardened realists will spar like gladiators. Ask the wildlife photographer if he used live bait to get that awesome owl photo, and the party guests will suddenly turn hostile. Birders can have intensely strong opinions on what sorts of landscaping plants to cultivate (“How dare you plant that non-native boxwood, you infidel!”), what sorts of hummingbird nectar to use (“You use red food coloring? So do you enjoy killing hummingbirds?”), or what sort of bird-friendly coffee beans to buy (“I hope you’re enjoying that dead-parrot latte.”).
But one topic in recent years has become so contentious that even my non-birding friends are aware of it. Last November, the American Ornithological Society announced that it would be changing the English names of all North American birds that have been named after a person. This decision affects 152 of the continent’s 1100-plus species — more than one in ten.
In their 32-page report, the AOS cited multiple reasons for their final decision. The apostrophe-S suggests a sense of ownership, “as if bird species were possessions or trophies.” Also, said the report, a name has an opportunity to provide a better window into a bird’s appearance, habitat, or behavior, rather than just a surname that provides no context. I recall the personal example of a friend of mine; as a newbie, he was birding with a more seasoned group when he spotted a warbler he’d never seen before — white with black stripes. He announced, “I see a black and white warbler over here.” He didn’t realize that he had just called out a specific species, and the group took him for more experienced than he actually was. The name said something distinct about the bird, not just a reference to some old guy named Swainson or Wilson or Harris who had originally “discovered” it.
But the dominant rationale behind the decision stems from the question of human legacy. Our country is currently caught up in a movement to rename buildings, schools, parks, and the like because of the mixed record of the people being memorialized, and the AOS was petitioned by activist groups like Bird Names for Birds to make this decision. Even the National Audubon Society itself has recently wrestled with a rebranding, owing to the realization that John James Audubon was a slaveholder. So was John P. McCown, a Confederate general whose honorific longspur was renamed the Thick-billed Longspur in 2020, a precursor of the greater renaming efforts to come. The Audubon Society ultimately decided to retain its name, although many local chapters have rebranded. Meanwhile, the longspur is going about its life business-as-usual, though possibly a little more self-conscious about its beak.
People predictably have strong opinions about the AOS decision, with some lauding the report as a positive move “to foster a more inclusive and engaged community” and others crying bird-woke, describing the move as a regrettable cultural concession and even a ploy to sell updated field guides. Like I said, birding can be controversial. But without either defending or criticizing the report, I want to point out one aspect of the decision that’s actually very theological.
The AOS made the decision to change all the eponyms.
Rather than engage in a lengthy case-by-case discussion on the worthiness of each honorific, the committee determined it was easier to simply remove all 152 surnames. “The central discussion focused on whether to recommend changing names on a case-by-case basis (replacing names honoring people judged to be the “worst actors” while retaining names honoring people judged to merit their eponyms), or to recommend changing all eponymous names. The majority conclusion was that changing all names avoids the value judgments and focus on human morality, both of which are likely to lead to extremely fraught debates, required for a case-by-case approach.” Rather than focus on former slaveholders, Confederate generals, oppressors of indigenous peoples, or other historical failures, the committee — knowingly or unknowingly — sided with Romans 3:10, and the reality that “There is no one righteous, not even one.”
A Legacy of Disappointment
It’s true, as Mark Antony soliloquized in Julius Caesar, that “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft’ interred with their bones.” The historical failures represented in some of these honorific bird names highlight the darker aspects of a person’s life, obscuring the good. This will remain true of those who live after us, which means that, if someone decides to name something after you (congratulations!), it will invite future generations to reassess your merits and demerits and ultimately weigh your worthiness in the scale of public opinion. Weighed individually, some of these figures of birding history might withstand the scrutiny of this generation, only perhaps to be “weighed in the scales and found wanting” (Daniel 5:26) by the standards of a future one. The AOS determined that judging the worthiness of a life is a pretty complex thing, and probably beyond the scope of a bunch of ornithologists. Good call. Our legacy is a fragile balance of dignity and depravity, and each of our biographies is a Pandora’s Box.
But ultimately, there will be a set of scales in which all of us will be found wanting. In the final sense, according to Scripture, there is no one worthy of an eponym. Our heroes — past and present — will disappoint us. The heroically-great of church history, from Luther to Calvin to the English Reformation to the Puritans, also leave behind less laudable actions, positions, and writings that we are left either to uncomfortably address or to conveniently relegate to the footnotes. Recent church history is an equally ugly illustration. I have, for example, an entire shelf in my study full of books written by pastors who have since fallen from grace; the material may contain some solid truths, but the authors’ failings have tainted them, making it hard in good conscience to recommend these books to anyone. One of my seminary professors, Steve Brown, exhorted us that the best heroes of the faith are the dead ones, who are now safely in glory, and beyond the capacity to blow it. But even dead heroes disappoint.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) That’s a sobering reality far deadlier than a cancel culture. Our lives will not stand up nobly under divine scrutiny, which is a significant problem when we remember that heaven is not attained by a threshold of “good enough.” No offense, but don’t presume that you’re worthy to have anything good named after you, bird or otherwise. Jesus himself said, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” (Luke 12:2-3) When that happens, no self-respecting longspur would want to bear your name.
But here’s the ridiculously lavishly good news. God does not leave you there.
Under scrutiny, the highlight reel of our life will not add up to anything that can support its own weight. But God is in the business of changing names. The one who broadens the purposes and plans of his people with just a few consonants — Abram to Abraham, Simon to Peter, Jacob to Israel, Saul to Paul — transforms us with a name. He tells his people through Isaiah:
“You will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’S hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah.” (Isaiah 62:2-4)
Hephzibah and Beulah are words saturated with Hebrew hope: the first means “My delight is in her” and the second means “married.” God changes his people’s fortune from deserted to delighted, and from desolate to darling. To a people rebellious and abandoned, the Lord pictures a new identity with a new name. The Bible is replete with examples. A child named “Not my people” becomes the reality of “Children of a living God” (Hosea 1:10). A man named “Deceiver” is invited into a relationship with God with the name “Israel” (Genesis 32:28). And to all those who follow by faith, Jesus promises “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). I suspect that this name will speak our truest self in the most merciful light of Jesus. It will reveal how deeply he knows you and yet how deeply he loves you.
The work Jesus does in his people is a sort of renaming. He makes the broken beautiful, the failures favored, the isolated included, the insufficient incorruptible, the wounded whole, the bungled and botched into the beloved. And this didn’t happen without a darker reversal: the sinless one becoming sin for us, the healer becoming our sickness, the lion becoming the sacrificial lamb. Jesus bore a Cross to change your name: “dead in sin” to “alive by the Spirit,” “notorious sinner” to “newfound saint,” “wayward enemy” to “adopted child.” We’re told that those who put their trust in Christ become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17); we may not experience all of this fully yet, but a white stone with your true name awaits.
I’m sure we will continue to name stuff after people. Honoring someone isn’t a full endorsement of the totality of their life, and it’s OK to name your kid after Uncle Joe even if Uncle Joe might be a jerk sometimes. It’s OK to name your dog Napoleon even with the understanding that there’s a fairly messy personality attached to that name. The world will continue to honor its own by naming things after them: birds, bridges, buildings, faculty chairs, endowments, you name it (literally). But we are all in need of a name change, and Jesus died for you and me and Uncle Joe, intent on transforming us into something worthy of his eponym.