ON BEING “IN THE KNOW”

A word means what a writer or speaker means it to mean.

It’s really interesting how context reveals the “meaning” of a word or a phrase. The more finely-tuned, the richer our understanding of context, the better we will understand what a writer or speaker is immediately “after”.

We experience the truth of this every day but we do it so easily that we’re rarely aware that we’re doing it. Those with a full awareness of the context are aware of the grammatical/lexical possibilities of the words spoken but they’re also aware of things—truths, realities, events—that others are unaware of. Those not fully “in the know” while they are well aware of the grammatical or lexical possibilities of the words being used don’t “get” what’s going on in the speaker’s mind nor do they “get” what has been generated in the minds of those “in the know” who are part of those being addressed. (This is true even if the person who doesn’t have a full grasp of the context is more accomplished linguistically than those “in the know.”)

For example a teacher whose vocabulary is greater than any of the students may not know how a familiar word is being used intentionally by Peter to goad Rachel.

Again, if I’m angry with someone and he knows it, I may say something with barbs in it that only he can feel and pick up on. To others there’s nothing critical in the remark and this is true even though they hear the same words spoken and with the same tone.

Here’s “John;” he’s certain that “Joe” has slandered him and he speaks to him about it. “Joe” denies any such thing but John isn’t convinced and in a Bible class where the discussion is “the works of the flesh” in Galatians 5 John works in some blunt words about the very great wickedness of slander. Everyone in the room agrees with John’s words but the only one that gets John’s real point (intention) is Joe. It isn’t only John’s words that give the “meaning” (here I’m talking about intention)—Joe gets his purpose, his intention, “what he is really doing with his words.

It’s because intention is at the center of what a person is doing with words that God says Job’s friends did not speak the truth about Him. Well, at least that’s part of the truth. The friends very often say things that are true but they use them to promote an agenda God did not endorse or approve whereas Job said false things in support of known massive underlying truths about God and this particular situation (see Job 42:7).

Context is everything and because (as we experience every day of our lives, perhaps) we can’t get the entire picture out of which speech arises, we must settle for something much less than an exhaustive understanding of the Bible’s message. (That claim, though I believe it’s true needs carefully developed.)

Back to John and Joe. As soon as John utters the word slander it fills with sounds and images and personal feelings that don’t exist on this occasion for anyone other than Joe. Joe knows he is being “got at.” The word in this setting fills with images that are not part of the word itself. Interpretation involves more than the customary lexical and grammatical possibility of the words used.

If “Harold” had brought the matter up it in the class it wouldn’t have generated those additional images in Joe’s mind though it might have made him feel uneasy. It would have been another general and well-known observation about one aspect of moral behavior.

But if Harold is a good friend and confidant of John then his remarks on slandering will probably generate other images and feelings that only Joe experiences. If Harold is clearly not John’s friend what Joe feels may be no more than some uneasiness.

Context is everything though it isn’t everything, if you know what I mean.

(In light of the above we can identify some of a writer’s basic convictions—he fervently promotes X and fiercely opposes Y so unless he contradicts himself or changes his mind we can go to his other writings and use those convictions to help us understand him. What we won’t do is interpret him so as to contradict his stance on X and Y. )

This has massive ramifications for all communication; biblical and otherwise. Speech creates “worlds” in which various feelings, responses, convictions and directions are promoted and pursued and shaped. If John’s words don’t “create” Joe’s world they certainly shape it and shape it forever.  (That point needs careful development.)

One thought on “ON BEING “IN THE KNOW”

  1. Imogene McAnulty

    I appreciated your comments on meaning what one says and giving the other person this right and respect. Thank you for sharing and giving your time and life serving our Lord. Your friend, Imogene McAnulty

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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