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Tom Scotus

Are You Sure You Know What I Mean?

Language

Back in the mid-1960s, Bob Dylan was a tough guy to interview. Once, a reporter asked him, “Do you care about people?” Dylan replied, “Yes, but we all have our own definitions of those words, ‘care,’ ‘people.’”

The reporter said, “Certainly we all agree by what we mean by ‘people.’” Dylan asked, “Do we?”

When I first heard this exchange, I thought, “Come on Bob, give it up. Aren’t you pushing this a bit too far?” But this concept, which Dylan expressed often during his interviews during that era, got me thinking. There is a common understanding of the meaning of everyday words that we take for granted. But, we have to realize that our assumptions often betray our ignorance.

For example, Dylan was accused of abandoning “Folk music” after he “went electric” around 1965. Many fans paid good money to attend his electric concerts just to boo him. During interviews at that time, he was often asked about this. “I’m not a Folk singer,” he explained. “I’m a folk singer.” At first, this seems to make no sense, but it is a profound explanation.

“Folk music” has a particular meaning in modern American culture. It’s the stuff of musicians such as Woodie Guthrie, Judy Collins and Joan Baez. However, “folk music” can also mean “popular music,” the music of the common man. True, Dylan had abandoned his early sixties style of imitating Woodie Guthrie, but he was still firmly rooted in popular American music. His new style was called folk-rock (a definition Dylan also rejected).

Dylan has also said that Jesus is his only hero. Maybe it’s partly because Jesus was the most misunderstood man in history. He said that he would raise “the temple” in three days. People thought he meant the temple in Jerusalem, but he meant the temple of his body. He said that those who didn’t eat his flesh did not have life in them. He meant his flesh in the form of the Eucharist, not the flesh of his earthly body. Most people probably thought Jesus was a bit crazy, because they trusted their understanding of the words Jesus used and assumed that there could be no other meaning.

I believe that when we get to heaven we will simply know what others mean exactly the way they intend. There will be no need for words, as we understand them. Words can be so limiting and so easily misunderstood.