Coming to Terms

The other day, I was driving my four-year-old daughter home from the theater. She asked to listen to the Beatles, so I put on a shuffled playlist of Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band going for our listening pleasure. At one point, the song "When I'm Sixty-Four" started playing. If you don't know, it's about a guy asking a girl to spend her life with him, and wondering what life will be like when they're older. Paul McCartney sang the end of the chorus:

Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four?

My daughter then informed me, "When you're 64, you can feed yourself." She continued, "Why do you need someone to feed you when you're 64?"

Immediately I noticed the problem and explained, "Oh, he means 'Will you cook for me or make dinner for me?'" She had apparently pictured someone spoon-feeding an old man, much like she's seen us do for her younger brother. She heard the word "feed" and thought of a particular meaning for it — the only meaning she knew. She didn't have the category in mind of "feeding" as "preparing food for someone."

But this reminded me of the importance of coming to terms. In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler explains one of the rules of good analytical reading as coming to terms with the author. This means finding the important words in his book and determining what he means when he uses them. This meaning is what Adler deems a "term." A term and a word are not the same thing; essentially, the word is what we read on the page, while the term is what that word is being used to explain.

For example, Alder refers to his own use of the word "reading." For his book, it's a technical word with different meanings depending on the context. Sometime he means simply looking at words. Other times he refers to reading deeply for understanding. It's the same word, but different terms; to fail to come to terms here would make the book very confusing.

A good biblical example is the word "justification" as used by Paul and James. Seeing as God is the ultimate author of the Bible, the example fits. Paul exhorts his readers that faith is how we are justified, not works. But James says that Abraham was justified by his works. Is that a contradiction? Not at all; they are using the same word to refer to different terms. Paul is using "justification" to say that, before the eyes of God, we are counted as righteous, having never sinned. James, however, means that our faith is demonstrated to be genuine by our works. To say the word is used to refer to the same term creates an irreconcilable contradiction, one which has caused centuries of problems for the church.

When we read, we need to read beyond the words on the page and seek to find out what the author means by what he says. This refers to everything we read, be it the Bible or the newspaper. It's hard work, but it's necessary. I'd even say that Christians are duty-bound to it, lest we accidentally lie about what someone is saying. We are more effective witnesses to the truth if we seek to understand what others mean.

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