How do we interpret what we experience? The Lectionary reading for Pentecost Sunday takes up this question in a powerful way (Acts 1:1-21).
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Acts 2:1-13
What does this mean? That is a fundamental question, posed more than once in the Book of Acts, and posed countless times by Christians over the centuries. It is one thing to have an experience, it is quite another to determine what the experience meant. In the Acts passage, we are not told the content of what the Holy Spirit spoke, although there is a tantalizing reference to "God's deeds of power." This much is clear: the people hearing the Holy Spirit were from diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. They heard the speech in their own language, but they did not know the meaning of what they heard.
This is not surprising; it happens all the time. We hear a sermon and a room full of people come away with a diverse set of impressions and interpretations. What was the sermon about? folks wonder. Ask as many as you like, and you'll get slightly different answers.
Stanley Fish's famous anecdote contained in his book Is There a Text in this Class? illustrates the point nicely:
On the first day of the new semester, a colleague at Johns Hopkins University was approached by a student who, as it turned out, had just taken a course from me. She put to him what I think you would agree is a perfectly straightforward question: "Is there a text in this class?" Responding with a confidence so perfect that he was unaware of it (although in telling the story, he refers to this moment as "walking into the trap"), my colleague said, "Yes; it's the Norton Anthology of Literature," whereupon the trap (set not by the student but by the infinite capacity of language for being appropriated) was sprung: "No, no," she said, "I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?"
As you can see from Fish's anecdote, the interpretation of a sentence is slippery. Even what we call the literal interpretation is subject to several reasonable options. Was the student asking what the textbook would be for the class? Thinking so would be perfectly reasonable, and indeed, the most likely interpretation it would seem. But she meant something entirely different.
Fish used this story not to show us that there are an infinite variety of interpretations, but that the range of meanings are actually quite narrow. We could exhaust the meaning fairly quickly based on the interpretative community to which the student belonged. So, rather than throw our hands up in despair when approaching the meaning of the text, we can be assured that the range of reasonable meanings are not truly infinite.
In the Acts lesson, the quoted passage ends with the amazement of the diverse audience's reaction: "what does this mean?" But notice that others are instantly given to interpretation; they sneer and suppose that all the participants are "filled with new wine." Those used to the domesticated and orderly silence of tradition may think that the explosion of the Holy Spirit is simply the drunken ramblings of fools. Peter, however, understood the meaning quite differently.
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Acts 2:14-21
What a remarkable interpretation! What richness of meaning! Of all the meanings that could be drawn from the multiplicity of languages, Peter thinks of the Prophet Joel. It is a rather subversive passage, not one to be taken literally by the those opposed to letting women preach, for example. Joel says that men and women, slaves and free will see visions and prophesy. Those who oppose women preaching somehow read this passage right out of the Bible. But why did Peter think that Joel contained the hermeneutical key to the meaning of Pentecost?
I suspect he looked out at the crowd of Gentiles and Jews, an ecumenical lot standing together, and saw for the first time that God speaks to all of God's children. The Holy Spirit cannot be contained. She descends and ascends, inflames and inspires where she likes. (The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it is feminine). Of the range of meanings available to Peter, this one was the most beautiful and hopeful. It was also true. A happy coincidence. Peter would dream his own dream and prophesy in due course (Acts chapter 10), but he had to be open to the Holy Spirit first. May we be so open.