Noting its title, one might easily run into easy conclusions about "why" anyone would give me a book with "that" title, but it really wasn't an evangelical scheme that positioned this small book next to my frozen margarita.
Here's how it happened: A group of friends from the Netherlands and I were sitting at the Palestinian bar and passing the hookah water-pipes to one another while talking about reading. I was sharing some gruesome examples of how I had been made uncomfortable on a few occasions for having been caught with a book, and how it seems to be more socially acceptable to talk about nail polish than it is to mention the taboo of reading. My friends found this to be more appalling than funny, and one of the members of this group (who is humorous on the surface but who happens to be one of the wisest persons I have met), went quiet for a moment and then said this: "It is a gift, you know. Reading. The joy of reading. It is a gift." And then he handed me this small book with the big title "Opening the Bible", and said I could keep it.
I just finished reading it and I have to admit: this one exceeded my expectations. On the cover is the priestly-looking picture of Merton, and the title is "Opening the Bible." With all due respect to my wise friend, I was thinking that if this would be leaning towards the religious then I made sure I was not going to fall for it. This alertness in approaching the book turned out to be ironic because Merton, despite being a priest, seems to be as wary of the righteous religious folk as I am.
"The Bible is without question one of the most unsatisfying books ever written -" says the priest, to my astonishment, "-at least until the reader has come to terms with it in a very special way. But it is a difficult book to come to terms with." My shock increases when Merton goes on to say that so much of the Bible is even "archaic, seemingly exotic but utterly alien to life as we know it now." Again, seeing that a priest admits this made me realize that this is not a typical priest, and this would not be a typical book. Merton is not only very honest, but he seems to be fearless in his honesty. ["The Truth Shall Make You Free" (John 8:32).]
This book criticizes exactly the same things that one would criticize about the "fragmentation, division, and partiality" of the fundamental readers who base their understanding of religion blindly; accepting it for the sake of accepting it rather than truly venturing to understand themselves. Merton admits that "we approach the Bible cautiously, taking into account the claims that are made for it by others." He brings to our attention that to understand God, one needs to understand oneself, and similarly, to understand the Bible, one needs to understand oneself. "We are to understand life not by analyzing it but by living it in such a way that we come to a full realization of our own identity."
Merton brings out a different light to Matthews, John and even the sayings of Jesus when making points about freedom and identity, but what is also untypical about this priest is that he brings examples from the writings of Camus, Faulkner, and Bonhoeffer, whose views he shares on how "the problem is not in religious language and concepts themselves but rather in the toneless and empty routine discourse used by religious people". Merton rejects the reading of the blind apologists of the bible who have "exploited its challenge as an accusation in order to make man feel guilty and afraid, to increase his dissatisfaction with himself, to unsettle him, to make him wonder if he needs to go to church."
In this sense, Merton remains genuine: he speaks of the loyalty to our own inner truth, our inmost truth, which is in a sense utterly beyond us. "It is disastrous to prefer our more shallow self to the transcendent will that is in us yet beyond us," he says, and highlights on the need to break the fundamental division. More than once, Merton warns that those who are too persistent on proving the Bible "right" may be further from understanding it than those who are willing to be open in their reading.
A beautiful thinker and writer, Merton affirms that "the capacity for openness (the ability to listen to the word of God and hear it) becomes a precious and paradoxical gift. The word will make itself heard in the most unexpected places, he affirms, and notes that those who have the ability to understand this may be people who would least qualify as "religious."
In this sense, it becomes clear to me that reading indeed is a gift, and that a book as divine and genuine as this one could unexpectedly be handed in a bar but would nevertheless get to be treasured, reflected upon, and very much appreciated for its honesty and openness.
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