Opening the Bible by Thomas Merton

I recently had the privilege of reading a wonderful little book, called Opening the Bible, written by the renowned Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  His thoughts on reading the Scriptures were written decades ago but remain poignant and relevant as much today as in his time. Just to offer a taste, I will share three quotes.

First, to all of us who have ever approached the sacred text seeking to learn a truth or find out what to teach or preach, Merton demonstrates that we are missing the depth to which the Scriptures invite us to go:

“The Bible raises the question of identity in a way no other book does.  As Barth pointed out: when you begin to question the Bible you find that the Bible is also questioning you. When you ask: ‘What is this book?’ you find that you are also implicitly being asked: ‘Who is this that reads it?’” (p. 27).

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Have you ever experienced that? If not, your reading of the Bible has been woefully superficial! I admit that in my rush and my ministerial demands, many times I have not taken the time to allow the Bible to read me.  But only then will true transformation occur!  In fact, Merton says later that any reader of the Bible must be prepared to be changed drastically:

“We cannot enter into this dynamic of freedom and understanding unless, in reading the Bible, we somehow become aware that we are problems to ourselves.  The Bible is a message of reconciliation and unity, but in order to awaken us to our need for unity it brings out the contradictions within us and makes us aware of a fundamental division” (p. 80).

A lot of us are uncomfortable with those contradictions! We want the Scriptures to encourage and assure us, but when they examine and reproach us, will we invite God into even those most discordant of places?

Merton challenges us even further.  Many of us would agree that it requires great faith to accept God at his word without any backtalk.  But what if dialogue, and even argument, between God and us reveals an even deeper level of faith and intimacy? I leave you with the following quote:

“Any serious reading of the Bible means personal involvement in it, not simply mental agreement with abstract propositions.  And involvement is dangerous, because it lays one open to unforeseen conclusions.  That is why we prefer if possible to remain uninvolved.  In 2 Samuel 12:1-10, we read how David, a man of quick and hot emotional response, listens to a story of Nathan and becomes involved in it to the point of intense and righteous indignation, and then discovers that the malefactor who so angers him is himself!

We all instinctively know that it is dangerous to become involved in the Bible. The book judges us, or seems to judge us, on terms to which at first we could not possibly agree.

The Bible itself, in the Book of Job, gives us a pattern of healthy disagreement. Not only that, but throughout the whole Old Testament in particular we find people (like Abraham) arguing with God and being implicitly praised for it.  The point is, then, that becoming involved in the Bible does not mean simply taking everything it says without the slightest murmur of difficulty.  It means at once being willing to argue and fight back, provided that if we are clearly wrong we will finally admit it. The Bible prefers honest disagreement to a dishonest submission.

One of the basic truths put forward in the Bible as a whole is not merely that God is always right and man is always wrong, but that God and man can face each other in an authentic dialog: one which implies “a true reciprocity between persons, each of whom fully respects the other’s rights and his freedom” (pp. 43-44).