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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Week of June 25, 2017

At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by is death.  Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.  Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
 "The rock is till rolling."  I like that.
Maybe it's because music is so much of who I think I am.  Alan Freed--surely Camus had heard of him--popularized the phrase "Rock and Roll," once saying that "rock and roll is a river of music which has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, ragtime, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs.  All have contributed greatly to the big beat."  Camus' rolling rock probably suits best the spirit of Rock 'n Roll that flourished at the roots and in the soil of the emotional-friendly, marketable discs Freed was spinning; and his approach to the Sisyphean myth would probably serendipitously highlight the way the culture overlooked oppressed singers of the motherland style and the way its opportunists discovered integraton to be a lucrative enterprise.  Those artists who rolled the rootsy rock up the hill saw it get away from them time and time again with little more than juke-joint pay.

Camus wasn't commenting on an early sense of Rock 'n Roll, even though Rock 'n Roll commented plenty on Camus. He was, rather, wrestling with what to do with a serious, honest observation of the human condition.  Maybe that sounds like a ridiculously self-absorbed thing to do.  Some might argue that John Calvin, also a Frenchman and the father of Presbyterianism, did the exact same thing.  (If you're still bothered, consider Ecclesiastes.  The editors went to great lengths [12.9-13] to make sure we could access it in the biblical cannon.)  Camus used Homer's story of Sisyphus as an object of this meditation--like dharana, if you will.  To make a long story short, Sisyphus was the wisest of mortals (not unlike Qoheleth).  Basically, because Sisyphus was always trying to outsmart Zeus in life, his punishment in death would be the task of pushing an enchanted bolder up a steep hill.  Just as Sisyphus would near the top, the bolder would forever escape his grasp and roll back to the bottom--eternal frustration.  This was Zeus' way of saying, "Who's cleaver now, punk?"

For kicks, I'm trying to read through Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.  Greek epics demonstrate the power of human storytelling.  Albert Camus is one among many who have used these as a springboard launching into commentary on the depths of the human experience.  And in his Myth of Sisyphus, we get the message of life's seeming futility.  Ecclesiastes calls it vanity.  Camus calls it absurdity.  But even in the writings of this self-proclaimed atheist, all is not lost.  He can speak of joy:
If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious...But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.  Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.  The lucidity that was to contribute to his torture at the same time crowns his victory.  There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.
 If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.
I bring all this up because this week in worship we'll focus on a psalm.  Psalms have many authors and come from many different contexts and occasions.  We have them in a form adapted for use in worship.  When we read the psalms, we eavesdrop on moments in the life of a worshiper or worshippers, like reading a journal entry.  So you had better believe that "scorn" plays a major roll in these entries.  And true to the discovery of this atheist when rolling his absurd rock up the polytheistic Homeric hill, we also discover that our ancestors in faith turned on their heels in scorn from mountaintop experiences to gaze at the inevitable valley of shadows always waiting below when structuring prayer to Yahweh.  We, too, Christians, are of the "proletariat of the gods."

Yet, with Camus, we must discover joy.  He sees joy in Sisyphus' discovery of something separate from the gods, something they neither gave him nor could ever take from him.
Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols.  In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of earth rise up.  Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory.  There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.
This discovery, instead of Zeus' eternal outwitting of the trickster Sisyphus, is Sisyphus' eternal victory: the forever scorn of the wisest of the gods.  Just like Art says in National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, when Clark finally gets the lights to work on the house,
"The little lights aren't twinkling,"
to which Clark responds, "I know, Art, and thanks for noticing";
we can say with Camus that the rock is still rolling.

But here Christians leave Camus.  We spin the story differently.  The absurd rock becomes our attempts at earning meaningfulness and outwitting a God whom we've tried to dethrone since the garden.  Sure, we deserve eternal punishment and a sheol of agnony ("utter darkness where there's weeping and gnashing of teeth") but eternity is not an act of God to prove his sharper wit.  Our rolling rock reveals an empty tomb.  Light shined in the darkness and the darkness didn't overcome it.

Maybe the real trick was that Zeus had mercy on Sisyphus, rewarding him for his steadfastness and relentless search amid vanity.  For not cowering down in the face of absurdity, Sisyphus moved the ball forward in the evolution of humanity.  Camus concludes:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain!  One always finds one's burden again.  But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises the rocks.  He too concludes that all is well.  This universe henceforth without a master seems neither sterile nor futile.  Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world.  The stuggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
I do imagine Sisyphus happy, but I can't help but imagine Zeus winking.  That's because my Christian slant which, instead of a "higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises the rocks," raises the Rock, who negates my absurdity, in faithfulness to God.  And at the crux of the matter is love's grace.

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