Inside The Art of Presence

what is the boundary between life and art?


from Johanna Bos

1/11/11 Snow day; Seminary closed, but we continue with class because Cheryl will have to leave after two weeks. The second day of class with Cheryl and a report on our activities is be in order. I am part of the class to create close encounters with the biblical text in a group of nine participants. We begin the day with warm-up exercise and checking in on our state of body and soul. We then move to sit around tables for our discussion of the Sarah/Abraham/Hagar cycle in Genesis (Gen.11:27-23:20), beginning with the lineage of Terah in Ur, and ending with the death of Sarah in Canaan.

Because this is a rich cycle we have selected six episodes for a closer look. We spend the first hour and a half or so taking notice of events, imagining a historical context, being mindful of the way plot develops, characters are set on the stage, how the stories say what they say. Today we considered Abram’s move to Canaan, and the story of Sarai having to pretend, on Abram’s direction, that she is Abram’s sister in Egypt. Questions that arose: was it normal, moral, O.K., for a man with greater power to kill another man and take possession of his wife? Did Abram plan the whole thing, i.e. did he know that Sarai would be taken into the harem of Pharaoh? Did Pharaoh have sex with Sarai? If not, why did God strike the Pharaonic household with plagues? (Cf.the parallel story in Gen.20 where the narrator explicitly states that Abimelek did not touch Sarah (vv.4 and 6). Why is there a duplicate story? We noted the prevalence of words for moving: walking/going/leaving/setting out/traveling/going down/coming close almost all with male subjects. The males in the story are also in charge of much “taking.” Terah “takes” his family, Abram “takes” Sarai and Lot, Pharaoh “takes” Sarai. In the prelude to the episode in Egypt, there is a description of God “appearing” to Abram and Abram engaging in altar construction. The word for “appear” is in the passive form from a root “to see,” and can also be translated “being seen.” We observed that Sarai does not speak, she does not reply to Abram, so we can only surmise that she agreed to the plan. She has not yet received voice in the story.

For the last hour of the morning we go into ensemble work. Throwing puppets in distinct patterns to each other while standing in a circle, walking through and around the wonderful space in Hundley Hall, which we have opened up for the purpose, to a count from very slow to very fast and everything in between. Cheryl gives us a count of three different speeds and tells us to stop and start at the same time. We get a long way toward stopping at the same time, and start all together as if pulled by a string. We stand in a circle again and sing “The soul loves the body, they are one, they are one; the soul loves the body, my body, my soul, my love.” Then we begin to tell our three-minute stories recounting an experience that moved us profoundly, one we will later connect with a biblical character who will provide material for a monologue. I am stunned by the stories; they leave me in awe of the honesty and trust, and the eloquence that comes forth from this group. I can’t wait to hear the monologues on the biblical characters! We also play some wonderful games, designed to help create a spirit of ensemble work among us. We play the “What Am I Doing” game and I for one shall never forget Jaeseok playing guitar. How fortunate we are to have Cheryl as our teacher in all these endeavors.

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