Ivan Ruiz-Knott talks about his new podcast that goes along with the new edition of Ellen White’s Conflict of the Ages series.
“The hope for our podcast is that anyone at all can listen to it — Adventist or not — and appreciate how interesting and strange and thought-provoking it is that the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes Ellen G. White received visions from God,” Ruiz-Knott says.
Question: Your design studio, Types & Symbols, has published a new edition of Ellen G. White's Conflict of the Ages series, titled The Conflict Beautiful. When we interviewed your business partner, Mark Cook, in October of 2018, you were in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to finance its publication. How did that go?
Answer: The campaign went well! We were nervously checking the status throughout, but we ended up reaching our goal of $144,000 just a few days before the campaign ended on November 15, 2018.
Since the Kickstarter has ended, are the books continuing to sell? What feedback have you received about the set?
Yes, the books have continued to sell, and the feedback has been really positive. We have a little over 40 reviews on the site and they’re nearly all five stars, with a lot of people commenting on the readability of the New King James Version and the quality of the design and printing.
The in-person conversations have been the most encouraging, though. Mark has had quite a few people say they’re reading these books for the first time, or that these are the first Ellen G. White books they’ve purchased, so it seems like they are being appreciated in the way that we had hoped.
You have just released the first episode of your new podcast, The Conflict Audible, to pair with a year-long reading plan for The Conflict Beautiful series. Where did the idea for the reading plan come from? What made you decide to launch this podcast?
For the reading plan, we wanted to find a way to encourage ourselves, and others, to actually read the books and not just display them (though we do think they look really great on a shelf).
A reading plan in itself isn’t a very original idea, but in the process of working through it we noticed that most reading plans for this series are chapter-based, and if you try to read a chapter a day the time commitment can be wildly different on different days. Because of that, our reading plan is time-based: half an hour a day, five days a week, will get you through the whole series in a year. You can also start whenever, and go in any order, and it works with any edition of these books, not just ours. You can find the breakdown for the reading plan on the website theconflictbeautiful.com, where you can also order a set of nicely letter-pressed reading plan bookmarks.
The podcast is meant as a complement to the reading plan, but also to the series as a whole. We realized pretty early on that there were a lot of things we didn’t understand about this series: things about the historical context, how the books came together, and the nature of inspiration — and how seriously we’re intended to take any of the specific things Ellen says. There were also many helpful comments across social media (including the last Spectrum interview) where people were raising criticisms, some of which we had heard about but never really explored too deeply. The podcast provides a way for us to explore all of that, talking to experts and regular people, so that we can better understand these books and help ourselves and others read them well.
Have you ever been involved in podcast production before? Do you have any favorite podcasts that you are using as inspiration or models for this one?
Podcast production as an ongoing series of content, no, but I have been dabbling in audio storytelling for a few years. I briefly studied documentary film at Andrews University under the brilliant Paul Kim, who is now at Southwestern, and while doing so I discovered that I had a strong preference for audio. Since then it’s been an off-and-on pursuit.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to participate in a Transom Traveling Workshop, and I learned a lot from that experience — mostly that I would really like to find a way to do more audio storytelling.
When it comes to inspiration and models my first and greatest love has always been Radiolab, primarily because of their intent. I heard an interview with the hosts once in which they described that their goal with the show was to bring wonder back to a subject (science) that, in their perception, many people lost interest in once they finished high school biology. As they describe it, when we were kids science used to be this fascinating, exciting, engaging thing, but many of us hit a moment when we came to the conclusion that we weren’t smart enough, or that it was just too boring, or irrelevant. Radiolab recognizes that there are plenty of scientists out there, and also people who love science, but that is not their target audience — those people already think science is wonderful. Radiolab’s audience is the rest of us.
Similarly, I think there are areas of Adventist theology that can seem really inaccessible or complex or academic, and after a while it can be easy for a lot of us to just not engage with it. Yes, people are making content about those areas, and there are many people who think it’s wonderful and interesting, but if you don’t already care about that stuff, where would you start? Why would you start? And the whole world of Ellen White studies seems to me like one of those areas.
There is also of course a certain amount of Adventist content that is really accessible, but in my view, for where I am right now, much of it feels way too basic or “safe,” and I frankly just don’t find it meaningful or helpful to read or listen to too much of it. And then there is also a much broader spectrum of Adventist content, and it also includes perspectives that are more critical, or that even treat some aspects of Adventism as laughable, but it can often be very high-context, or like a very complicated inside joke.
And I think all of that is really important — the academic, the safe, the skeptical — all of that seems healthy and necessary, but I generally feel like I could use more sincere wonder.
So the hope for our podcast is that anyone at all can listen to it — Adventist or not — and appreciate how interesting and strange and thought-provoking it is that the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes Ellen G. White received visions from God. Whether or not people decide to appreciate these books or believe that they are inspired is not so much of a concern as much as helping bring some wonder and thoughtful conversation to what is often treated as either an open or closed book.
Your wife, Livvy, is co-hosting the podcast with you. What is that like? Do you have any experience collaborating on projects like this?
We both really enjoy making things — professionally Livvy is a software engineer and I’m mostly a designer. And while we’ve never collaborated on something of this scale before, it falls in line with a lot of our other interests over the years. Back in college we would organize storytelling and poetry events, and when we got married we modeled our wedding after a live radio show, telling our guests the story of our relationship with the help of music, images, and videos.
For the last few years we’ve been hosting and producing small events with our friends, like low-bar talent nights, end-of-summer picture shows, and overly-produced recaps of our vacations. In doing this, we’ve come to realize that our favorite format for media is something like earnest, crafted, multimedia live events by small groups of people for small groups of people. There’s probably already a word for that, but we’ve lately been referring to it as micro-media, as opposed to mass-media.
This podcast obviously has a much broader reach than our living room, and it’s very much not recorded live, but it feels pretty similar in terms of how we are approaching it, and how much we’re enjoying the process itself.
And it’s been really, really great. Livvy is much smarter than me, and I think I’m being pretty objective when I say that she is still one of the sharpest thinkers and communicators I know. She also studied religion and communication for undergrad, so having her contribute to the writing, editing, and delivery of the show content is a tremendous help. She is an absolute joy to work with and be around, regardless of the project, so I’m very happy that she agreed to co-host.
In what ways are you marketing both the books and the podcast? Tell us more about your target audience.
We’ve done a mix of digital marketing and showing up at events, and we’ve been lucky enough that publications such as Spectrum have thought the projects worth writing about.
Regarding our audience, while we think many Adventists can appreciate the care that has gone into either of these projects, our audience is really ourselves. We wanted this edition of the books to exist for our own sake, and we also wanted this podcast to exist for our own sake, because we felt something of a barrier to reading Ellen White given the existing options and resources.
Naturally, if anyone feels the same way, then they’re part of our audience. Obviously there are a lot of people out there who are happy with the existing options, but we’re much more interested in people who haven’t really thought Ellen White’s books are worth reading, or who haven’t taken the time to read them well. Would it change anything if the books didn’t look so dated? If they were more readable? Or if there was an honest, non-church-sponsored exploration of the many fascinating issues surrounding her life and writings?
Regarding the podcast specifically, we assume that it is likely to be most interesting to people in the Adventist community, but if you listen you’ll notice that Livvy and I cut in and define some terms which to most Adventists don’t need defining. We do this because we’re trying to not have the show feel too high-context. A lot of Livvy and my closest friends aren’t Adventist, and I feel deeply uncomfortable whenever I imagine them, or anyone who isn’t an Adventist, googling “Ellen G. White.” We hope to make the kind of show that we feel comfortable with anyone stumbling across — one that welcomes questions, beginners, uncertainty, and wonder.
How many listeners have you had so far for the first episode?
To be pedantic, I don’t know — podcast hosting services track downloads. At the moment we’ve had a little over 250 downloads, but probably all of those are our moms.
What kinds of topics will you be covering on the podcast? Do you plan to have guests? Any specific people?
We intend to cover quite a lot: inspiration; interpretation; that crisis in the 1970s around plagiarism; Ellen White as a real life, non-mythological human being; the White Estate; what is and isn’t actually unique to Ellen; what Adventism gains or loses with or without Ellen White’s gift, and of course the content of these specific books.
For our first episode we spoke with George Knight and Michael Campbell, and we have a long list of other people we hope to interview. In particular, I’d love to have the voices of regular people speaking about their own experience with Ellen White. I know there’s quite a range from positive to neutral to negative, and I’d like that range to be represented. We also fully welcome recommendations if anyone wants to leave some in the comments — critics welcome.
You have also set up an online forum where readers and listeners can interact about their daily reading and the podcast. How has that been going?
It’s been fine. A little less activity than I expected, but I’ve appreciated being able to post a question and have people who are much more familiar with these books chip in with their thoughts.
You mentioned George Knight and Michael Campbell. It sounds like you are consulting theological and historical experts and maybe White Estate executives in putting together these new initiatives?
Yes, we’ve reached out to quite a few experts, and everyone we’ve spoken with has been super nice and helpful. We have also been in touch with different people at the White Estate throughout both projects to seek advice and input, but I want to be clear that there is no formal relationship with the White Estate. We are a fully independent creative studio, and any input from the White Estate or White Estate personnel should not be taken as endorsement of any of these initiatives.
For the podcast specifically, we are very fortunate to have Kevin Burton consulting, who I’ve been told is one of our most knowledgeable Adventist historians.
I should also mention that Alex Prouty is a major part of our team. He was trained as a historian, has taught history for a number of years, and is a self-proclaimed Adventist history nerd. He is helping extensively with shaping the content and tone of the show, and has been giving us lots of really great feedback.
Do you expect that the reading plan and podcast will affect book sales?
We think it’s possible, but this wasn’t really our goal — there are much more cost- and time-effective ways to market these books. We launched both the reading plan and the podcast with the sole purpose of creating resources that we wish existed.
Where can people purchase the books? And how do people access the podcast and discussion forum if they are interested?
People can find links to everything by visiting theconflictbeautiful.com.
Is there anything else you would like Spectrum readers to know about your new podcast?
We are really happy for feedback or questions, specifically via voice memos. Do you like these books? Dislike these books? Have favorite parts? Parts you think are really challenging? We’d love to literally hear from you. You can find instructions for sending along your comments at the website.
Photo: Ivan and Livvy Ruiz-Knott pictured with podcast icon Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Images courtesy of Ivan Ruiz-Knott.
Jennifer Payne is an English teacher and graduate of Andrews University who lives in Niles, Michigan, with her husband and two children — avid readers all.
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