February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
May 6, 2014
Here at TOJ, we’re always intrigued when we come across like-minded folks doing like-minded work. So when I got word of a new project called “Into the Noise,”an organization that leads trips to some of the major artistic events in our culture, my curiosity was piqued. Started just last year, Into the Noise (ITN) hosts annual trips to Sundance, South by Southwest and the Grand Rapids Art Prize, and aims to immerse participants in cutting edge film, music, and art. Each trip builds in plenty of time for the traveling cohort to meet, talk, and process all that they’ve seen and heard throughout a given day. This means that a trip with ITN is both an exposure to raw and beautiful art, but also a lesson in theological and cultural engagement. Attracting people from a wide variety of ages and across the theological spectrum, participants spend much of the day and evening taking in the events, and meet each morning to hear a guest speaker or simply discuss all they’ve seen and heard.
The founder, Eric Kuiper, was kind enough to extend TOJ an invitation to one of their events. So in January I hopped a short flight to Salt Lake City where I took in the Sundance Film Festival. It was an exhilarating few days in Park City, UT where (collectively) our 20-person group saw nearly every film offered. Some of the films were freakishly violent, some humorous, others deeply moving. But nearly all of them endeavored to offer some kind of nuanced cultural critique. It’s true that none of them will ever see the kind of box office revenue of the summer blockbusters, but it became immediately clear that these were small films made by passionate filmmakers and actors who have something to say to the world, and film is their medium.
What makes ITN unique is that participants are asked to serve as theological anthropologists. Rather than coming with any kind of critique of the art in question, we are asked to first listen to what is being said, and allow that message to both shape and inform our theological commitments. And though my firsthand experience was impressive, I asked Eric to explain more fully the vision for his organization.
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TOJ: What was the impetus behind starting this organization?
Eric Kuiper (EK): Some researchers estimate that by 2025 more adults will look to the arts for spiritual formation than to local churches. As a pastor this intrigues me. I don’t believe the arts and spirituality have to be mutually exclusive categories.
I think people are drawn to art and culture as more than just entertainment. These are places where we are disrupted, transformed and healed—which, by the way, is how Paul Tillich defines revelation. I started Into The Noise to interact with these places that people are being formed outside of the church and then to explore how this formation connects to God’s revelation.
Normally the only group of Christians who show up to festivals like Sundance or South By Southwest are the ones handing out tracks and yelling through megaphones. They are there to preach, not to listen. That’s sad to me.
I also loved the idea of starting a “conference” where I couldn’t control 90% of the content. This seems more like real life to me. Rather than going into a controlled context with controlled content, I want to plunge people into places where we are asked to process and participate in a much deeper, more complex way.
TOJ: What would you like participants to get out of their time? Do you have any specific goals in mind as you lead these trips?
EK: I hope that Into The Noise is both helping people learn a posture towards culture while practicing it at the same time. Rather than blindly consume or avoid culture, ITN wants to be a part of a third way; one that is open, engaged, thoughtful and discerning. Some of what we’re doing is giving people a vocabulary for talking about these experiences. But we’re also there to acknowledge, celebrate and revel in those important moments we have with art that can’t really be put into words.
I also want a person to leave with a greater sense of what our culture is “talking” about and how it is choosing to “talk” about these things. These festivals are wonderful microcosms of our larger world and I think it’s important that we interact with that thoughtfully. This starts with us being good listeners and being willing to deal with whatever is put in front of us. While we are confined by our own experiences, these artists and their art offer a way into stories we’ll never live but need to know.
TOJ: What common themes do you hear from people after they’ve spent time on one of your trips?
EK: It’s funny how many people start by saying, “Thanks.” It seems like people have been having these really significant experiences through culture but have never been allowed to ask the questions about what it means for them or whether or not some kind of revelation from God is involved. There is this sense of gratitude to have a place where we don’t draw the sacred/secular line in a way that forces us to ignore the powerful events in our lives.
The other response is that the trip shifts the way people interact with culture — that posture piece I mentioned before. They have been equipped with a new way of showing up to things that starts from an open and thoughtful place, rather than closed off or blind consumption.
TOJ: What do you imagine pastors and lay-people doing with this “shift” in the way they interact with culture? In other words, how are you wanting the conversations at these events to “extend” beyond the events themselves?
EK: Once we begin to see our encounters with popular culture as potentially significant I think we start asking more and better questions of the art and our experiences with the art. As C.S. Lewis said of literature, great books are not something you read, great books read you. This subtle, but profound shift begins to influence us every time we turn on a TV, radio or scroll through our Netflix queue. Hopefully this shift has people wondering about why things are resonating with them or shaking them up. It’s then that we move past questions like “do I like this?”—which is us having something to say about the art—to questions like “what does this art have to say about how I live me life?”
Karl Barth is credited as saying that we should have the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. In many respects, these festivals are interactive, dynamic pictures or tellings of our current cultural landscape. They are living, breathing, “newspapers.” So for those interested in ministry these festivals are a critical way to better understand the world in which we are living.
For years now, some pastors will include a film clip into their teachings. That’s a fine thing to do, and when done well, it can be enlightening. But I’m hoping this pushes us farther than that. Rather than simply asking how popular culture might show up in a sermon to help make a point, I hope this opens people’s eyes to the value of these cultural texts as both conversation partners and places of revelation. If that is done, then engagement with culture in the context of ministry shifts significantly. It’s no longer seen as a way to spice up a sermon, it’s understood as a critical place for growth and healing in the lives of the people we serve.
TOJ: You’ve called your organization “Into the Noise,” which seems to strike a pejorative tone as it relates to the broader culture. What kind of dialogue are you hoping participants have with each of these events?
EK: That’s an interesting take on the name. I actually don’t see “noise” as being pejorative—it’s more a descriptor. Advances in technology have lead to so much more music, film and art being created. Some of it is amazing. Some of it’s awful. Some of it is life-giving. Some of it is destroying us. I don’t want the fear of the latter to keep us away from experiencing the former. So the name is an invitation to engage. It’s also a nod to the fact that these festivals are packed with people. They are noisy places, in the best way. They are places that demand we deal with the lives of others.
If there is any pejorative piece to the name, I suppose it’s actually “Into.” My feeling is that the dialogue that happens around spirituality and art is too often happening off to the side rather than in the epicenter of where popular culture is actually being made and interacted with. I’m interested in helping people become not only thoughtful critics of culture, but also fully engaged participants. You can’t do that from a distance or from within a subculture bubble.
TOJ: During my time I found the morning group sessions immensely engaging. You did a good job of mixing guest speakers/lecturers while also giving the group space to simply process the films. What is your hope for the morning briefing sessions?
EK: My hope is two fold: First, give people the space to process the past 24 hours of experiences—what have we seen, heard, etc.—and allow the group to help itself see it more fully. And, second, to layer in another concept or framework for engaging with the art that will push us even deeper into the experience during the next 24 hours.
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For more on Into the Noise, visit their website at intothenoise.org. And read some reflections from another participant at Sundance, Brett Beasley, in The Curator.
Tom Ryan is a stay-at-home dad and an editor for The Other Journal.