Celebrating “Amateurity”

September 20, 2010

My wife loves Little House on the Prairie. Not the books, mind you, but the late 70’s TV show. The one that played every day in our hometown at 10am and 3 pm.  We own every episode on DVD, and yet she will watch it whenever it comes on the Hallmark channel. Needless to say, I have absorbed a lot of Little House through marriage.

One of the most interesting things to me about Little House on the Prairie is Charles Ingall’s forgotten talent. Every now and then, Pa picks up the fiddle and thrills the family with a jig, a hymn, or a mournful tune. It’s truly delightful to imagine this sod busting, mule driving farmer coming in at the end of the day, hands sore from gripping the plow, and reaching for a delicate violin to draw out some melodies at the end of the day. I’m pretty sure Pa didn’t go to the conservatory. He just picked it up and played. It seems very unusual in our day, but I wish it didn’t.

The arts are just part of the fabric of living. We have always made art, whether in drawing, creating, design, or music.  But there has been a shift since the Ingalls family built their little house. Families rarely make their own art anymore. We encourage children to draw, to write, and to sing, but we put down our creative tools as we grow up. It is as if we equate our amateur attempts at art and creativity, a God-given trait of mankind, with immaturity or childish things. Following in the wake of our consumer culture, we have outsourced the creative process to professionals and accepted the role of observers and critics. We look at paintings and photography, we watch our plays on TVs or at the movies, we listen to our music, and we read our books. I have realized that I am so busy consuming “art” that I am robbing myself from the opportunity of making art.

There are several things I like to do, and I keep pushing them to the back burner. I want to try to write more music. I want to write articles like this one when a thought crosses my mind. I think I would like to start drawing again. Last month, I built a table for Jonathan. It was wonderful process – starting with amateur drawings and rough-hewn boards and ending with a respectable and level table for our children to sit and make their own art.  (Thanks to Matt Campbell of Nooga Wood for looking over my shoulder!) For me, my inactivity was a matter of distraction and priority, but that’s not the reason for most people who have stepped away from the creative process.

I heard an interview yesterday with cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry that really brought this idea to the front of my attention. The artist shared her creative process and the way she writes. The interviewer asked about the pressure of writing something that was “good” and how to judge the quality of her work. The artist’s response was both surprising and incredibly freeing. She said,

“We say, ‘unless you’re doing something and you’re good at it and it’s for something, [don’’t bother.]’ My feeling is if we keep thinking we should only do this stuff if we’re good at it, that’s a whole other thing. Making this stuff has a function that is different than whether it’s good or useful to someone. If it’s good or useful to someone, that’s excellent… but this idea of ‘is it good or not’ – that’s what happens to our work. It only becomes those two questions – is this good or is this bad? and there’s nothing in between. That’s where it begins to become a desert. There’s more and more of this feeling that if you’re not good at it, don’t do it.”
I immediately recognized a problem that seems so common that it has become normal. So many of us don’t pursue creating art or the creative process because we tried it, evaluated it, and decided that we are not very good at it. How sad! We have taken our consumer mentality and imposed it on our personal expressions of art or creativity, and the result is a pass/fail system. If you aren’t good at it, don’t bother trying anymore. The value is placed on the production quality, not the participation. The result is a handicapping of our expression and participation.

I’ve seen this effect the way people come to worship. They show up to listen, but they have no intention of actively participating. “I’m no good at singing” is their explanation, as if they don’t meet the pass/fail requirement. As a result, they stand as spectators in an environment designed for players, wondering why they don’t enjoy the game. This “quality control” mentality isn’t limited to creating and art. “I’m no good at it” has become the culturally accepted wet blanket of our culture. And I hope that you’re starting to consider that “I’m no good at it” is a lousy reason not to do something.

All this thinking about why we do and don’t do things brought my attention back to the subject of disciple making. After all, it’s the focus of our whole church right now. If you were to guess, what would you think is the #1 reason people give for not participating in sharing the gospel or in disciple making? “I’m no good at it.” Are you starting to feel the thinness of this response? Maybe being “good at it” isn’t the issue. Maybe a show of Christ’s ability to use the weak and the foolish things is the artwork that God wants to display. After all, God has commanded us to be disciple makers – He must have a pretty good plan. God, the Master Artist, says “Trust me. Obey me.” No doubt, we have often answered, “No – I’m no good at it.”

Maybe there is another beauty that is waiting to be drawn out if we will put down the pass/fail mentality and pick up our paint brushes. Create something. Write a letter. Cook a beautiful meal. Build or fix something. Pull that instrument out of the closet. Sing in worship. Talk to your neighbor about faith. Pray with your coworker who is struggling in her marriage. Trust and obey. It might be rough, but you’re not doing it to be graded as harshly as you think. Let’s outgrow the immaturity that leads us to fear the scrutiny of others and celebrate grace in the “amateurity” of our ability.


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