In praise of the amateur

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I was reading Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing our Culture by Andrew Keen this summer. When my friends, Beth and CJ Sentell (mother and son) picked it up, it fueled some long discussions.

I’ve blogged on the book before, but in case you weren’t in the room then, Keen makes the argument that we had significant gatekeepers in our society before Web 2.0. We had people who would screen our music, journalism, information, and entertainment. It’s all changed now, with Wikipedia allowing virtual input, blogs flourishing abundantly, and YouTube providing dancing sock puppet drivel. Keen has high disdain for self-publishing, in every sense of the word.

He stirs some important questions, ones that have many publishers baffled in this time of transition. Like, what’s going to happen to our subscriptions if people can get the information without paying for it? What will happen to writing/journalism/publishing as a career? Will the industry be able to support itself? Will it dwindle into a mere hobby? Or, to put it in the words of my grandmother (although she was talking about something else entirely), “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

CJ made an interesting point: “I think we have a bigger problem with the cult of the professional.” CJ’s in the thick of developing his professional credentials. He’s in a PhD program in philosophy, in which he’s diving deeply into a teeny, tiny pool of intellectual thought. When he comes back up, he’ll be an expert, and he’ll know a huge amount about his small topic.

But with people walking around with a condensed academic knowledge base, are they able to converse on other subjects? Are they able to have a broader view of the world in which we live? I mean, among our church leadership, we all know the pastor with an Ivy League PhD in Pauline Epistles, who looks phenomenal on paper, but week after week, he’s killing us softly with his sermons because they have more to do with Ancient Greek grammar than our 21st century culture.

As our discussions unfolded, I remembered what a mentor and prolific writer told me (I won’t name names, because I don’t want to discredit him): “Never let not knowing about a subject keep you from writing a book about it.”

I laughed when he said it, and I shrugged it off as an outrageous remark. But, you know, it was powerful advice. It kept running through my head as I wrote sermons, articles, and (eventually) a book. Of course, I picked a book subject that I knew about, because I also stick by the motto, “write what you know,” but his words took a lot of the icy-cold fear out of writing. It helped me swallow back all of those haunting voices, running through my head, mocking me with, “Who are you? You’re an amateur. Why would you think you’ve got something to say?” And, of course, as I compiled the research on a particular subject, sorted it out, and reframed it, I did know my subject even more thoroughly.

All of this is to say: often writing about something can give you a different relationship with the subject.

It is a time of transition, for sure. In this moment in history, we need to engage in some healthy dialogue about amateurs/professionals. But, I hope that we don’t disregard what’s happening on the Internet. I hope we continue in the great tradition of our Reformed forbearers who used the new technology of the printing press to spread the good news and to change the world.

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3 thoughts on “In praise of the amateur

  1. Brilliant, brilliant post. In fact, you could almost write a book on the subject “The Cult of the Professional.” Highly ironic when most protestants owe a debt to the man who taught us of the “Priesthood of all believers.”

    And Jesus sure had a thing for amateurs, too…
    You also touch on a subject I’ve been pondering for some time — the “Cult of Originality.” In the 20th century, it seems that originality was prized in a way that was rather unprecedented, to the point where only a professional who has thoroughly researched an issue could possibly have anything new to say on the subject!

  2. Yes. You’ve got me pegged…I’m a big Lessig fan, and I consider his book “Free Culture” a seminal influence on my thinking.

    The concept for “Cult of Originality” actually comes from a guy named Larry Wall – a computer geek known mostly for creating the PERL programming language, but who also happens to be a devout Christian postmodernist, and “Emergent” long before that label came about.

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