Review of Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, by T. David Gordon (1/7)

Zac HicksUncategorizedLeave a Comment

This lengthy review is broken up into several blog posts, but you can read the full PDF here at any time.  If you are jumping in mid-stream, scroll to the bottom to view and navigate to the other sections.

T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal.  Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010.  $12.99.  189 pp.  ISBN 978-1-59638-195-7


If one had any inkling that the worship wars were over, look no further for evidence to the contrary.  T. David Gordon has now established for himself an official “Johnny” series with this follow-up to Why Johnny Can’t Preach, published also by P&R in 2009.  Gordon is professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College (Pennsylvania), where he has, for over a decade, added humanities and “media ecology” to his list of fine accomplishments in teaching and writing.  Once a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) for nine years, the final lines of his bio make clear that he and his wife attend an Anglican church (where one can assume that high liturgy and traditional hymnody are practiced and sung).

T. David Gordon again shows himself to be a sharp and critical thinker when it comes to the intersection of culture and the church.  Along with other voices like Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death), Kenneth Myers (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes), and Douglas Groothuis (Truth Decay), Gordon sounds the seldom-heard horn that the media of modern culture not only affect us in their message but by their very form.  Such tools, he goes on to say, “both reflect our priorities and values and reciprocally shape our priorities and values” (p. 10).

Gordon begins his work by asserting that another book on worship music is in fact needed and that his humble contribution to the ongoing discussion would be to approach it from the “media-ecological perspective” (p. 9).  His thesis is “we make song, and song makes us” (p. 10).  The resulting argument: Pop culture’s textual expressions and musical idioms, which are standard fare in many American churches, are corrosive to both our faith and spiritual well-being.  I agree with Gordon’s approach: “Every consideration regarding [worship music] should be undertaken in a manner that reflects Christian obedience.”  In other words, we must employ careful biblical and theological refection when it comes to worship music, and Gordon and I concur that not enough of it is being done among those in the “contemporary worship” camp (though, I observe that there is evidence that the tide is turning).  The final paragraph of the introduction makes clear that Gordon has picked a side:

What follows is an extremely abbreviated list of the considerations that have caused me to be wary of using contemporary Christian music in worship services at all, to object to its common use, and to zealously oppose its exclusive use (p. 36).

So much of the criticism of modern worship has centered around the message of the content and not that of the form.  While Gordon does address content, his primary focus is, in fact, form.  Not enough people are addressing this critical issue, and I therefore commend Gordon for his unique focus.  Chapter 8, “Contemporaneity as a Value,” up until p. 119, offers insightful cultural analysis; I would encourage every leader and proponent of modern worship to read it.  Gordon excels at cultural analysis, and, especially if the idea of analyzing media-as-form is a foreign concept to the reader, this book is worth a look.

Several other insights are commendable and important for worship leaders and congregants to remember:

  • The medium of music does, in fact, send “meta-messages” (Chapter 4).
  • Congregational song is truly a form of prayer (Chapter 9).
  • Worship should rightly engage the whole self, including the mind (Chapter 10).
  • If lament is a rich expression in the Psalms, lament should find regular employment in our worship (pp. 135-138).
  • The notion that “reaching people for Christ” (a.k.a. seeker-sensitivity) should be a top priority in critical thinking about worship should be challenged (pp. 149-158).
  • The notion that considerations of youth culture should drive ecclesiastical strategizing also needs to be challenged (pp. 158-167).
  • The assumed values of pop culture tend to resist beauty, foster consumerism, trivialize the serious, and dehumanize people (throughout the book, but summarized in Chapter 13).

These insights, and more, are commendable.  Unfortunately, many of Gordon’s insights make huge, unqualified leaps when he attempts to bridge the gap between cultural reflection and analysis of contemporary worship.  The analytical chasm between the former and the latter requires careful and nuanced bridge-building, and Gordon ultimately does not succeed in this task.  Several problems stand in his way.


Section-By-Section Links:
Introduction & Appreciation
Six Problems with Gordon’s Analysis: Problems 1 & 2
Six Problems with Gordon’s Analysis: Problem 3
Six Problems with Gordon’s Analysis: Problem 4
Six Problems with Gordon’s Analysis: Problems 5 & 6
Final Questions and Remarks: Where does the Gospel Fit into this Discussion?
Final Questions and Remarks: A Fairer Approach Proposed & Conclusion

Download a PDF of the full review.

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