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
SIX PROBLEMS WITH GORDON’S ANALYSIS
Problem #1: Lack of Musical Knowledge
Gordon makes an early admission, which is prophetic of where this book will fall short. He admits that his expertise is in the arenas of biblical studies and media ecology, not music: “Although I can read music, I do not currently play a musical instrument, have never played piano (a serious liability if one is to understand the properties of music),1 and have not formally studied music history or theory” (p. 19). Unfortunately, Gordon’s lack of qualifications in these areas is precisely the reason he falls into so many fallacies throughout the book in his analysis of music. One further gets the sense that, throughout his analysis of so-called popular music, he is relying on second-hand information rather than careful research and patient, discerning, open-eared listening.
Popular music today stands within the family of rock and roll, which in turn is rooted in blues, gospel, country and western, and African American spirituals. The more one is aware of these historical nuances, the slower one becomes in dismissing pop music wholesale, for one starts to develop the ears through which one hears the artistry of continuity and discontinuity, preservation and innovation, technical skill and nuanced arranging. Similar to how my own appreciation of classical music skyrocketed upon taking music theory and history courses, one needs a base of knowledge to appreciate the subtlety within the simplicity of the rock family. Rock is not the high art that classical music is. Its forms are more restricted because of its inherited instrumentation, chord structure concepts, and song-form models. Still, even amidst the musical simplification, it is unfair and misleading to advocate that artistry cannot be discerned in pop music,2 or that such artistry can be discounted because the form itself is so laden with problems.
Gordon’s brush is too broad, and one gets the sense from him that all popular music is a soul-killing wasteland. He does say, “I think contemporary worship music is often of a lesser literary, theological, or musical quality than most traditional hymnody” (p. 15). While he is careful to qualify himself with the word “often,” one strains in the book to find any sympathy or appreciation for any modern music that does not employ the instrumentation and expression of classical music. Consequently, a more robust understanding of the nature and history of pop music is something of which Gordon makes no mention or acknowledgement. Because of all this, I am skeptical that Gordon can approach an analysis of popular music from a fair and educated perspective. Gordon can wax eloquent on the philosophical underpinnings of how popular music, as a medium, may negatively condition culture, but his lack of musical awareness does not allow him to nuance and qualify this discussion, largely to his argument’s demise. He ends up placing the whole of contemporary worship into one irredeemable hand-basket known as pop music. Much of the argumentation of this book, then, fails because he is dealing with and reacting to an unfounded generalization—a kind of meta-straw-man.
Problem #2: Conflation of Music and Text in His Understanding of “Hymns”
What becomes clear fairly early is that Gordon is arguing in favor, not of hymnody broadly, but of hymnody in traditional, classically-influenced musical forms. This exposes another error—the conflation of music and text in the terms “hymn” and “hymnody.” While this book, in design, layout, and length, is obviously intended for a popular readership, it is a confusing simplification (especially given that the focus of argumentation is on hymnody itself) to use the word “hymn” to refer to both text and music, when a hymn, technically, is text. Gordon’s oversimplification of this term results throughout this book in a domino-effect of confused argumentation and false conclusions. The starkest example of this is in his statement, “The question is whether as a genre contemporary worship music is superior to hymnody as a genre” (p. 49, n. 7). In a discussion like this, “hymnody” cannot be used so generally without engendering false assumptions. Such assumptions would be: (a) contemporary worship is not producing anything definable under the category of “hymnody;” (b) “hymnody” is definable as a single genre (as though there aren’t a multiplicity of styles associated with the corpus of historic Christian hymnody); (c) “hymnody” always refers to music. None of these assumptions are true, and this confusion emerges again and again throughout the book.
1It is surprising that Gordon makes this parenthetical statement and then proceeds, for not a small part of his book, to discuss properties of music (without much referencing when he does such analysis).
2One will notice that I am using the terms “rock” and “pop” interchangeably. It will become clearer later why I do that (see “Problem #6”), but suffice it to say that I believe it is fair to do so because Gordon seems to approach all “contemporary music” with one broad brush.
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.
I love this book. Johnny Can't Sing Hymns is one of the best book I've read this year. This book helped me a lot to understand music. Thanks for review!
Brother, if you both like the book and are thankful for my review, it sounds like you haven't read one or the other…or both. 🙂