Review of Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, by T. David Gordon (4/7)

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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


Problem #4: Misrepresentation of Contemporary Worship

Here is an example of how Gordon, throughout his book, erects contemporary worship straw men:

Proponents of contemporary worship music, for instance, don’t assert that the older hymn-writers wrote bad hymns (though some atrocious old hymns were indeed written), hymns that were theologically, literarily, or musically defective or perverse.  They don’t debate Paul Gerhardt’s theology (the way many Calvinists debated the theology of Charles Wesley’s or Fanny Crosby’s hymns); they just dismiss his hymns as good hymns “for their time,” and therefore necessarily unsuited to ours.  A contemporaneist would no more sing Paul Gerhardt’s hymns than dress in seventeenth-century German garb (p. 119).

I do not deny that there are individuals in the contemporary worship camp who would be comfortable with this representation of our perspective, but that this is representative of contemporary worship at large is entirely disingenuous.  I know too many exceptions to feel comfortable that this is even a fair representation, even if Gordon’s statement here were qualified as a generalization (of which Gordon does not grant his opponents the courtesy).  Gordon doesn’t footnote his reference.  Perhaps he does not feel he needs to, given his perception of the ubiquity of this perspective.  This, furthermore, is one of those places where Gordon’s conflation of text and tune in the word “hymns” unhelpfully serves to make his argument too simplistic.  I do not know of any so-called “contemporaneists” who have led Gerhardt’s hymns in a stylistically modern setting.  But I do know plenty of such folks who have done so with contemporaries of Gerhardt, particularly using the English translations of seventeenth-century German hymns graciously given to us by Catherine Winkworth.  One example is my own re-setting of Johann Rist’s text, “All Ye Gentile Lands Awake.”  Now Gordon would not accept this as a counter-example, because his conflation of text and tune into the term “hymn” leaves no room for re-tuning in the vein Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, Sovereign Grace Music, and other artists in the hymns movement.1

Another misrepresentation:

[Pop music broadcasters and advertisers] produce music that does not require concentrated effort to appreciate, preferring instead music that is fairly simple and straightforward (p. 67).

Is this fair?  Is immediacy of apprehension necessarily exclusive of profundity?  Barber’s “Adagio” and Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” are pieces I can readily appreciate without much concentrated effort.  Can not music engender in the listener both immediate, effortless appreciation and inquiry toward greater artistic depth?  Within the pop genre, there are more than a few examples of songs which have both an immediacy and an ability to withstand careful scrutiny.2 I submit to Gordon that he has not listened to enough music in the pop family, or else he has not listened carefully enough to such music.  If he did, he probably still would have made claims such as that above, but he would have made his points with much more qualification, precision, and generosity.3

The mark of good critical scholarship has always been fair representation of one’s opponents.  Gordon does not come close to this mark.  He has indicated that not much has been written which winsomely advocates for the merits of contemporary worship (e.g., p. 25), and while this is true to a degree, one does not get the sense that Gordon went to any lengths to do the responsible work of seeking out, as scant as it may be, the credible voice of contemporary worship proponents.  John Frame’s Contemporary Worship Music4 (from the same publisher!) receives little mention.5 Kevin Twit’s articles published online and in journals are not referenced.6 Jeremy Begbie’s important reflections in Resounding Truth are never cited.7 The spirit of generosity encouraged by Ron & Debra Rienstra in Worship Words is never summoned.8 Gordon, again and again, generously footnotes his allies, while his opponents are represented, un-referenced, through his own biased and critical grid.  Straw man argumentation permeates this book (e.g. pp. 47, 48, 55, 60).



2Two examples: (1) I’ve recently come across the band No More Kings, whose album And the Flying Boombox employs creativity and skillful guitar- and keyboard-playing, all within (and expanding upon) the pop-rock genre; (2) I’ve posted on a the creative use of the pop-disco genre (in order to make an eschatological point) by the David Crowder Band in their latest album Church Music:

3Does Gordon realize that his criterion for music articulated above would exclude music made by the ancient Israelites and the worship of modern Africans in rural Ghana?  He would retort that I have conflated pop and folk music, but I will address that below.

4John M. Frame, Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1997).

5The two times Frame enters into the dialogue aren’t even in the text proper; they are relegated to footnotes (p. 49, n. 7;  p. 77, n. 2).

6E.g., Kevin Twit, “Criteria for Judging Rock Music,” available at:; and “Some Thoughts on Musical Style as it Relates to Worship and Hymns (Revised),” available at:

7Begbie isn’t necessarily a proponent of contemporary worship, but his observations seem to poke holes in the woodenness of “use/receive” construction first put forth by C. S. Lewis (An Experiment in Criticism), re-contextualized by Myers (All God’s Children), and proffered again here by Gordon (at least as the foundation underneath his arguments).  Cf., esp. Resounding Truth, 42-46.

8Ron & Debra Rienstra, Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).


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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