Review of Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, by T. David Gordon (5/7)

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


Problem #5: No Redemptive Hope

Again and again, Gordon makes the claim that the very nature of pop music is so debauched, so commercially-driven, so entertainment-oriented, that it cannot possibly have any merit worth appreciating or redeeming:

Indeed, since contemporary pop music has been developed for commercial reasons, and is almost exclusively associated with fairly superficial amusement, one must raise the question whether a musical form so associated with such superficial amusement is ever an appropriate vehicle for a religion that requires repentance, sacrifice, obedience, and selflessness (pp. 60-61).

It is not that Gordon’s analysis is entirely false. But is pop music (as Gordon so sweepingly defines it) all baby-less bathwater?  Gordon believes so and does not have the discerning ear to distinguish throw-away pop from redemptive attempts of true artistry within this broad genre. Perhaps, then, Gordon and I are operating from a fundamentally different starting place on Niebuhr’s Christ-and-culture spectrum.1 Gordon espouses a “Christ against culture” model, while I believe “Christ transforms culture.”2 This distinction, I find, is at the heart of many of my conversations with pure traditionalists—we launch from different pads in the Christ-and-culture debate.  Ultimately, for Gordon there is no redemptive hope for pop music, no common grace (to use a phrase from our shared Reformed tradition) worth identifying in pop artists.

Problem #6: The Hyper-Distinguished Categories of High, Folk, and Pop Culture

Gordon devotes Chapter 6, “Three Musical Genres,” to re-articulating Ken Myers’ now influential taxonomy of “High,” “Folk,” and “Pop” music.3 I simply want to point out here that any educated study of pop-rock4 forces you to see the lines between what is defined as “folk” and what is defined as “pop” as extremely blurry.  The lines are so blurry, in fact, that I do not think such hyper-distinguishing of “folk” and “pop” can produce the type of conclusive analysis that thinkers like Myers and Gordon make with such surety.  It would be better to analyze pop songs piece by piece.  Some, perhaps many, would prove to be ephemeral, trivial, non-serious throw-aways.  But others would yield artistry on the level of Gordon’s and Myers’ descriptions of “high” culture and expressions commensurate with their descriptions of “folk” art.  These categories (especially “folk” and “pop”) either need serious further nuance, or they need to be jettisoned in the enterprise of musical analysis.


1H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1956).

2Put through an eschatological-soteriological lens: Christ saves culture by replacement, or Christ will save culture by redemption, respectively.  Notice that the former tends to be the type of thought that accompanies those who hold to a sharp sacred-secular distinction, which Gordon appears to do.

3Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 1989), 120.

4Such as: Joe Stuessy and Scott Lipscomb, Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development, 6th ed. (Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2008).


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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