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
FINAL QUESTIONS & REMARKS
A Fairer Approach Proposed
When I first saw the title and subtitle, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, I immediately formed a set of expectations that I was going to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate this book. However, I was sorely mistaken. Here I offer what I was hoping to hear from Gordon. So, why can’t Johnny sing hymns?
1) Thanks in part to things like the hymns movement, Johnny is singing hymns! Now, according to Gordon’s definition of “hymns” (old hymn texts coupled with their traditional/classical musical setting), Johnny isn’t singing them. But according to most standard definitions, Johnny is—just not in the way that Gordon would prefer.
2) Johnny struggles to sing hymns because pop culture did indeed rewrite the hymnal. Pop culture does value contemporaneity (pp. 103-128), and this “now-ism” does foster an unbiblical bias against hymns and their original musical settings. Gordon and I agree that this must be challenged if the church is to truly be the church.
3) Because of the dominance of the value of contemporaneity, a generation of evangelicals has grown up never knowing hymns. In other words, as Gordon points out, part of the reason Johnny can’t sing hymns is because Johnny is ignorant that hymns even exist to be sung! I agree with Gordon’s assessment when he says that it was largely Johnny’s father and mother in the boomer generation (esp. p. 159) who indiscriminately embraced those values and raised Johnny in a church with those values. But as Johnny is now coming into his own, thinking for himself, and exposing himself to the broader church, he is rediscovering what (to quote Kevin Twit) “his grandmother saved and his parents threw away.”1 What we’re seeing is that, as young Johnny re-discovers the church’s vast arsenal of hymnody, he loves it and claims it as his own. Now, much to Gordon’s chagrin, Johnny will sometimes sing hymns set in his own musical vernacular, but he is nonetheless falling in love with and growing in faith through historic hymnody. And, slowly but surely, Johnny can and is singing hymns.
4) We should therefore seek to re-educate and re-introduce hymnody into the contemporary church. While Gordon offers much criticism, he gives little by way of a plan of action. So perhaps we could begin this effort through a middle-road methodology of offering contemporary worshipers old hymn texts to new music (e.g. Indelible Grace or Red Mountain Church),2 or the songs of the “modern hymns” movement (e.g. Keith & Kristyn Getty). Perhaps this, in turn, would whet the appetite for not only a broader textual palate but a broader musical one, too. At that point, we would be able to introduce not only historic and beautiful texts but historic and beautiful music.
Because of the book’s misrepresentation and caricaturing of contemporary worship and so-called pop music, it is unhelpful in the ongoing dialogue between traditional and contemporary worship. While its premises are fairly sound (pop culture has rewritten the hymnal), its conclusions and applications are not. Gordon seems to conclude that traditional, classical music and hymnody are superior in every way to contemporary/modern worship forms and hymns, and so churches should ideally rid themselves of the latter. Gordon neither makes room for mediating positions such as that of the burgeoning hymns movement, nor does he entertain the notion that perhaps the gospel compels us to be optimistic that there can and should be a via media in all of this. Therefore, I can only see this book as fostering an unhelpfully critical and divisive spirit in Christ’s church, giving traditionalists polished yet hollow ammunition for their war against contemporary/modern worship. Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns is not entirely unhelpful, though. We need voices like Gordon’s, prophesying against the uncritical embracing of popular culture by the church. Unfortunately, the book as a whole takes the reader in such an unprofitable direction that it makes its positive message extremely hard to hear.
1Kevin Twit, “My Grandmother Saved It, My Mother Threw It Away, and Now I’m Buying It Back: Why Young People are Returning to Old Hymn Texts,” Reformed Worship (70): 30-31. Available online: http://www.igracemusic.com/hymnbook/other/RW70.pdf
2Of course, to agree to this, Gordon would have to come around on his understanding and appreciation of some of the musical styles employed by such artists, which seems unlikely.
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.
Zac – Thanks for the great review.
Came across your blog a few weeks ago, and appreciated this review. I would definitely like to check this book out on my own. Incidentally, I think you were dormmates with a good friend of mine– do you remember a guy named "Bean" at all?
Bean and I roomed together for two years. I haven't been in touch with him lately, but I miss him! He's a stellar guy…and definitely one-of-a-kind. I'd love to catch up with him.
Agreed– I'll let him know about your blog.
Do you recommend another book that deals with this topic in a better way?
Thanks for asking! Definitely check out my recommended reading page. Also, though I haven't read it myself, I've heard from people I trust that Greg Scheer's The Art of Worship deals with "contemporary worship" in a redemptive way that seeks to call for true artistry and thoughtfulness. It's on my must-read list! Marva Dawn (Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, A Royal Waste of Time) has also done some important reflection on culture, without polarizing the issue.
Hope those help!
I know this is an old thread, but I recently encountered somebody who used Gordon's book as their one-stop rebuttal of using contemporary worship expressions in the church. I really appreciated your review, and I tried to download the PDF of the full review at the end of the blogpost but received an error message. Help?
Sorry about the trouble. This link should work:
Zach, hollow points are among the most effective ammo! Not sure that was the metaphor you were going for. Lol.
In all seriousness, I appreciate your comments. One important aspect of hymnody that Gordon addressed, which your review did not mention, was the timeless quality of classical-type music. Whether written recently or 200 years ago, there is music that is meant to stick around, which is majestic and stately, and there is music which is meant to only be around for a short time, namely pop music. I maintain with Gordon that the former type of music is a better match for the timeless message of the gospel than the latter. Christianity is not here yesterday, gone tomorrow, like these contemporary art forms are. It begs musical settings that fit that timeless character, no matter when they may have been written.
Your comments on the guitar and ancient use of the lute were very interesting. Don't you think the lute setting that you referenced as the original setting of "A Mighty Fortress" would be closer to classical guitar picking today vs. chord-strumming?
You are dead right that Gordon has very little interest in redeeming the culture. Neither do I, at least not if it means bringing the profane into sacred worship. There are lots of things Christian guitarists can do outside of church to glorify God with the talents he gave them. How would the church have historically looked at bringing in pagan art forms into worship?
Also, I might add that reading your comments, after having read and reviewed Gordon's book, is tending to push me further in the direction of a capella psalm-singing. (Neither of you mentioned psalmody. You did mention chanting, which is just fine with me.)
"How would the church have historically looked at bringing in pagan art forms into worship?"
Here's a stab:
Thanks, again, for the clarification. Sounds like you and I differ on the sacred-secular distinction issue.