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.