Book Review

"Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal" by T. David Gordon

Micah Everett
T. David Gordon
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012
Jan/Feb 2012

T David Gordon (PhD, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) is professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, where he also teaches courses in the humanities and in media ecology. As a media ecologist, Gordon approaches the subject of this present volume intentionally as a sequel to his similarly titled Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (P&R, 2009), thus also bearing an indebtedness to Rudolf Flesch. In the earlier work, Gordon argued that the construction, delivery, and reception of sermons had been negatively affected by the "sound-bite" culture of the present day. He takes a similar approach here to the subject of music in worship, positing that not only the form and content but also the pervasiveness of popular music have rendered many worshipers unable to sing or appreciate the Psalms or the "traditional" great hymns sung by previous generations of Christians. He says in the preface, "We are surrounded by nearly ubiquitous pop music’so much so that nothing else really registers in our consciousness as music. If it is not accompanied by a guitar, if it is not accompanied by the predictable melodies and rhythms of pop culture, it just doesn't seem like music" (14). By identifying and responding to this particular problem, Gordon has added a helpful and heretofore largely missing element to the discussion of worship music.

Gordon's presentation of the difficulties associated with contemporary worship music is thorough and insightful. While he does repeat common arguments that this music is inferior to older hymns and psalm settings both musically and textually (134-35), he devotes more space to discussing concerns that are sociological or, as Gordon puts it, media-ecological in nature. These concerns include the lack of serious consideration promoted by commercial-sounding music (26) and the exaltation of contemporaneity as a desirable quality in itself (103), both nonverbal "meta-messages" that are "contrary to the interests and values of the Christian faith" (65-66).

In the introductory matter of the book’which fills nearly a third of the total length as he explains his media-ecological approach to the subject’Gordon discusses the effects of the rise of commercial and "background" music upon people's consideration of and approach to music. Because "commerce desires that both its commercial messages and the programming around it be consumed without critical thought" (26), those whose musical tastes are primarily commercial or popular begin to regard music as "'merely' music, and…not a thing to be rigorously studied" (33). Gordon observes that this same attitude with regard to music has infiltrated the church, and counters strongly, "To treat the house of God or its activities as insignificant or unworthy of serious Christian reflection, or to treat worship song as though it were nothing more than a matter of amusement or entertainment to be governed by personal preference, is to disregard or disagree with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures regarding both" (35).

Gordon's treatment of "Contemporaneity as a Value" (103) grows out of his concerns regarding commercialism. He writes, "Commerce requires consumers to consume; and commerce manipulates consumption by creating a false sense of dissatisfaction with the old, so that individuals long for something newer" (106). Such commercialism, combined with rapid technological change and philosophical perspectives such as progressivism that suggest "that human history is inexorably moving forward" (114-15), leaves society in a condition in which "anything not contemporary seems odd, quaint, antiquated, outdated, or foreign" (119). Gordon rejects such attitudes as un-Christian, contrasting them with Scripture passages that place value upon what is ancient and traditional. He then concludes, "If contemporaneity is inconsistent with Christianity, if its dismissal of the past is inconsistent with what the Scriptures teach, then the question sharpens: not only is it not necessary or preferable for worship song to sound contemporary, it is a positive liability" (123).

Conservatives and Protestants of many persuasions will find much to appreciate in these arguments. Gordon's analysis of "how we got where we are now" (179), with contemporary forms overtaking the worship music in many churches, is as thorough as one can achieve in a short volume. Scripture teaches that God takes his worship very seriously (Deut. 12:32, Lev. 10:1-3); thus Gordon's suspicion of commercial-sounding music as a force that undermines seriousness regarding an element of worship is well taken. Gordon is also quite right to emphatically reject modern society's exaltation of contemporaneity. After all, in Scripture the young are commanded to reverence the old (Lev. 19:32, Prov. 16:31), in contrast to the modern tendency to demand that the old cater to the fleeting tastes and desires of young people.

Discussing the relative virtues of traditional and contemporary musical forms from a sociological (or "media-ecological") perspective is easy enough; defining from a musical perspective just what is "traditional" and what is "contemporary" is more difficult, and Gordon is perhaps weakest at this point. He essentially assumes that the reader knows what contemporary popular music sounds like (given its ubiquity, this might be a safe assumption), though he does frequently single out the guitar as a central feature of such music and, in his opinion, an inappropriate instrument for accompanying public worship. Gordon spends a bit more time delineating characteristics of the "traditional" music to which he desires the church to return. He praises the Psalms as the best textual model for all hymnody (48), and speaks approvingly of church music rooted in "high/classical music" (83) and "folk music" (87). He further identifies qualities that he believes should characterize music sung in churches and that he claims (without citation) are among "the criteria that previous hymns had to meet to get into the hymnals" (47). These include:

Theologically orthodox lyricsTheologically significant lyricsLiterarily apt and thoughtful lyricsLyrics and music appropriate to a meeting between God and his visible peopleWell-written music with regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, and formMusical setting appropriate to the musical content

On the whole, these criteria are somewhat subjective, and in the end the reader is left thinking that, as with "contemporary" music, Gordon simply assumes the reader knows what he means when he speaks of "traditional" worship music. While one might have desired greater specificity on Gordon's part in identifying the music he seeks to promote, this use of broad categories does help him avoid the risk of defining "good church music" too narrowly, as well as that of implicitly making Western musical forms of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries normative for the church in all locations. That said, Gordon clearly writes with a Western’and particularly North American’audience in mind, and his categories might have to be reworked in order for his arguments to be applicable in other contexts.

Explication of the problems introduced by contemporary worship music is Gordon's main objective, not offering solutions. The resulting lack of instruction on how to apply the ideas discussed in the book is an additional weakness. Gordon attempts "an abbreviated defense of the value of traditional musical forms" (16) and suggests strategies for reintroducing older hymns and psalm settings into churches in the final chapter, but for the most part he leaves readers to construct their own solutions to the difficulties presented by contemporary music invading their churches.

While believers from different traditions will agree with Gordon's diagnosis of the problems with contemporary worship music, his objective of returning to a more traditional hymnody and psalmody will not be satisfying to all. Advocates of exclusive psalmody, with or without instrumental accompaniment, might argue that Gordon does not go far enough in his rejection of contemporary music, wishing that he had argued for jettisoning not only contemporary songs but also all noninspired hymnody. Others might think Gordon "paints with too broad a brush," rejecting sounder elements of contemporary music along with those that are correctly identified as unsound. While Gordon does welcome the composition of new hymns’he refers approvingly to those of E. Margaret Clarkson (1915-2008) and James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) (56)’he has no favorable regard for worship music composed in styles any way reminiscent of modern commercial/popular mass culture. Some will disagree with Gordon's wholesale rejection of contemporary music, but he has grounded this rejection in thorough scriptural and cultural reasoning.

Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns is a welcome addition to the literature concerning the use of music in God's worship. T. David Gordon's identification of the musical and especially the sociocultural difficulties associated with contemporary worship music is expertly presented and brings a welcome perspective to the discussion that merits serious consideration. Those who have been troubled by the new, pop culture-influenced worship music, but have been unsure how to voice or even think about their concerns, will find much helpful material here. Perhaps then, since Gordon is less thorough in this regard, they will be able to construct and articulate clear solutions to these difficulties.

Photo of T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon (PhD) is a retired professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College. He has contributed to a number of books and study Bibles, published scholarly reviews and articles in various journals and periodicals, and his books include Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians (Hendrickson, 2019).
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012

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