Review: Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns

Stephen J. Tracey

Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, by T. David Gordon. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2010, 188 pages, paper.

T. David Gordon has stepped into the minefield of music in the modern church. Or perhaps it would be better to say that he stepped into the minefield of modern music in the church. Most office-bearers know this is a minefield where one is apt to lose a limb. Members—not always young and not always disgruntled, as one might imagine—pushing for "missional" music are not likely to be satisfied with "we've always done it this way" or "we can't offend the older folk," or "we just don't like guitars, or drums, or words projected on screens." Nor should they be satisfied with such arguments.

It is not unusual to hear the phrase "use the culture to attract the culture." The question, however, is what culture? Use what culture to attract what culture? And when the culture is attracted, what then? Change culture? The classic bait and switch, although everyone knows the bait is rarely switched. It just wriggles and grows on the hook.

All too often our answers to "missional" music questions fall short. An example of this appears on the OPC website series of questions and answers. The only question relating to church music includes the following sentences:

Choirs were used in the Old Testament worship of God and are therefore not forbidden, so choral responses reverently executed today are not forbidden. Similarly, special music is referred to and is therefore not forbidden.[1]

The argument that something is not forbidden is not the Presbyterian understanding of the regulative principle of worship. Something needs to be commanded. This lack of carefully nuanced answers contributes to the frustration that swirls around this debate, as well as the awful experience of churches losing limbs; sometimes strong and healthy limbs.

So Dr. Gordon's contribution to the question is most welcome. The strength of the book is that it will help church sessions approach the question of church music much more thoughtfully than I suspect is usually the case. Thought is exactly what is called for. Dr. Gordon says:

I am bothered that such a near-total change has taken place in Christian worship in about two decades, without significant theological study. (170)

This issue is not a matter of taste; it is a matter of serious aesthetic, theological, and liturgical principle. To choose contemporary worship music over traditional worship music is to reject the criteria proposed by all those generations of hymn-writers and hymn-compilers. Such a wholesale rejection, without a season of theological (and musical) reflection analogous to that which informed the Reformation, has been a disservice both to the church and the world. (176)

[This book] is designed to describe how we got where we are now, and to make a case that, regarding worship music, where we are now is not so good. (179)

Much of the book consists of describing a variety of cultural forces and implied values of which many people, lay or clergy, are unaware. (179)

This is an important point—it is not easy for us to question our own culture, or to consciously express our values. T. S. Eliot probed in the same direction in his lecture The Idea of a Christian Society. He said, "We conceal from ourselves the unpleasant knowledge of the real values by which we live."[2] Eliot went on to argue that the church's business was to interfere with the world.[3] He said:

I want to suggest that a task for the Church in our age is a more profound scrutiny of our society, which shall start from the question: to what depth is the foundation of our society not merely neutral but positively anti-Christian?[4]

Similarly Calvin M. Johansson observes that

the church, like the children of Israel, found out that culture is not all that neutral. Baal is not dead ... From the folk mass to coke and potato chip communion to gospel entertainment, the church cannot wiggle free from its lovers' quarrel with the world.[5]

That is the issue Gordon wrestles with in this book; the non-neutral cultural issues of church music. He brings a "media-ecological perspective," and the result is a book that questions the unquestioned assumptions of our culture. Discussing issues of aesthetic relativism, musical form and content, meta-narratives and the concept of sacred music, Dr. Gordon questions the value of contemporaneity as the apparently sole criteria for assessing church music.

Johnny hasn't been persuaded that hymn-singing is wrong; Johnny simply cannot relate to anything that does not sound contemporary. He cannot shed his cultural skin, the skin of contemporaneity, of triviality, of paedocentrism. He thinks he "prefers" contemporary worship music to other forms, but in reality he prefers contemporaneity as a trout prefers water; it is the only environment he knows. In roughly twenty-five years, Christian worship has gone from being serious to casual—not because a case has been cogently or theologically argued that "casual" is more appropriate to a meeting with God, but because the culture itself has become casual, and the church has chosen not to resist the cultural inertia. David Letterman doesn't take anything seriously—why should we? (173)

[Johnny has been] temporarily befuddled by a commercial, paedocentric, contemporaneous, pop culture—but biblical light can bring him understanding and clarity in the matter of hymnody, as that light has illuminated in many matters before. (185)

The book is eminently readable. When I received my review copy two people in my home had read it before I got my pencil to it. Dr. Gordon writes with wit and wisdom. This is not a heavy book, but it is a chewy book. The questions for reflection may prove useful to church sessions and other groups reading together. Dr. Gordon helps us think about music that is biblically sound, not faddish; straightforward, not manipulative. Music that is ascetic, not indulgent; honest, not pretentious; and God centered, not egocentric. Music that is more wholesome and edifying, rather than entertaining. He is not simply defending Old Western Man music but believes we should patiently develop and teach "a biblical perspective on singing praise" (180).


[1] "Music in Worship" (OPC.org Question and Answer), http://www.opc.org/qa.html?question_id=126, accessed 2-15-2011.

[2] T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1939; repr., Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1948), 7.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Ibid., 74.

[5] Calvin M. Johansson, Discipling Music Ministry, Twenty-first Century Directions (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 27.

Stephen J. Tracey
Lakeview Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Rockport, Maine

Ordained Servant Online, April 2011.

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Ordained Servant: April 2011

Decisions + 2 Kingdoms or 1?

Also in this issue

What Should I Do? Making Decisions Biblically

Christ the Transformer? A Review Article

Qohelet: Evangelist or Pastor? A Review Article

The Culture War Is Over: A Review Article

The White Island, or, Place of the Blest

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