Book Review: “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns”

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Book Review: “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns”

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal
T. David Gordon
P & R Publishing, 2010; 192 pages


Gordon’s book seeks to diagnose the decades-long infiltration of pop culture into the church, and into its music specifically. He focuses on the term contemporenaiety, which he defines as the exclusive preference for what is contemporary, and the belief that newness is a distinct virtue. He argues that American evangelical church music has embraced contemporaenaiety and rejected tradition, and thereby rendered itself shallow and insipid.

His insights in the preface regarding broad societal trends are immensely helpful, particularly in reference to the dominance that monopoly that contemporary pop music enjoys. Gordon writes,

We think we are choosing to listen to pop music, when in fact we are not choosing, any more than a Kentucy coal miner flatters himself that he “chooses” English. He does not compare and prefer Enlgish to (for example) French; English is all he knows. So also, I fear that our generation, a generation that has so consciously cut itself off from the previous generations, thinks it is “choosing” to listen to contemporary music, when in fact, because of our earlier choices and the ubiquity of pop music in our culture, contemporary music is simply the only music that sounds, to our ears, like music (15).

Gordon also leads strongly out of the gate with some excellent thoughts regarding the weightiness of corporate worship music. He counters the assertion that such discussions are merely preferetial:

Neither music nor song is merely a matter of entertainment or amusement. Both are very serious business, both culturally and religiously. Song is the divinely instituted, divinely commanded, and divinely regulated means of responding to God’s great works of creation, preservation, and deliverance. Worship song is both the remarkable privilege and the solemn duty of the redeemed. Therefore, to suggest that worship song is “merely” or “just” anything, whatever that “anything” is, is to deny the very teaching of Scripture about the importance of worship song in God’s economy— an importance so great that it characterizes the life of the redeemed to come (31).

Music, by its very ubiquity in our culture, necessarily becomes mundane rather than sacred. And once our sensibilities regard music as mundane, it inevitably becomes “merely” music, and therefore not a thing to be rigorously studied (33).

In his chapter entitled “Introductory Considerations,” Gordon grants that the issues he is tackling are not easy:

Like worship, music is a reality that involves us emotionally and sometimes deeply, and therefore it is difficult for us to establish the philosophical distance necessary to evaluate it on aesthetic or music grounds (39).

He then begins the main argument of his book: namely, that an obsession with contemporary forms and styles in corporate worship is damaging to the church. Some helpful thoughts on Luther’s emphasis on vernacular worship:

What evidence exists suggests that Luther believed in what we now call sacred music— music that is deliberately and self-consciously different from other forms of music. He and others of his generation often wrote new musical tunes, for the distinctive purpose of accompanying hymns. And at any rate, vernacular and contemporary mean different things, and therefore an argument for one is no argument for the other… [Luther’s] concern was for intelligibility, not contemporaneity (46).

 

Unfortunately, from this point forward, the book was largely disappointing. Gordon employs the straw man fallacy frequently throughout the book, with examples too numerous to quote in detail. He repeatedly ascribes to contemporary musicians both spurious philosophies and (more uncharitably) motives. His generalizations of contemporary music are sweeping and dismissive. Other statements I simply found unsupportable.

Without intending to be ungracious, here is a small sampling of assertions I took issue with:

Proponents of contemporary worship music ordinarily compare it to what they call traditional hymns, and argue that some of the best of the one are nearly as good as the worst of the other (48).

Aesthetic relativism may be as unbiblical as (or, as I think, more unbiblical than) ethical relativism (53).

Guitar-playing just doesn’t sound serious; it sounds like casual amusement (61).

Sacred music in our day does not wish to sound different from secular music; to the contrary, it intentionally emulates it, and attempts to sound exactly like it (75).

Surely Christianity is transcendent, not immanent (91, emphasis mine).

The guitar’s timbre limits it to less significant things… Maybe the guitar can handle a little truth, but it can’t handle much (98).

The so-called free-church movement… is sub-Christian or imperfectly Christian, and therefore, in some respects, un-Christian. To refuse to confess creedally some beliefs about God, or to refuse to join the rest of the catholic church in so doing is, effectively, to deny the church catholic… The free-church movement is therefore halfway towards becoming a cult (122).

If a song sounds contemporary, it already has one strike against it, and needs to overcome that strike by being extraordinarily good in every other way (123).

Gordon begins the book well, and he makes a number of bold claims. But his book fails in two ways:

  1. He makes no compelling case (indeed, no case at all) for a biblical aesthetic from Scripture, which ought to be the supreme authority in such a discussion. On the matter of aesthetics, he references a handful of secular philosphers and no Christian philosophers, and then confidently asserts that claims of aesthetic relativism contradict the Christian tradition (55).
  2. He shows an insurmountable, personal bias against nearly all sacred music written within the last century, but he never effectively substantiates claims of its inferiority beyond broad societal trends. This should not be a surprise, because Gordon states repeatedly that he has no musical training or expertise. His arguments regarding music are almost entirely thinly-veiled confirmation bias.

 

I wanted very much to like this book. I have yet to read a compelling defense of a traditional music aesthetic— and such a work would be valuable. I share the author’s concern for the cancer of pop-culture banality that has infested the church and her music. But Godron’s unfair accusations, repetitive writing style, and spurious assumptions render his work insufficient for the task. The book could more accurately have been titled, Why I Don’t Like Guitars. He presents a case but fails to defend it.

 

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