Book Review: “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns” by T. David Gordon

The worship landscape in contemporary Evangelical church services is a fairly bleak scene. I don’t mean that there is no music in churches; nor do I mean that worship leaders and congregants aren’t well-intentioned. By all accounts Christians fully intend to obey the Scriptures as we gather together and sing on Sunday mornings across America. And yet, there is still something desperately and obviously wrong with our worship. T. David Gordon has set out to explain this problem in his book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal.

As an important disclaimer, the subtitle is a bit of a misnomer. Pop culture didn’t “rewrite” the hymnal (that wouldn’t automatically be a bad thing in and of itself). It simply quietly moved the hymnal up to the attic or down to the basement or out to the rummage sale and put it out of mind by replacing it with… something else. Something not explicitly sinful, but something desperately unwise and unhealthy.

Summary

Gordon begins with a number of assumptions, including (but not limited to) the principles that:

  • The kind of worship music we use matters, not just the theology of its words;
  • The worship music of the church should cover the same spectrum as preaching; the model for this worship is the Scripture as a whole, and the Psalms in particular; that is, in our singing we should encounter robust theologies of joy, sorrow, awe, lament, etc;
  • There are real differences between kinds of music—and consequently the kind of music we use in church is not just a matter of taste or personal preference;
  • The music of pop culture has become so pervasive, so much a part of the very atmosphere we live in, that we no longer even see it;
  • There is a distinct form of music which ought to be used in church [though I’m going to disagree with Gordon as to what this form is—see below];
  • This entire discussion is the result of a recent change (i.e. in the last 50-60 years) in the life and practice of the Evangelical church, albeit a staggeringly large one.

Building on these assumptions, Gordon makes a number of observations about the state of contemporary church music and offers suggestions as to how we are to move forward in a better, healthier direction.

As one example, he argues that we are to resist “aesthetic relativism”:

“Aesthetic relativism states that there are no standards by which artistic creativity may be measured; it is merely a matter of taste.” (53)

Christians should see the action of God as Creator and His image in us as evidence that how we create matters, in addition to what we create. That is, how and what God creates matters, so how and what we create matters too.

The bigger counter-argument to aesthetic relativism, however, is Gordon’s claim that the medium of our creation is not itself neutral. Every song we sing in church carries both the explicit message of its words (and there have certainly been some improvements in the quality of that aspect of church music since the 90s!), and the implicit “meta-message” These two messages are ultimately inseparable:

“there is a relationship between the messages of the lyrics and the musical setting of those lyrics. The Lyrics may very well constitute ‘the content’ in some senses, but the musical choices are part of ‘the content’ also; otherwise, why not simply speak the words as a prayer?
….
Would it make good sense, for instance, to take the lyrics of something like ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’ and put it into a contemporary-sounding musical form? I suspect not; the form would then make the content a different thing, and create a kind of dissonance. A hymn such as this, whose lyrics expressly call attention to God’s providence in the past, cannot sound contemporary without there being a disconnect between the lyrics and the musical score.” (60)

The meta-message of church music over the last few decades has increasingly been defined by the pop music culture as “sacred” music has gradually vanished from the church. Gordon argues that this redefinition, in turn, has affected the content of church music as well, given that the two core values of the pop music culture (as shaped by the powerful commercial forces of the 20th century) are 1) contemporaneity and 2) simple triviality/banality.


Gordon also argues that as musical ignorance has flourished, we have lost the idea of “sacred music” as a distinct category:

“…traditional worship forms are not, in fact, our preferred music style when we listen to music. Such traditional forms are not ‘our’ music; they are the church’s music, and they antedate us by many generations. Our approval of them, in worship, is not due to the fact that they are ‘our’ music, the music we listen to in leisure time. Our approval of them is due (in part) to the fact that they are the church’s music, and ours only insofar as we are part of that holy catholic church.
It is the defenders of contemporary worship music whose worship music emulates ‘their music’ in their leisure time. In leisure time, they listen to guitar music; in worship, the listen to guitar music. In leisure time, they listen to pop music; in worship, they listen to pop music… They alone are suggesting that worship music must conform (or ordinarily ought to conform) to the same standards as their leisure music; no one else has ever suggested or done this.” (76)

Inherent to Gordon’s argument here is the idea that different kinds of music exist, and that the differences between these kinds of music matter for worship. Gordon, following Ken Myers, argues that there are three broad categories of music in modern America; “high” or classical music; folk music; and pop/mass music. Classical and folk music are most appropriate for church services, the former in its themes and tone, the latter in its invitation to participation, while by contrast pop music is uniquely unfitted for church because of its values and nature. By definition it is:

  • “…immanent, in the sense that it celebrates the present moment and situation, divorced from past and future, and lives viscerally in that moment.”
  • “…self-consciously and intentionally monogenerational; it intends to sound novel, and views itself as artistically pioneering.”
  • “…individualistic, rather than communal.” (88)
  • “… banal and accessible. Pop culture is mass culture is commercial culture. Pop culture exists as the child of two parents: mass media and commerical forces.” (89)
  • Trivial. “That is, in producing easily accessible art that requires no learning curve, it necessarily avoids and evades those musical properties that are more demanding on the listener.” (90)

All of which is to say that pop culture is inherently at odds in its very structure with Christianity:

“Surely Christianity is transcendent, not immanent. It teaches us, if anything, that there is Something, indeed Someone, beyond us, and beyond our entire universe. It functions to draw us out of self-love to love for neighbor and for God. it is most certainly not ‘all about you.’ And Christianity is not accessible, in the ordinary sense of the word. It does not exist for our amusement or entertainment; it challenges us to forsake a broad way and embrace a narrow one; it calls us to repent of and forsake our current values and habits; it demands that we take up a cross and bear it daily. It surely is not trivial; there is nothing trite or insignificant about part of the Godhead’s becoming incarnate to die for sinners. None of this stern, transcendent seriousness is consistent with the values of pop culture. The sensibilities of pop culture and those of Christianity are almost entirely opposed to each other, and when we attempt to force Christianity into the constraints of an individual-affirming, consumerist, monogenerational, immanentistic genre, it simply won’t fit.” (91-92)

This argument, in turn, leads into a extended discussion of the idea of “contemporaneity” as the dominant virtue shaping modern worship. Technology, industry, media, and philosophy have all come together to shape a generation of people who value the present alone and, at best, dismiss the past as inferior.

“Proponents of contemporary worship music… don’t assert that the older hymn-writers wrote bad hymns (though some atrocious old hymns were indeed written), hymns that were theologically, literarily, or musically defective or perverse. They don’t debate Paul Gerhardt’s theology… they just dismiss his hymns as good hymns ‘for their time,’ and therefore necessarily unsuited to ours. A contemporaneist would no more sing Paul Gerhardt’s hymns than dress in his seventeenth century German garb.” (119)

There is nothing inherently malicious in this belief. In fact, Gordon points out that it was largely formed and is mostly held out of blindness. I can’t find the exact reference, but he uses his parents as an example (the World War II generation). They would have been exposed to four kinds of music in roughly equal measure: folk (sung with family for recreation); classical (over the radio and in local concert venues); pop (over the radio, and including the spectrum available at the time of blues, country, swing, etc); and sacred (in church). His parents were capable of recognizing different kinds of music and understanding that there are appropriate times and places for each. 

Fast forward to our own time, and what we see is that pop music has swept all else before it. Folk and classical are both functionally dead, and sacred has left the church. The only kind of music people recognize is the kind of music that is on the radio, on TV, on the Internet, and in their earbuds 24/7: pop. It’s little wonder that the church has capitulated to the culture on this particular issue.


What we need to do, according to Gordon, is reject a church culture that embraces the banal and trivial style of pop music and the attendant contemporaneity and instead build a culture that values music that is sacred in both word and sound. Christians ought to rebuild a respect for the past in all areas of life, but especially in bringing back music that is inherently sacred rather than inherently trite.

“At minimum, we must persuade our parishioners that singing God’s praise is a solemn duty. It is something we do because God commands it. Therefore, the controlling criterion must be the same in any such matter: what would please God more? Because music is so closely associated with entertainment in our culture, it is entirely understandable that for many people, music is just another consumer choice, and each individual is free to make such a choice. But worship music is not entertainment, it is not consumption, it is not passive.” (180)

A serious reflection on our music and our musical assumptions must serve as a precursor to a revival of healthy congregational worship. From there, if we want to see things get better, we need to work slowly, carefully, prayerfully, and with full recognition that it will be an uphill fight, where those we are disagreeing with are genuinely well-intentioned brothers and sisters in Christ.

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns is a complex (and at times, scattered) book, and I hope I’ve done Gordon’s arguments justice here.

Pros

In some sense, I’m not the right person to review this book. For all intents and purposes reading Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns was for me at times little more than an exercise in confirmation bias.

Which tells you that I think one of the major points in favor of this book is that it is correct. Not completely correct, as you’ll see below. But still right in many of its broad strokes. Gordon is certainly right about the state of contemporary church music. Its lyrics are banal and trite (not always, but often enough), and its proponents are far too interested in the latest available songs.

In terms of banality, Gordon is right about the style and spectrum of modern worship music. We all know that even the most orthodox of contemporary worship songs run the full spectrum from “fuzzy sentimentalism” to “a simple theological statement repeated 5000 times.”

In terms of obsession with the new, a fair question when trying to measure the health of a church exercising contemporary worship methods is: how many songs that you sing today were you singing 20 years ago? How about 10 years ago? 5 years? 1 year? Does your church have any kind of musical continuity with previous generations? Heck, let’s not even say with different churches of previous generations—does your church have any musical continuity with itself?

Beyond those points, Gordon is also right that building healthier churches will only happen slowly over time. I didn’t focus on this in the summary above because it is only a small part of the book, but it is an important one. Churches with unhealthy music practices now ought not to take quick or harsh steps to correct them. A church that sings pop music this week ought to do so next week as well. If nothing else, most of your congregation won’t know how to sing a congregational song, and any changes should be made cautiously and slowly according to a long-term plan for improving the health and faithfulness to Scripture of your church’s music.

Cons

At the end of the day, I’m not convinced that Gordon has exactly landed on the problem with using contemporary music in the church. Or at least, I would articulate it in a different way from that of Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. I think that a better way to explain what has happened to music in the church is to say that congregational music has been replaced by music intended for entertainment.

What I mean by this is that Gordon is right that there are different kinds of music. Specifically, there are pieces of music that are written wherein the primary “instrument” of the song is a group of ~20 to ~2000 musically untrained singers. Let’s call this “congregational music.” By contrast, there are pieces of music wherein the primary “instrument” of the song is a small group of trained professionals. Let’s call this “professional music.” (Idiosyncratic terms, as far as I know, but hopefully useful ones here.)

My way of phrasing the argument is that most music used in contemporary worship services is professional music rather than congregational music. In our context in the 21st century, that category of professional music means pop music. This hasn’t always been the case.

To be sure, since the Protestant Reformation these two kinds of music have existed side-by-side, and with occasional crossovers. Martin Luther, Joachim Neander, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, and many, many others wrote congregational music. J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, Stravinsky, and (in the 20th Century) the various Christian rock artists wrote professional music. And of course these two streams borrow liberally from and influence each other. But it is only in the second half of the 20th century that the former stream was intentionally set aside in the church service by a large swath of Evangelicals in favor of the latter. This was done for good reasons: namely, reaching the lost and staying relevant to the concerns and (non-sinful) tastes of the contemporary culture. It is probably too much of a stretch to say that it was done so that Christianity could ‘be cool’, but maybe only slightly so.

And at first, it seemed like this was successful. People flooded into churches like Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in the 1960s. Tens of thousands of people heard the Gospel without being turned off by the stodgy old music. And yet, over time the cumulative effect of the change on church worship has been, as Gordon points out, toxic. To put his term on my model, the meta-message of professional music is of necessity tied to entertainment.

What I mean is that with respect to those musically untrained folks out there (which is most Christians in most congregations on most Sunday mornings), whatever their deeply felt participation—even worship?—of the performers and of the congregation, the music they are singing along with was not written for them to join with in active participation, it was written for them to passively listen to and be entertained by.

And that makes sense if we think about it. The number one priority of professional music of all times and all places, regardless of content, must necessarily be entertainment. If the individual is not intended to sing along, then he is intended to listen. And if intended to listen, then the music must be such that it will hold our attention for its duration. This means entertainment. The content might be just as good as any hymn ever written (and of course hymns can have terrible content as well—there are many hymns that quite rightly die in obscurity), but every time a professional song taken from popular culture is played in church the message of the medium is: “we are here to entertain you, this should be fun.” If we were having this discussion in the early 18th century it would have been true of Bach’s music (which is unmatched in the quality of its theological content); and now in the 21st century it is true of Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman and the rest.

What’s even worse, this isn’t necessarily a message that is immediately clear. We might very well walk into a church and hear the music and think to ourselves “that’s fantastic music, competently performed with a good beat to it, with theologically orthodox words.” I certainly had that experience when I went to college and for the first time attended a church that had a band and an overhead screen instead of a piano and a hymnal. My first thought and the first thought of many, many of the people whom I talked to about their membership in the church was ‘this music is great, and I want in!’ And that was exactly the goal of those who made the change in Evangelical music decades ago. And yet what had happened without notice and without comment was that the standard for the music had not been primarily the theological content or the robust participation of the congregation in corporate worship (who could measure that over the electronic amplification of the guitar and drums?), but rather on how much fun it was for us to listen to.

And that is a serious, serious problem. It affects nearly all aspects of the church service. The idea of a new song having to be intuitive or regular so that the musically untrained congregation can participate no longer matters, since a small group of professionals is now performing it using high quality equipment. The professionals and electronic equipment reinforce their own relevance by drowning out the congregation. Instead of music leaders encouraging the congregation to lift our voices in song together as a church body, they encourage us to sit quietly and listen by playing so loudly that whether we sing individually or not is no longer relevant. Even if they are verbally instructing us to sing out, the music style itself and the presentation tells us that the congregation is never more than an accessory to the main event on the stage. Modern Christian professional music has much more in common in its form with the Gregorian Chant of the Middle Ages than with even so familiar a hymn as Isaac Watts’ “Joy to the World.”

What’s more, the places where we should sit and listen quietly begin to vanish into the ether. While pastors have generally protected their own sermons from encroachment by the music styles (though our entertainment culture has certainly affected preaching as well!), prayer and Scripture reading have all but disappeared from non-liturgical Evangelical church services and been replaced by the addition of yet more (or longer) songs.

Now, all that said, there is good news on the horizon. The incorporation of professional music into the church service started in part because it was edgy and counter-cultural (counter to the dominant church culture of the day, at any rate) and young people like that edgy and counter-cultural stuff. Well, at this point this particular way of doing church music is half a century old—you really can’t say it’s edgy or counter-cultural any more—it is the culture. And in response, we see more and more young people today wanting to be edgy and counter-cultural by ditching this style of music and going back to the older style of congregational singing. Those who truly want to buck the trend these days don’t sing contemporary Christian music—everyone does that. Instead, today’s true rebels are learning to sing music words and tunes that are more than seventy years old. Or, failing that, at least seeking out the recent materials that are written expressly to be sung by a congregation. Music by Stuart Townend or Keith and Kritsyn Getty or Bob Kauflin. Songs like “In Christ Alone,” “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us,” or “Before the Throne of God Above,” and organizations like Indelible Grace have pushed back against the trends in Evangelical worship, and it appears as if there is a slow-moving wave passing through the church culture moving Evangelicals in heartening directions.

Which is to say that books like Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns are more relevant than ever. As Christians struggle to correct the well-intentioned mistakes of the past, we need to be sure that we understand both what those mistakes are and what a healthy church life looks like. To those ends, T. David Gordon has made an invaluable contribution and I hope that everyone who reads this long review reads the books as well.

 

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