Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by T. David Gordon
Reviewed by John Allen T. Bankson
I received an advance copy of this book months ago from T. David Gordon. I am ashamed that I am just now posting a review of it. I assure you all, it is not because I dislike the book: in fact, I like it very much. It’s that the issues raised by this book are so personal to me, it was very emotional for me to interact with this book and very difficult to craft a review that was about the book itself rather than about my experiences. However, as I’ve reflected on it more, I see that my experiences may be able to highlight exactly why we need a book like this.
Gordon’s previous book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, examined the dearth of expository preaching in the modern evangelical church. If expository preaching is as scarce as the proverbial hens’ teeth today, then the kind of attention to congregational singing that Gordon describes is virtually non-existent. If my own experience with trying to have dialogue about this issue is any indication whatsoever, I fear that Gordon’s book will fall on deaf ears, but it shouldn’t. Those who claim to love the Gospel and to be champions for the truth should not shut out or shut off what Gordon has to say simply because they don’t like it. We’ve had quite enough of that.
Gordon addresses the penchant, or rather the insistence, of the contemporary worship movement that all congregational singing–indeed. all music in worship–be in a pop idiom. He states the question very well:
For nineteen centuries, all previous generations of the church (Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or Revivalist), in every culture, employed prayers and hymns that preceded them, and encouraged their best artists to consider adding to the canon of good liturgical forms. That is, none were traditional, in the sense of discouraging the writing of new forms; and none were contemporary, in the sense of excluding the use of older forms. So why now this insistence that many, most, or all forms of worship be contemporary? My father’s generation did not demand that all hymns be written in a big-band idiom, and mine did not demand that they be written to sound like Eric Clapton or The Who. So why do we now find something unique in the history of the church: a considerable number of people who appear to believe sincerely that it is not merely permissible, but in some senses necessary or preferable, to jettison hymns that previous generations employed? Why?
Gordon goes on to examine why it is that. above all else, contemporaneity is held up as the chief virtue by modern evangelicals. In this discussion, he helpfully addresses the assertion made by many today that insisting on pop-idiom worship music is no different from Martin Luther insisting that worship be in the vernacular. “We’re doing no differently from the Reformers,” they say. “We’re simply communicating the truths in the language of today.” Gordon responds:
Luther wanted worship to be conducted in a known language (following Paul) because worship that is unintelligible cannot be edifying. As Paul said: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” (1 Cor. 14:14–15) Luther therefore translated prayers and hymns from Latin into German. But there is no evidence at all that Luther ever said that worship had to be conducted in contemporary-sounding musical idioms. To the contrary, 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 did not argue that a prayer or hymn had to sound contemporary; he argued that it had to be intelligible, and therefore conducted in the vernacular language of a given culture. It is simply historically false to recruit Luther into this discussion. Yet the fact that he manifestly did consult earlier liturgies and translate portions of them into German is evidence that he exhibited no concern for that which was contemporary, and a very self-conscious concern to conserve and preserve forms from the past. His concern was for intelligibility, not contemporaneity.
(In this discussion, Gordon addresses the persistent–and utterly false–assertion that Luther used “bar-room tunes” for some of his songs, citing Paul Jones, who suggests this rumor came from people ignorantly reading about “Bar Form” (AAB) and assuming the term referred to pubs rather than to a musical form. Routley definitively showed how Luther’s original hymn tunes were based on the type of music used by the Minnesingers at the royal courts. In other words, in crafting music for worship, Luther modeled his tunes on a form of music that was “fit for a king.”)
Perhaps the most helpful discussion in the book is that of form and content. Too often evangelicals (even, or perhaps especially, Reformed evangelicals) display a lack of understanding of the old dictum lex orandi lex credendi (“The law of prayer is the law of belief.”). The way we worship shapes what we believe; therefore, it is important that the worship forms we employ be adequate vessels for the cargo we try to put in them. One would not try to put a China cabinet on top of a TV tray, yet we often expect the flimsiest musical efforts to carry weighty truths. (I think, in this connection, some of the efforts of the “new hymns movement” of Indelible Grace and others are especially ineffective, given their proclivity for selecting the most lugubrious of Puritan texts and then setting them to the most vapid, “Brady Bunch” style music. It would be better to stick with equally-vapid “Jesus is my boyfriend” lyrics if one is going to pair them with such lightweight music.) Forms do shape content. They shape how that content is received and interpreted.
I very much appreciated his section on the concept of sacred music and why we do not need to lose it. It has become unfashionable among many Christians to consider the Lord’s Day or the Lord’s worship to be a special occasion. The music they employ in church is no different from the music they listen to on the radio every day. They wear their jeans and ball caps to church (even in the pulpit) just as they would to the park on Saturday afternoons. Gordon frames the question this way:
Contemporary worship music deliberately attempts to sound like the music we hear every day in the culture around us. It goes out of its way not to sound foreign or different. But if meeting our Maker and Redeemer is different from all our other meetings, why shouldn’t the various aspects of that meeting be different from the aspects of other meetings? If God is “wholly other” than we, why would a meeting with him look as though he were “wholly like” us? If he is holy, why shouldn’t the language we use when we approach him be holy? If he is sacred, why should we not attempt to construct music that sounds sacred, rather than profane? Why should the category of sacred music disappear?
(I would add to that question, why then should the categories of “Sunday clothes,” “Sunday dinner,” etc., disappear? Why this great desire on the part of so many, especially the “missional Reformed,” to make the Lord’s Day no different from any other day? Doesn’t the world try to squeeze us into that mold enough already?)
On a personal note, I know firsthand the dark side of what Gordon is talking about. For example, I once interviewed for a church music leadership position at a large church in our denomination. When the committee determined I was not “pop” enough for their tastes, the committee chairman announced to the congregation the next week that I was “not up to their standards” (two degrees in music, and countless years of practice, notwithstanding). I know of many who have dedicated their lives to developing their God-given musical talents who are making a living waiting tables because they are not “pop” musicians and therefore have likewise been deemed “not worthy” by their pop-infatuated churches. The way the arts, and those who study them, are despised by evangelical churches–sadly, especially (it seems) the Reformed–is shameful and tragic. I am a casualty of it, and I am not alone.
Gordon’s book is one that deserves to be read, distributed, and studied widely. As I said, I’m afraid it will be brushed aside by the very ones who need to read it the most, simply because they disagree with it. I hope not. I hope some will be courageous enough to listen to what Gordon has to say, and to admit that perhaps they have been sold a bill of goods.