Book Review: Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns


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.


About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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12 Responses to Book Review: Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns

  1. Amelia says:

    Thanks for the review, John. I enjoy contemporary worship music, but I hate hate hate losing the beauty of our hymns. We have hymns of prayer, of lament, of contrition, etc… but contemporary worship music doesn’t seem to address such broad spiritual needs at all.

    I definitely want to read this book!

  2. Laura says:

    This could not have been better-timed as far as I’m concerned! We are discussing the role of music in my “Worship in the Reformed Tradition” class this week. Given some of the discussion thus far, I suspect some of my classmates will join me in seeking out this book.

    I have to say that I enjoy singing contemporary worship songs when I am in my car or playing with the band at a fellowship gathering. But the contemporary songs that are truly up to snuff for for worship (when the liturgy is more than a love letter to Jesus) are few and far between. I do appreciate Keith and Kristen Getty’s work in developing new hymns that feel like a solid bridge to the past.

  3. RevJATB says:

    Yes, I think the Gettys do a good job. Stuart Townend too. Strong, congregationally-singable melodies that are able to carry they texts, which are good texts as well.

  4. RevJATB says:

    Laura, what other books are you using for the class? I guess you have Hughes Oliphant Old and Rice & Huffstutler?

  5. cap'n says:

    Church leadership would do well to consider that you can’t throw rocks through stained glass windows without offending, even hurting, the window designers and fabricators . . . not to mention (most importantly) many of the people who bother to gaze at the windows.

    That applies to music, as well.

    Maybe it’s all just an earwax problem, like Brock McElheran would point out!

  6. RevJATB says:

    A church musician you and I both know went to his (then) pastor, a prominent “name” in our denomination, with his theological and artistic concerns about the direction congregational worship was headed. The pastor’s response? “This is what people like nowadays.” I guarantee you this person would never pander with regard to his preaching, but when it’s “just” music, it doesn’t matter. Musicians don’t matter. Their gifts are not valued. Unless they are rock musicians.

  7. Vizzini says:

    Thanks for your review. Looks like a book worth reading. Question, though – I was with you until you got to the part about …

    …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 understand there are criteria that music needs to meet in order to be suitable for worship – that it be conducive to congregational singing and that the music fit the message being conveyed, etc. – but your comments seem to indicate some other criteria regarding musical quality. Are there objective criteria by which we can judge the quality of music as it relates to it’s suitability for worship?

  8. RevJATB says:

    Vizzini, nice User ID. 🙂

    I believe there are, or rather ought to be, standards. So many are complete relativists when it comes to the arts in worship, even (or, it seems, especially) those who are biblical inerrantists and absolutists about doctrinal issues. Calvin Johansson, in his excellent little book “Discipling Music Ministry” says “disciplined music disciples people.” Skilled artists and craftsmen were called to work on the tabernacle and temple. David recruited skilled musicians for the service of the temple. The psalmist enjoins us to “play skillfully.” St. Paul says, “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.” Philippians 4:8 calls us to think on those things that are excellent. Hebrews 12:28 tells us that acceptable worship is characterized by reverence and awe. I think all of these are sign posts that point us in the right direction for worship music.

  9. Bryan Rhodes says:

    Dear Rev. Bankson,

    I found your review today, and was excited to read it, and I found myself saying “amen” as I read through it. Until I got to the last parts and read the shot you took at Indelible Grace, which was so disappointing! Let me briefly offer two suggestions:

    1. IG and other groups might provide just the balance you seem to suggest at first. You rightly echo Gordon’s concerns about the “…insistence, of the contemporary worship movement that all congregational singing–indeed. all music in worship–be in a pop idiom.” But then you go on to trash the work of people who are trying to thoughtfully find a middle ground here. If you’re answering one extreme (all contemporary is better) with the other extreme (all contemporary is rubbish), then I suppose your closing comments make more sense. But since you (rightly!) criticized the tendency today of an “all or nothing” approach and a fallacy of novelty, I would just long for more caution before we run to the other extreme (and the opposite fallacy).

    2. Your example is telling–that the tunes sound too much like “The Brady Bunch”–a show that hardly anyone in my generation watches. We don’t necessarily “match up” a modern hymn tune with vapidness (what a charge!), because of the simplicity of the tune. Sometimes the simplicity provides a remarkable kind of accessibility (just a thought). I’ve found that amidst a simple tune, I’m able to focus more on the depth of the text, and that’s been a delight for me.

    I did like the review, and I will probably buy the book! But I just wanted to offer some feedback as a person who was classically trained in college (piano minor, religion major), loves the old hymns, loves great classical music, attends symphony concerts, and melts at the sound of an organ beautifully played. But I can still find myself moved to tears over an IG hymn played by a folk band, and I think there can be harmony here, because I’ve seen it work. The music in my old PCA Church in Virginia was led for a few years by a brilliant fellow who was classically trained, and no one ever complained of dissonance between our rich liturgy (Psalms, the expository preaching, & the old hymns) and the IG, RUF, and Red Mountain Church tunes we often used.

    Thank you very much for your review, I really appreciated it.

    Grace & Peace,

    Bryan Rhodes
    Edinburgh, Scotland

  10. RevJATB says:

    Bryan, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your comments. My position is not that all contemporary music is rubbish, but to hear the IG people tell it, one would think they are the only people around who are “doing hymns.” The “new hymns” movement, as if no one had been writing hymn tunes, not to mention texts, for a good century until they came along. What about Jaroslav Vajda, Brian Wren, Fred Pratt Green, Timothy Dudley-Smith, K. Lee Scott, Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, et al? Lee Scott’s music is contemporary: he is still quite active writing new hymns and new hymn tunes. But he is not pop, so he is ignored. The way the IG people throw around the term “new hymns” reminds me of the way people used the term “praise and worship music” in the ’90s (and maybe still do, for all I know): as if “A Mighty Fortress” or “Holy, Holy, Holy” were not praise and worship.

    The fact is, I do find many of those tunes to be vapid or insipid. One of the tunes I heard most often at RUF gatherings had a motif of exactly four pitches, repeated incessantly. At some point, that has to fall into the category of “vain repetition.” Simplicity can be wonderful, but there’s a difference between simple and simplistic. And almost every single syllable is syncopated. Syncopation is like paprika: a little sprinkled on top of the potato salad is nice, but you don’t want to eat it by the pound. I’ve also mentioned elsewhere the issue of heterophony : no one is together. I think an aspect of corporate worship should be corporate singing. Otherwise, it’s like everyone is having his or her own personal quiet time: they just happen to be in the same room at the same time.

    I know I don’t toe the “party line” on this. I wrote an editorial critical of Indelible Grace several years ago, was roundly castigated for it in print by Kevin Twit, and subsequently had my résumé rejected by several churches for my views on the subject, even though I was not applying for music positions at the time.

    Please see my remarks above: “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.” RUF is great, but why must PCA church worship services be turned into RUF meetings? That is what is happening. Church planters proudly brag that their churches will never have an organ or a choir loft or hymnals. That is nothing to be proud of in my book. We are losing a vital part of our heritage. The church should be leading the way in cultivating an appreciation for the arts, not helping to dismantle what little appreciation is left. I teach music appreciation: believe me, our culture does not need the church’s help in dismantling appreciation for the arts!

  11. Bryan Rhodes says:

    Rev. Bankston,

    Thanks for your quick response, and your kind words. Your explanations here are illuminating and helpful, as I think our experiences have been very different, and that I simply haven’t been on the PCA’s proverbial playing field as long as you have.

    The criticisms you lead with in the first paragraph are altogether unfamiliar to me. As to the term “Praise and Worship,” I’ve never been a fan. 🙂 I can’t really say much about the “vain repetition” comment. I’ve almost always found repetition in music helpful. Perhaps it’s music for my ADD generation, I don’t know. But generally speaking, repetition in music has been anything but vein for my corporate worship experience.

    As to the comment about heterophony, again, I think this has to do with our different experiences. This was never really a problem in my church. We were a singing church, and if a song was introduced that felt awkward and difficult to sing, it was pulled from the repertoire. If heterophony had been a problem, I would join you in your frustration. I don’t think heterophony is a good thing–not if we expect to use the term “corporate worship” with a straight face. Here we are in total agreement.

    To the last comment–again, I think our experiences are just different. We made healthy and happy use of RUF songs in our services, but our Sunday mornings were by no means “RUF meetings.” We met in a school, and didn’t have the numbers in talented people for a choir, but every service involved a blend of RUF Psalms, IG songs, and Trinity Hymnal selections. I suppose you might say we took “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs” rather literally. Point being that it never struck me as anything but powerful and reverent. Now, I should add that I “converted” to PCA Presbyterianism from a Southern Baptist background, so it’s a welcome shock for any such person to go from singing “Shine Jesus Shine” to Sandra McCracken’s “Thy Mercy My God.” The difference was (happily) jarring.

    If RUF hymns and IG songs are taking the place of our hymnals and organs, I’ll join you on the proverbial front lines of criticism and plead with people to rethink that trend. I just didn’t/don’t have the sense that the PCA is leaning in this direction. It certainly wasn’t the case in our Central Virginia church plant. We’d have had an orchestra and choir if the talent and willingness was present in our congregation. But I’ll defer to you on that one, since I still consider myself a “youngin” in PCA years. 🙂 Perhaps I was fortunate enough to be in a PCA church that strove to be the exception.

    Thank you again for your reply.


  12. Bryan Rhodes says:

    And please pardon my erroneous use of “vein.” Vein repetition sounds rather painful.

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