Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, by T. David Gordon. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2010. 186pp. $12.99.
T. David Gordon is Professor of Religion at Grove City College in Grove City, PA, where he has served in this capacity since 1999. He earned the Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree from Roanoke College and the Master of Arts and Master of Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary. At Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA, Gordon concentrated in Greek and New Testament studies and earned the Doctor of Philosophy in 1984. He pastored Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) Nashua, New Hampshire, from 1989 to 1998 while serving as Associate Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Gordon has published widely in the areas of the Pauline epistles and most recently worship practices. His first book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, was published in 2009 by P&R, quickly followed by Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Re-wrote the Hymnal in 2010 by the same company.
Gordon begins his recent work by making the case that music in the Holy Scripture is never used for entertainment but for the sole purpose of worship. He contrasts the scriptural view of music with that of modern culture, where music has inundated society for consumption, in restaurants, supermarkets, and media players. This constant consumption of music—and specifically music that has been produced within the last 60 years—has shaped the culture’s perception of all that has come before this contemporary era. As a result of this jettisoning of the past, worship in a contemporary style has lost the texts and music (hymns) of the previous thousands of years of the Christian tradition.
Gordon continues his discussion of the culture’s influence on the church’s worship by engaging aesthetic relativism and the triviality of modern culture. He states that culture’s relativity toward aesthetic standards goes against the character of God and the Imago Dei placed within his human creation. Gordon argues that there are aesthetic standards that are found within the character of God, and just as God is unchanging, so are aesthetic standards. When addressing the trivial nature of the contemporary worldview, Gordon explains the views of current anthropologists who acknowledge that contemporary media is generally created to be disposable, and much of it is inconsequential. He then concludes that the lack of godly creativity and the constant bombardment of inconsequential media moves the church to think that her worship song is simply a matter of taste and consumption.
Gordon continues to argue that the “contemporaneity” of the culture has shifted the ideal of the church’s song away from a complementary relationship between text and tune toward one that is more trivial and disunified. He also asserts that as a result of commercialism driving the culture’s desires, there is no longer a distinction between that which is sacred and secular; therefore, the church’s music has become mundane and less reflective of the deep nature of interaction between the human and divine. Gordon chose to conclude his work by arguing against the pragmatism of the contemporary worship movement; he addresses the notions of seeker sensitive services, seeking congregants “just as they are,” and reaching younger people. Gordon concludes his analysis of culture’s influence on congregational song by giving some comments to break the cycle of contemporary culture’s influence on the church’s worship.
Gordon’s assertions can be summarized thusly: the commercially driven cultural norms that discard historical influence and uphold temporal immediacy have greatly influenced the contemporary nature of the modern church with its desire for novelty and flippancy, which leads to a disregard for the past and transcendence. He effectively communicates his assertions by systematizing the areas of greatest philosophical and practical influence that the culture has had upon the church. When engaging these matters, Gordon includes healthy insights and data from sociological authors whose research affirms the perils of the church’s plight. In one particular category, he compares the discretion between contemporary song selection and hymn selection for congregational use; Gordon then gives a list of criteria for the selection of hymns for corporate worship. He explains that the result of his propositions for hymn selection will aid in healthy congregational worship of God, which identifies with the church’s historical tradition and disciples the believer in his relationship with God.
This text would be profitable in a variety of scenarios. Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns could be used as a textbook for a seminary class that considers current trends in church music and culture, as Gordon’s interaction with modern philosophies is extremely pertinent in the conversation about congregational song. The text could also be used in a small group setting for a church discipleship class concerning worship in the church and is aided in this situation by discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Gordon does use a fair amount of jargon without explanation as well as an upper level vocabulary; the weightiest chapter is “Contemporaneity as a Value,” which discusses philosophical influences on the contemporary worldview. The heavy content coupled with difficult vocabulary could be a deterrent to some readers. Gordon’s wit and passion clearly outweigh the slight vocabulary difficulties and provide the reader with tools to investigate the topic at hand. Whether to a lay-person, seminarian, pastor, or musician, Gordon submits an impassioned call for the church to jettison the cultural mindset of “contemporaneity” and restore the glorious tradition handed down from the ancient church.
Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns is an eminent addition to the conversation about twenty-first century church music. Gordon, with the aid of others, engages the culture from a sociological perspective and analyzes its influence upon the worshiping church. His consultation of a host of current cultural scholars significantly bolsters his argument, and his healthy grasp and interjection of musical knowledge aids understanding. To improve this text, the author could have emphasized a greater sense of organic development between chapters and could have given greater care in explanation of vocabulary to appeal to a larger readership. Gordon’s frequent use of parenthetical statements can become distracting and could be simply stated in subsequent editions for clarity and ease of reading. Nevertheless, this volume on the contemporary culture’s influence on congregational song is a key tool in understanding one view on the current state of the church’s worship and the mindset of the worshiper. It is a valuable book for pastor, seminarian, and church musician.
Aaron M. Rice
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX