Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns--A review by Zac Hicks

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JBaldwin

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
The book Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by T. David Gordon has been referenced a number of times on the PB. I came across this well-written and thoughtful review by Zac Hicks, Associate Pastor of Worship and Litergy at Cherry Creek Presbyerian (PCA) in Denver, CO. Zac Hicks has been in dialogue with T. David Gordon.

The review is rather lengthy, so I am putting the first page here. The link for the entire article is: http://www.zachicks.com/storage/pdfs/Review of Why Johnny Cant Sing Hymns.pdf

T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop
Culture Rewrot e the Hymnal. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010. $12.99.
189 pp. ISBN 978-1-59638-195-7
**NOTE: Upon fruitful dialogue with T. David Gordon following the
posting of this review, a few clarifications/retractions have been made
to this review. This particular review version is dated 12/1/10. To
follow the evolution of the clarifications and retractions, please visit my
blog at: Zac Hicks - Worship. Church. Theology. Culture. - Zac Hicks Blog.
INTRODUCTION & APPRECIATION
If one had any inkling that the worship wars were over, look no further
for evidence to the contrary. T. David Gordon has now established for
himself an official “Johnny” series with this follow-up to Why Johnny
Can’t Preach, published also by P&R in 2009. Gordon is professor of
religion and Greek at Grove City College (Pennsylvania), where he has, for over a decade, added
humanities and “media ecology” to his list of fine accomplishments in teaching and writing. Once a
pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) for nine years, the final lines of his bio make
clear that he and his wife attend an Anglican church (where one can assume that high liturgy and
traditional hymnody are practiced and sung).
T. David Gordon again shows himself to be a sharp and critical thinker when it comes to the
intersection of culture and the church. Along with other voices like Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves
to Death), Kenneth Myers (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes), and Douglas Groothuis (Truth
Decay), Gordon sounds the seldom-heard horn that the media of modern culture not only affect us in
their message but by their very form. Such tools, he goes on to say, “both reflect our priorities and
values and reciprocally shape our priorities and values” (p. 10).
Gordon begins his work by asserting that another book on worship music is in fact needed and that
his humble contribution to the ongoing discussion would be to approach it from the “mediaecological
perspective” (p. 9). His thesis is “we make song, and song makes us” (p. 10). The
resulting argument: Pop culture’s textual expressions and musical idioms, which are standard fare in
many American churches, are corrosive to both our faith and spiritual well-being. I agree with
Gordon’s approach: “Every consideration regarding [worship music] should be undertaken in a
manner that reflects Christian obedience.” In other words, we must employ careful biblical and
theological refection when it comes to worship music, and Gordon and I concur that not enough of
it is being done among those in the “contemporary worship” camp (though, I observe that there is
evidence that the tide is turning). The final paragraph of the introduction makes clear that Gordon
has picked a side:
What follows is an extremely abbreviated list of the considerations that have caused me to be
wary of using contemporary Christian music in worship services at all, to object to its
common use, and to zealously oppose its exclusive use (p. 36).
So much of the criticism of modern worship has centered around the message of the content and not
that of the form. While Gordon does address content, his primary focus is, in fact, form. Not
enough people are addressing this critical issue, and I therefore commend Gordon for his unique
focus. Chapter 8, “Contemporaneity as a Value,” up until p. 119, offers insightful cultural analysis; I
would encourage every leader and proponent of modern worship to read it. Gordon excels at
cultural analysis, and, especially if the idea of analyzing media-as-form is a foreign concept to the
reader, this book is worth a look.
 

CIT

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
When I read the book I had similar thoughts, but Mr. Hicks wrote them out much better than I ever could. Thank you for posting.
 

au5t1n

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
I enjoyed reading that. I have a copy of Why Johnny Can't Preach. One of these days I'll read it. It's pretty short.

p.s. Does anyone, anywhere know whether this reviewer is related to that feller with the rat brains?
 

JBaldwin

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
When I read the book I had similar thoughts, but Mr. Hicks wrote them out much better than I ever could. Thank you for posting.

YW, I thought similarly when I read the review. It is rare when someone approaches such a touchy subject with such graciousness and honesty.
 

he beholds

Puritan Board Doctor
I get to hear T. David Gordon preach every couple of years and love his preaching style. I'd probably love his writing style, as well. Though I'm surprised to see that he is Anglican--we heard him preach in a PCA church as recently as September of this year.
 

au5t1n

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
No relation and I'm glad, cuz I share neither his opinion, nor Gordon's. :)

I know you have a hard time letting go of those modern rockin' praise choruses and the strobe lights and fog in corporate worship, but you're just going to have to make do without them.
 

Micah Everett

Puritan Board Freshman
*Mostly unknown lurker emerges from the shadows to contribute.*

I read Gordon's book during the Thanksgiving holiday and appreciated much of his argument, though as a classically-trained musician and teacher, as well as a devoted user of the "blue Trinity" (hymnal), I'm sure that my appreciation comes in part because he reflects many of my own biases. Gordon's warning against jettisoning the old hymns of the church because "contemporaneity" is held as a primary measure of value is well-taken. I also agree with his contention that music that lends itself better to solo or small-group singing might be best left to situations other than corporate worship--not because the music is necessarily bad and not because it cannot be God-honoring, but because such pieces tend to create a certain awkwardness in the service when used for congregational singing.

All of that said, the criticism that Gordon lacks the musical expertise to appreciate some of the distinctions within "popular" music is correct. I think we might all agree that fourth-rate music with fifth-rate lyrics (which might also have doctrinal problems) is not appropriate for God's worship--not solely because of its genre, but because our God deserves and demands that we pursue higher things (cf. Philippians 4:8). The same can be said for music intended to generate an instant, shallow emotional response (a musical possibility which too few seem to acknowledge or appreciate these days). However, to say that all "popular" music is laden with such problems is painting with a much too broad brush.

I liked Gordon's book, I prefer the type of congregational singing he espouses, and I think that there is much to be suspicious about in the changes taking place in the gathered worship in many churches. I agree that churches too often allow the fleeting and ephemeral in music to displace the timeless and proven simply because it is "new," and that in some circles the emotional responses generated by the music itself are mistaken as evidence of some special movement of the Holy Spirit, and that is a shame. However, to use the demands of Scripture that the singing of the gathered church be edifying and instructive (cf. Colossians 3:16) as a rationale for defending certain genres and wholly excluding others regardless of quality won't work--the text simply will not support such arguments, as I have been forced to concede in several abortive attempts at writing on the subject.

Most contemporary Christian music will not endure to the next generation, but neither have most of the hymns written in any generation. A few of these will most likely come to be recognized in time as having the enduring qualities characteristic of the great hymns of the faith, and will thus be incorporated into the larger body of worship music handed down over the centuries. To exclude all that is "new" will potentially deprive us of edifying and God-honoring music. To exclude all that is "traditional" will definitely deprive us of edifying and God-honoring music. It is certainly safest and maybe even best to prefer the old, but to completely eschew the new is unwarranted.

*Back to lurking.*
 
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Micah Everett

Puritan Board Freshman
(My above admission of the possibility of worthy contemporary music should in no way be taken as approval of the "guitar in hand, mic to mouth," rock concert atmosphere of some churches' "worship services.") :D
 

seajayrice

Puritan Board Sophomore
I get to hear T. David Gordon preach every couple of years and love his preaching style. I'd probably love his writing style, as well. Though I'm surprised to see that he is Anglican--we heard him preach in a PCA church as recently as September of this year.

I believe he is PCA ordained, attending an Anglican church.
 

JBaldwin

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
(My above admission of the possibility of worthy contemporary music should in no way be taken as approval of the "guitar in hand, mic to mouth," rock concert atmosphere of some churches' "worship services.") :D

In my experience (at least in my presbytery) the contemporary worship music is a far cry from the rock concert atmosphere. I think this is the point that Zac Hicks makes. There is still a mentality among some that if it isn't old traditional music, it's no good. Some of the best music we sing in our worship was written less than 10 years ago, and it isn't trendy or flashy. It's just good, solid music, but it would still fall into the broad category of contemporary music.
 

Herald

Administrator
Staff member
Some of the best music we sing in our worship was written less than 10 years ago, and it isn't trendy or flashy. It's just good, solid music, but it would still fall into the broad category of contemporary music.

What's contemporary today will be classic in less than 100 years.
 

Philip

Puritan Board Graduate
James Ward here in the Chattanooga area is a testament to the fact that contemporary does not necessarily equal bad, shallow, or sentimental.

I would also add Fernando Ortega's contemporary arrangements of hymns (often with their original tunes) to the mix of examples of how old hymns can be revitalized for the new generation.

The problems with contemporary worship arise when worship starts following the latest CCM trends. Our worship should reflect our theology and our theology should reflect our worship.
 
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