Banner

"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

Contributors

  • Rev. John Samson
  • Rev. David Thommen (URC)
  • John Hendryx
  • Marco Gonzalez

    We are a community of confessing believers who love the gospel of Jesus Christ, affirm the Biblical and Christ-exalting truths of the Reformation such as the five solas, the doctrines of grace, monergistic regeneration, and the redemptive historical approach to interpreting the Scriptures.

    top250.jpg

    Community Websites

    Monergism Books on Facebook

    Blogroll

    Latest Posts

    Categories

    Archives

    Ministry Links

  • « Augustine’s Story | Main | The Personality and Deity of the Holy Spirit »

    MONERGISM BOOK REVIEW: Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns by T. David Gordon

    whyjohnnycantsing.jpgWhy Johnny Can't Sing Hymns by T. David Gordon Reviewed by Rev. David Thommen

    “Contemporary”, “traditional”, and “blended” are words that have come to signify the divide that occurs within the church over the issue of worship. This can be a “hot-button” issue in many churches in which the polarity of sides is often relegated to personal preference versus biblically informed. Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns is not the usual foray into this discussion. As a matter of fact, it is a real breath of fresh air that challenges us how to think about music within the context of the church and how influential the music culture outside the church has had on the music within the church.

    Dr. Gordon states that the goal he is pursuing in this book is to “explain why we have a preference for music that is often literarily, theologically, or musically inferior” (p. 15). He makes no apologies concerning this being a “candid discussion of the literary, musical, and theological criteria by which the church has ordinarily assessed worship music” (p. 16). But it is much more than a critique; it is an observation of how “cultural changes…have impoverished congregational praise.”

    The book opens with a rebuttal of the assumption that music is insignificant. Where the discussion concerning worship is usually relegated to the lyrical content of the song, here Dr. Gordon builds a biblical theology regarding not just the words that are significant, but the music that accompanies these words. He concludes: “Biblically, then, neither music nor song is merely a matter of entertainment or amusement. Both are very serious business. …Song is the divinely instituted, divinely commanded, and divinely regulated means of responding to God’s great works of creation, preservation and deliverance” (p. 31). He develops this thought further in a subsequent chapter entitled “form and content.”

    A very helpful chapter is entitled “aesthetic relativism.” Is our worship simply a matter of “taste”? If it is a matter of taste, then the current taste is "contemporary", and such an attitude disassociates the current church with its historic roots. This, Gordon states, is one of the greatest travesties of the abandonment of historic hymnody. It disenfranchises the “contemporary” church from the “historic.” The contemporary church is guilty of “chronological snobbery” regarding the matter of music and song in the church.

    Gordon spends a fair bit of time working through the questions that one ought to be asking concerning this matter of song in the corporate worship context and makes significant challenges to those who are responsible for making such decisions. At the end of each chapter, Gordon provides thoughtful and insightful study questions that are a benefit to working through the issues raised.

    One of the issues Gordon raises is that terminology and practice of “new” versus “old” or “contemporary” versus “traditional” is based on pragmatic issues. That if a church wants to reach the younger culture then they must use contemporary (read songs) to do it. He writes, regarding the lunacy of this type of thinking, “To ‘reach’ the young by propagating youth culture would be analogous to Jesus ‘reaching’ the rich young man by giving him money.” Money was part of that particular sinner’s problem, part of the reason he needed to be reached. Extended adolescence is part of what our youth need to be delivered from” (p. 162).

    In conclusion Gordon argues that he is concerned about the jettisoning of centuries of hymnody, which he argues in an earlier chapter is un-Christian, not for the reason that this matter has become divisive, although he is no fan of this, but his concern is the “such a near-total change has taken place in Christian worship in about two decades, without significant theological study” (p. 170).

    Although he has sounded an alarm and raised many penetrating questions, Gordon is not like many today who want to simply criticize and deconstruct, but he offers sage wisdom on how church leadership can right the ship. It does not begin with simply starting to sing hymns; it begins by educating the people that singing God’s praise is solemn duty.

    Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns is under 200 pages and extremely readable. Gordon writes with a lucid, concise, and penetrating style that engages the reader making it extremely difficult to put down. I would commend this book especially to those who make decisions each week regarding the form and content of the corporate worship, but I would also commend this book to any who would seek to find an answer to the question “Why should Johnny sing hymns?”

    Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns by T. David Gordon, now available at Monergism Books

    Posted by John on July 7, 2010 05:51 PM

    Comments

    Here is what I always wonder when I read such things...and understand I am no fan of theologically vacuous praise... However this again leaves me asking: Is the only valid "worship" Eurocentric? To advocate for hymns while railing against culture is to deny that the hymn themselves were at one time very contemporary and they themselves come from a culture. That culture tends to be white and of european stock. How then should the African worship?

    Christocentricly as opposed to Meocentricaly. Its about the content, not the hymnbook.

    As a church musician for the past 30+ years, the only item I'd like to add is:
    (a) Is the music 'singable'
    (b) Is the music (words) theologically sound (much contemporary music is extremely weak on this point)
    (c) do you have capable musicians accompanying the singing

    In response to David Drake, the African should sing thoughtfully and joyfully. Gordon is addressing more than contemporary music v hymns. That would just be past cultural dominance vs present cultural dominance. I think he is addressing that the church needs to be more than obsessed with the current generation's transient wishes. Do we do theology like this, obliterating the wisdom of previous sages unless they are rewritten by contemporary authors? Well, we do a bit - but we would be foolish to ignore those who came before us in the faith. Especially those who have drunk deeply from the draught of scripture. Does the African / Asian / Latin American worship with respect to content and antecedents in their culture? That would be my take on Gordon's premise.

    I would like to add to point "C" from Darin. Unfortunately, in our Church, the praise leader, our Sr. Pastor, will make a funny or a goof only to have the drummer do a "Johnny Carson" in response. Our keyboard player will loudly announce "this is a clapping song". How/Where is clapping worshipful or spiritual? Both destroy any reverence to the service, in my opinion. Additionally, they show the same amount of regard during the sermon by sleeping or texting on their cells. Needless to say I am annoyed over the whole watering down of worship to a form of entertainment. I am also struggling with how to handle all of it. We need to understand the focus of our worship is Christ.

    Gordon's book offers many commendable points written with clarity and thoughtfulness. I do agree with David Drake however, that parts of the book advance Eurocentrist and cultural elitist lines of thinking. I don't think Gordon properly handles the undeniably rich expressions of African American Christian worship, and neither does he handle with consistency, folk expressions. On the one hand he is arguing for a kind of simplicity of expression (qualified, certainly) and on the other he frequently holds up Brahms as a model of musical sophistication. I think it can easily be argued that the atheist/agnostic (depending upon who you read) Art music composer Vaughn Williams unnecessarily cluttered English folk tunes with his harmonies in adapting them as hymn tunes. So, while Gordon is critical of the influences of modernity on church music, I don't think he is critical enough in his analysis, since these blindspots remain, and are unfortunate for a cultural anthropologist. In his footnoted comments relating to Jimmy Page or Country music for example, he begins to question musical hierarchization, but I wish he had wrestled a little harder and argued that aesthetic worth was not genre dependent.

    There's an important observation that is missing from these comments. Perhaps it is missing, too, from the book (which I have yet to read). It is that, not only can Johnny not sing hymns; Johnny can't sing "contemporary praise music" either. What occurs in most churches with contemporary or blended worship style is a small group of enthusiasts and wanna be singers and guitar bangers up front performing, while the rest of the congregants are spectators. When and if there is any significant "singing along" with the praise band, it's done with minimal lip movement, no audible sound even to the nearest neighbors, and at best a fumbling attempt to follow along with the band. The exceptions are the people who "get into it," and everybody knows which handful of people in each church get into it. In many smaller churches, virtually all the "get into it" people will be found up on the sage, performing. How many times have you witnessed that one moment in a contemporary service when they start singing Amazing Grace or some other great hymn, and SUDDENLY, you hear all these people in the church actually singing! And it's not because the song is so familiar. It's because it was written for group singing. Contemporary music has its historical roots in pop, rock, & country recording artists who create original songs FOR PERFORMANCE. The performance is--originaly--done on a recording, and that recording is meant to be listened to.. not sung along with. Yes, there are those who sing along with contemporary recordings, the same as there are those who stand up in the front of a concert hall and jump up and down and sing along with a rock band. It's unfortunate that, somewhere along the way, church leaders decided we should all act like fans at a rock concert. It is not, and it never will be group singing. The music isn't created for that; it doesn't have the balance and flow, the symmetry, the accessible song structure of any type of group singing composition, whether we're talking hymns, or drinking songs, or fight songs at sporting events, or military marches and anthems. The problem is not old music vs new music. It's not traditional vs contemporary. The problem is music that's meant to be PERFORMED, vs music that's meant to be expressed as group singing.

    For the classic treatment on this pop culture controversy, John Frame still has the most rational presentation in his book "Contemporary Worship Music." The chapter on "Of the Father's Love Begotten" versus "Shine Jesus Shine" should have been read by Dr. Gordon before he went and joined the local Anglican congregation in the cultural melting pot of Grove City, PA.
    A real musician needs to write a book for P & R on this subject. Dr. Gordon, check out the book "The Art of Worship" by Greg Scheer (Baker).

    Well I've read Gordon's book, and initially agreed with him. However, I've since come to a different understanding of worship: why oh why has the Church of Christ, His body, ignored and neglected so totally, the 150 Psalms - songs, hymns - which He has given us in His inspired Word, and which was the only hymnody practised by the apostolic and early, and later Reformed churches? Why? An excellent book to read on this subject is Michael Bushell's "The Songs of Zion", which I would most thoroughly recommend to anyone remotely concerned about the modern day departure from Biblical worship.

    Well I've read Gordon's book, and initially agreed with him. However, I've since come to a different understanding of worship: why oh why has the Church of Christ, His body, ignored and neglected so totally, the 150 Psalms - songs, hymns - which He has given us in His inspired Word, and which was the only hymnody practised by the apostolic and early, and later Reformed churches? Why? An excellent book to read on this subject is Michael Bushell's "The Songs of Zion", which I would most thoroughly recommend to anyone remotely concerned about the modern day departure from Biblical worship.

    Well I've read Gordon's book, and initially agreed with him. However, I've since come to a different understanding of worship: why oh why has the Church of Christ, His body, ignored and neglected so totally, the 150 Psalms - songs, hymns - which He has given us in His inspired Word, and which was the only hymnody practised by the apostolic and early, and later Reformed churches? Why? An excellent book to read on this subject is Michael Bushell's "The Songs of Zion", which I would most thoroughly recommend to anyone remotely concerned about the modern day departure from Biblical worship.

    Post a comment

    Please enter the letter "u" in the field below: