MONERGISM BOOK REVIEW: Why Johnny Canâ€™t Sing Hymns by T. David Gordon
Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns by T. David Gordon Reviewed by Rev. David Thommen
â€œContemporaryâ€, â€œtraditionalâ€, and â€œblendedâ€ are words that have come to signify the divide that occurs within the church over the issue of worship. This can be a â€œhot-buttonâ€ issue in many churches in which the polarity of sides is often relegated to personal preference versus biblically informed. Why Johnny Canâ€™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 â€œexplain why we have a preference for music that is often literarily, theologically, or musically inferiorâ€ (p. 15). He makes no apologies concerning this being a â€œcandid discussion of the literary, musical, and theological criteria by which the church has ordinarily assessed worship musicâ€ (p. 16). But it is much more than a critique; it is an observation of how â€œcultural changesâ€¦have impoverished congregational praise.â€
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: â€œBiblically, then, neither music nor song is merely a matter of entertainment or amusement. Both are very serious business. â€¦Song is the divinely instituted, divinely commanded, and divinely regulated means of responding to Godâ€™s great works of creation, preservation and deliveranceâ€ (p. 31). He develops this thought further in a subsequent chapter entitled â€œform and content.â€
A very helpful chapter is entitled â€œaesthetic relativism.â€ Is our worship simply a matter of â€œtasteâ€? 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 â€œcontemporaryâ€ church from the â€œhistoric.â€ The contemporary church is guilty of â€œchronological snobberyâ€ 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 â€œnewâ€ versus â€œoldâ€ or â€œcontemporaryâ€ versus â€œtraditionalâ€ 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, â€œTo â€˜reachâ€™ the young by propagating youth culture would be analogous to Jesus â€˜reachingâ€™ the rich young man by giving him money.â€ Money was part of that particular sinnerâ€™s problem, part of the reason he needed to be reached. Extended adolescence is part of what our youth need to be delivered fromâ€ (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 â€œsuch a near-total change has taken place in Christian worship in about two decades, without significant theological studyâ€ (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 Godâ€™s praise is solemn duty.
Why Johnny Canâ€™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 â€œWhy should Johnny sing hymns?â€
Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns by T. David Gordon, now available at Monergism Books