Can Johnny Sing Hymns?

I just got around to reading T. D. Gordon’s new one, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns.  In this book, he argues that many people today (a.k.a. Johnny) can’t sing hymns because they cannot relate to anything but pop culture’s contemporary music.  Since we’re surrounded by the music of popular culture, our musical categories have been quite distorted, he argues.  Gordon says that “Johnny is monogenerational outside the church; so he is monogenerational inside the church” (p. 174).

Gordon makes some other great points as well.  Here are a few examples.

“We make song, and song makes us.”

“…One of the tests of a hymn is whether it would exist as Christian verse if it were not put to music.”

“When the church approaches an individual as a consumer to be pleased, rather than as a recalcitrant sinner to be rescued, the church is no longer doing what it is called to do.”

While I agree with these points (and many others Gordon makes) the book wasn’t one of my favorites.  In my opinion, it was a difficult book to read.  His writing style was cumbersome for me and often when he made some conclusions I had to go back because I didn’t quite get his logic.  There seems to be three introductions to the book and the chapters felt random and unconnected (some are very long, some are just a few pages).  I realize this could be the fault of the editor(s); or it could just be me (‘my bad’ as they say).

Another difficulty I had with the book is that it seemed overly black and white.  I felt like it was a “traditional vs contemporary” debate (or the modern vs. postmodern debate), with traditional (modern) winning.  I know he wasn’t really aiming at that, but that’s my read.  What about the fact that there are so many different musical genres today (i.e. folk, bluegrass, jazz, etc.) – where do they fit in?  Further, what about the church music era before traditional hymns – what about chants, for example? 

Here are a few black and white statements that aren’t quite so black and white in my mind.

“We simply cannot accompany Martin Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ successfully with a guitar.”

“…Guitar-playing just doesn’t sound serious; it sounds like casual amusement.”

I agree that so much mainline contemporary music is trivial, silly, and makes us dumber than we already are.  I cannot stand listening to even 30 seconds of CCM.  I agree that quite a few old-school hymns are outstanding (though some are utterly repulsive as well).  I’m just not quite so convinced that the modern period of music is inherently better than all music today.  I’d seriously love to hear some other feedback on this book, since I’m still wrestling through these things. 

By the way, I’d hesitate to hand this book out to your average churchgoer because it is pretty detailed and isn’t always easy to follow.  However, it would be good for elders, pastors, and seminary students, along with other church leaders who are well read.

In summary, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns  is helpful but not as helpful as I was hoping.  I do recommend it for those of you who are up for the challenge of a detailed read and some harder discussions about music as it relates to worship, aesthetics, meta-messages, genre, media ecology, and contemporaneity. 

shane

2 thoughts on “Can Johnny Sing Hymns?”

  1. the book wasn’t one of my favorites.  In my opinion, it was a difficult book to read.  His writing style was cumbersome for me and often when he made some conclusions I had to go back because I didn’t quite get his logic. … it could just be me (‘my bad’ as they say).

    Maybe you’re just too monogenerational? ;-)

    What about the fact that there are so many different musical genres today (i.e. folk, bluegrass, jazz, etc.) – where do they fit in?

    They fit in outside the church. There have always been a variety of musical styles. What a lot of people need to realize is that (a la “the medium is the message”), music itself carries meaning and content, and not all content is appropriate for corporate worship. To take some easy, extreme examples, even without words, death metal would still convey anger, hate, and violence. The sound just makes you want to punch somebody in the face! But hippie folksongs (with gently-strummed guitar) convey the opposite concept: (in the words of one of my elders) that nothing is worth fighting or dying for.

    I agree that quite a few old-school hymns are outstanding (though some are utterly repulsive as well).  I’m just not quite so convinced that the modern period of music is inherently better than all music today.

    I assume you didn’t mean “modern” there, and I completely agree. To continue the thought above, there exists plenty of modern worship music which takes the same form of “hymn”. Just look at Stuart Townend: How Deep the Father’s Love, In Christ Alone, etc., the dividing line is not old vs. new, but hymn (or psalm) vs. pop song.

    The way I look at it is, there’s probably a constant ratio of good/bad in hymnody through the millenia; the church generates a “keeper” probably only every 5-10years. Countless crappy hymns have been rightfully lost over the ages, and our hymnals do a decent job of only keeping the keepers. And we should be actively seeking out (and worshipping with) the rare keepers of this age (and weeding out the dross).

    I haven’t read this book myself, but (as you can see!) I have many opinions on the topic (hopefully some of them informed!). This whole concept of “aesthetics, meta-messages, genre…” is what I found missing in John Frame’s Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense; Frame focused almost entirely on lyrics, to the exclusion of music. If you want to follow up on some of these ideas more, I can recommend Singing and Making Music by Paul S. Jones, organist of 10th Pres, Phila. (Although many of the articles in there are more technically oriented; good support for music directors)

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    1. Thanks for the comments, Rube. When it comes to this discussion, the terminology gets in the way – it is better face to face for sure! Anyway, by “modern” I mean the period before “postmodernity” (whatever that means). I have skimmed through Paul Jones’ book you mentioned and appreciated it (and gave it to our pianist at church). Also, I don’t take Frame’s position on this topic, just FYI.

      Anyway, if you do read this book, I’d love some feedback!

      Blessings,
      shane

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