Review: Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Like most of us, T. David Gordon is a professional media ecologist and a former conservative Presbyterian pastor.
Okay, perhaps that combination is not so common… And that’s just why Gordon needs to be listened to. His unique background leads him to insights that are equally atypical. Few but media ecologists would think to say, “The tools we employ both reflect our priorities and values and reciprocally shape our priorities and values” (10). Few but pastors concerned about careful, respectful church worship would write a book telling the church, “We make song, and song makes us” (10).
T. David Gordon is disturbed that “so many people effectively cannot sing traditional hymns (11). And he thinks he has an answer: Americans are so awash in pop music and it has so “seeped into our sensibilities…that nothing that antedates it really sounds like music to us (11). Not long ago, people simply could not be awash in any kind of music. They heard sacred music at church, folk music in local or family gatherings, and (possibly) classical music in more formal concert events. The radio added pop music, but made classical music more accessible, too. Today, however, it’s almost all pop, all the time. “We think we are choosing to listen to pop music, when in fact we are not choosing, any more than a Kentucky coal miner flatters himself that he ‘chooses’ English (15). Pop music is all we know.
What sensibilities does pop music engender, exactly? If pop songs make us, what are they making? What message are they sending?
It is not apparent to everyone that pop is sending any message apart from its lyrics; contemporary worship advocates, Gordon says, insist that music is merely a matter of taste. But it’s worship of the triune God! Could you imagine someone saying, Gordon asks, “It’s just the Lord’s Supper, after all; take a chill pill”? (25). Gordon thinks that contemporary music won the “worship wars” so quickly and decisively that most people haven’t even heard arguments from the other side. That’s in part because advocates of using pop music in worship have insisted they don’t want a war: it’s not worth fighting about; it’s just a preference.
But this is itself a fruit of the sensibilities pop music brings: “Pop music, largely created by and for commercial purposes, resist[s] serious analysis…. Commerce, then, has an enormous interest in our not taking such questions seriously” (26).
But the universal cultural practice of making music is not insignificant, Gordon says, and surely neither is the question of how we worship God (27). God ordained music to be an element of our worship, so “worship song is both the remarkable privilege and the solemn duty of the redeemed” (31). It is our responsibility, then, to examine this issue.
However, “A young person reared in anything like a typical evangelical church knows only two things: nineteenth-century, sentimentalist revivalist hymns, and contemporary praise choruses; and they think the argument against the latter is an argument for the former” (42). But Bill Gaither and Fanny Crosby are not the heroes of hymnody in Gordon’s mind.
This book was in need of an editor who can read a whole book and keep the flow in mind. Gordon used the same examples (the church of the 1960s didn’t use the music of The Who to attract youth) and the same words (“to ask the question is to answer it”) in multiple chapters.
I also noticed a few examples of what I would call minor linguistic fallacies. For example, Gordon argued that the adjective old appears more often in the Psalms in an approving sense than the adjective new does. This may be true, but theology isn’t accomplished by nose-counting.
I also saw little to no awareness or discussion of what sacred music should sound like in other cultures. That seems to be a significant oversight, because it would put Western culture in helpful relief—and because a book which criticizes monogenerationalism so heavily shouldn’t be monocultural! It is not self-evident to me—to borrow a phrase Gordon used multiple times—that the Western classical tradition is the one appropriate source for all of the world’s church music (that is, I think I agree with the point but I need more help knowing why!). Sometimes Gordon seemed guilty of what one of his major sources, Ken Myers, has been accused of: cultural elitism. He does show sensitivity to the need to help Christians accustomed only to pop music to move beyond their cultural horizons, but what about country folks in the deep South, for example? Do we really expect them to make church music similar to the highest and best a city church can produce? Is it okay if their music never gets rid of a certain twang?
These are relatively minor criticisms that detract nothing from the power of Gordon’s positive insights. The field of media ecology yields significant insights that most of the church is still unaware of. Gordon follows in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan and (especially, I’d say) Neil Postman—holding our mass-media culture up to the light and showing us things we looked at (or perhaps through) a million times and therefore never saw. The basic insight that each medium carries a message—that, as John Dyer relates in his book on Christian media ecology, technology is not neutral—is incredibly powerful. It ought to become part of the intellectual toolbox of every educated Christian.
The two Gospel Coalition reviews of the book (one is very brief) both shy away from that conclusion. Kevin DeYoung simply finds Gordon’s polemic against pop unconvincing. Todd Pruitt offers a classic feint: it’s thought-provoking, even for those who don’t agree. But even Gordon doesn’t take his argument far enough—because he fails to fully bring in an important biblical theme. At the end of his book, he says that it’s not exactly wrong to have pop music in church, just not best (169). But doesn’t the Bible warn about worldliness in multiple places? If bringing music with an embedded anti-God philosophy into the church isn’t worldly, what is? Isn’t friendship with the world enmity with God (James 4:4)? Gordon’s argument that American Christians don’t know any better, that they didn’t exactly choose pop, mitigates their responsibility. But worldliness is still a serious problem that ought to be opposed everywhere, and Gordon’s book provides help in doing just that.