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June 17, 2010

Why Johnny Chooses Not To Sing Hymns

While some blogs are content to work their way through books on a chapter-by-chapter basis, I may have erred last Friday in presenting a partial review of Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns by David Gordon.   I think the early review I presented was valid as far as it went, and if you missed it, pause now to click back to it; my final conclusions are somewhat different.

In the end, I believe that as powerful an argument as Gordon makes, this is mostly an emotional argument placed in an academic frame.   Where I think he betrays this is with the assertion that our present culture is “paedocentric.”

Literally, we are not a “child-centered” culture, and neither is the church.   The places where I served in worship leadership covered a wide swath of music, including items borrowed from the youth group and from camp ministry; but we never did “Jesus Loves Me;” or “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”

Rather, our culture is definitely music-saturated, as Gordon admits, and that music (as well as the larger culture) is very definitely “youth centered.”  But neither condition should be considered “infantile;” the law of entropy is not at work here.

For example, Gordon rightfully acknowledges that the loss of print music to overhead and computer projections has meant a loss of actual staff notation and four-part singing.   That is true, and I miss that also.

However, is it any less complex for people to learn tunes by memory as opposed to reading them?   Wasn’t playing the four-part game often a distraction for those of us who knew how to read music?   Is not the addition of bridges and codas to the familiar routine of verses and choruses not more complex than the simple verse-chorus rules that governed the hymns?

I’m not saying that I don’t sometimes find the bridges particularly irritating, but I don’t think we should lament the loss of something (i.e. four part SATB) when we have also gained other things (i.e. tune memorization, more symphonic forms, etc.)

Plus what are we to say of modern choruses like “I Will Give You All My Worship,” and the incredible intricacies of “You Are Holy (Prince of Peace)”?   The only hymn I know of that comes close is the chorus of  the Diadem tune to “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” (or possibly “Wonderful Grace of Jesus”) and I don’t for a minute believe that if Johnny can learn the former he can’t learn the latter.

There are also inconsistencies in Gordon’s argument.   He acknowledges having a liking for modern works such as “In Christ Alone;” but then he seems to have less admiration for “How Great Thou Art” because it was translated into English only in the early 1950s, and therefore can hardly earn the “traditional” handle.

Gordon would have us sing “A Mighty Fortress” much more often, and many other lost songs of that era.   I agree that there is great theology contained in the verses of true classic hymns.   But nowhere does he address the difficulty we find today with people understanding lyrics such as “a bulwark never failing.”   Growing up, I always thought “this terrestrial ball” was a party; one that I looked forward to attending. Music has changed, but so has spoken English. No wonder I think Johnny can, Johnny simply chooses not to.

Rightly or wrongly, the present generation is choosing churches which have a presentation that is contemporary in nature.   Gordon despises “contemporaneity,” using the term as though it were a vice.

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)

The first two sentences work, the third one undermines the force of what he’s saying.  Forgive me for thinking at that point that this is your kindly great uncle decrying the culture from his chair in the corner of the family room.

I agree with his suggestion that the music of the church ought to speak with a distinctive voice to the larger culture, but he offers no quick fix for how to attract 20-somethings and 30-somethings to a service of classical worship and preaching.

But I’m also not sure that the voice of today’s church music is not distinctive.  I remember decades ago hearing someone say, “There are secular parallels to a lot of contemporary Christian bands, but then you find a group like The Second Chapter of Acts for which there is simply no parallel.”

I also wondered, while reading, what the late Robert Webber would think of David Gordon.   Webber was a strong advocate of blended worship (something old, something new…) but might find this book a little off the balance he was trying to suggest.

On the positive side, this was a good read.   It’s one of the few books I’ve done in the last five years where the footnotes were perhaps more engaging than the main text.

Charles Wesley was surely one of the most prolific, and arguably one of the more accomplished hymn-writers in the English speaking world.   …[He] wrote at least 6,500 hymns.   Yet not all his hymns succeeded in making their way into the hymnal.   The United Methodist Hymnal has 862 hymns, only 41 were written by Charles Wesley.   So out of 6,500 hymns that Wesley wrote, only 41 are found in the hymnal of the denomination most influenced by him… That’s barely over half of one percent.  Are our contemporary hymn-writers superior?  Probably not.  Is their success rate higher than one out of every 158 they write?   Of course it is, because unlike Wesley, they get a “free pass.”  As long as their music sounds contemporary, virtually every other criterion for measuring hymns is discarded. (p. 44)

Some of our worship songs are incorporated into Sunday morning too easily — I agree with Gordon on that — but many offer something that is unique.   Furthermore, while I know it may not be everyone’s favorite, I can’t find any significant lyrical or musical difference between “How Great Is Our God,” and “How Great Thou Art.”

But other observations are not so kind such as referring to the Awakening of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield as an “alleged awakening.” (p. 151) Gordon is decidedly distanced from Evangelicalism and prefers to refer to those of that movement as revivalists.

Some of his tangential observations are helpful, such as the fact that among his students, while they all prefer contemporary worship, they almost always choose classical pieces for their weddings; though he may place too much weight on this observation.

I’m now curious about his earlier Why Johnny Can’t Preach (also P & R Publishing, also paperback)  and I have placed a copy on order.   However, I shudder to think he might complete the trilogy with a book on Bible translation.

I still think if you lead worship or have an interest in this topic that this constitutes one of those “must read” titles.   I just think that in the end, particularly in the long chapter ‘Strategic Issues,’  the emotional argument overshadowed the possibility of a completely academic treatment.   I feel he too often betrays his attempt at objectivity, while still having something worthy to say.


A video of You Are Holy (Prince of Peace) is available here.   Or just click the comments section of this post.   It’s a fitting song with which to conclude this.

P&R Publsihing did not supply a copy of this title for review.

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